When Kanye West appeared on a spate of radio shows in late 2013, seeking out investors for his new fashion line, he frequently referred to himself in typical braggadocios fashion as a “rockstar," and he was not wrong. Last night, Kanye packed out Madison Square Garden as part of his Saint Pablo tour – it was the most tickets sold for a single event in the venue’s 48 year history – which also played host to West’s unorthodox but brilliant fashion show-cum-album listening party some six months ago.
"Maverick," "genius," "showman": these are all terms that can easily be applied to West. Today, he is putting on another show, the latest iteration in a series of fashion show-slash-performances that have tended to place an emphasis on creating one striking visual – a regimented masse or clusters of street-cast models in hues of dusty brick and soft yellow, each one receiving generally favorable reviews.
West has typically eschewed the Spring/Summer, Fall/Winter categorization of his collections, instead entitling them YEEZY Season 1, 2, 3 and so on. Collections have borrowed from the designers that the Chicago-born designer admires – Raf Simons, Helmut Lang, Martin Margiela and, maybe more surprisingly, Katherine Hamnett – but the brand has also quickly established its own visual signature: oversized military-inspired outerwear, distressed knitted dresses, luxe-leggings and boxer-like jersey pieces that some god-awful trend forecasters have labelled “athleisure”. As with most things West does, there is an ardent band of fanatics desperate to get their hands on the output of brand YEEZY – but there’s a problem.
At 3pm EST today, YEEZY Season 4 will be presented to an assortment of buyers, journalists, friends and family. But outside of his inner circle, few of the attendees will be wearing Mr West’s YEEZY creations; not because of a lack of appetite for the clothes – quite the opposite – but because of the three seasons presented thus far, only one has gone to market. In September of last year, YEEZY Season 2 was shown at New York Fashion Week – all apparel was manufactured by YEEZY the brand, whereas Season 1 was largely conceived and executed in collaboration with adidas, after West unceremoniously ditched Nike for their perceived lack of support in pulling off these very kind of events and collections.
The collection was then flown to Paris to be sold to a host of key global retailers, coinciding with Paris Fashion Week. The buyers who were invited quickly made rearrangements to their schedules and budgets, and they did so based on a blind faith in the hype that surrounds West’s output and clothing endeavors: they had no sale figures for previous seasons to base their decision on, with YEEZY Season 1 still yet to be released. In the minds of many, this was like being handed a golden ticket – a luxury brand, with luxury prices, guaranteed at least a 70% sell-through; a wonderfully rare proposition.
They came, they selected, they left and then they waited. And waited. And waited. They are still waiting. To date, of a collection that contained in excess of 200 styles, two have been delivered – a knitted ankle boot for women, and a suede duck boot for men. The sneakers, made in collaboration with adidas, are separate to the YEEZY brand – they are sold to retailers through the German sportswear company and have single-handedly adjusted our definition of what hype is. Hype is now snaking queues of fanatics dotted around every major city in the world, a 4.0 reseller mark-up and a slew of copies by fast fashion retailers. No sneaker, or any item of apparel, has ever had such an effect.
However, the clothes are a different matter. It is now September, and for the impressive list of key retailers YEEZY secured – the great and the good of luxury fashion – a collection they expected to deliver for SS16 has yet to appear. Unsurprisingly, that has led to frustration – deposits were paid, fans were informed that Yeezy clothing is coming… soon.
In March, it was announced that Pete Fox, former president of motocross brand Fox Racing, had taken up a position as president of brand YEEZY, with West remaining as CEO. Around a month later, Fox announced that Season 2 would not be produced in its entirety, but instead as a series of small capsule collections throughout the year, following a new “seasonless” model.
The announcement coincided with much soul-searching in the fashion world about its own breakneck speed and fashion week cycle – Burberry had only recently announced their new “see now, buy now” model, and Demna Gvasalia (who assisted in designing YEEZY Season 1) shifted the timing of their fashion show to reduce the wait between its first showing and delivery to retailers. Whether YEEZY was simply following suit or presenting history’s most elaborate “the dog ate my homework” excuse ever is unclear. A mixture of the two, perhaps.
Which begs the question of today’s Season 4 showing: Is it a fashion show, or a grandiose piece of performance art which happens to include clothes? YEEZY as a brand has commanded just as much hype and a similar amount of column inches as many of West’s buzzed-about peers.
Where he differs from Rubchinskiy, Gvasalia, Abloh et al. is that they have built on their hype, strengthened relationships with major retailers and, most importantly, sold their product to customers. All three designers are acutely aware of the ephemeral nature of hype and the fickleness of fashion consumers, and all three have fulfilled their end of the deal, satisfying the market’s demands for Soviet-inspired streetwear and safety-stripe emblazoned varsity jackets.
At the most basic of level, brands exist to sell product to customers. The fashion shows, the zines, the interviews are all technically superfluous – they are tools that are used for marketing, to increase sales and grow a customer base. The great shame of YEEZY thus far is that there is, and still remains, a genuine desire for West’s creations, one that is currently being met by Cos, H&M and a number of other fast-fashion retailers, who are producing their own YEEZY-like garments.
The hard reality of fashion is that its not glamorous – Madison Square Garden presentations are rare; the result of months of planning, back-and-forth emails and late nights. And then, just like that, they’re over. But the real work of building a brand is an altogether more thankless task: an arduous mixture of spreadsheets, numbers, shipping couriers and all the basic, thoroughly un-sexy components of a bizarrely coveted industry job.
Kanye West is, without question, a genuinely intriguing designer, and he applies the same ethos to fashion as the one which has underpinned his musical success: he samples brazenly but skillfully from previous generations, and he surrounds himself with equally creative people like Vanessa Beecroft and footwear designer Salehe Bembury, resulting in a sort of fashion-led think-tank. And it shows, in the clothes and the fashion shows.
He has proved to be adept at both, and YEEZY Season 4 will likely be no different, but that’s not the challenge for West. The challenge is to now build a brand – YEEZY needs to deliver, literally.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole. In other West-Kardashian-Jenner news, Kylie Jenner is heading up Alexander Wang's new #WANGSQUAD campaign.