Kanye West is pop culture’s favorite villain. Odds are pretty good that in the last couple of weeks, you’ve read a few of his quotes. After Beck won the Grammy for the year’s best album, Kanye walked up to the stage, in pantomime of his famous interruption at the VMAs a few years ago. Never one to let the media put words in his mouth, he explained his actions as a form of protest over a perceived snub of Beyonce in an interview with E! after the show.
While one could debate the merits of Kanye West’s statements about industry awards, racial bias, and any number of other readings that could be laid on top of his statements, let’s instead fast forward a few weeks to New York Fashion Week and Kanye’s debut collection in collaboration with Adidas.
Because Kanye West does not want to be pigeon-holed as a rapper. Just as he didn’t want to be confined to producing other people's hits before he recorded The College Dropout. Kanye has long sought a broader influence in our culture, and one of his preferred outlets is as a designer of clothing.
His success in the highly closed off world of fashion has been mixed. He can count two highly successful collaborations with french favorites APC, and of course his two highly coveted sneakers done in partnership with Nike as wins. But two ready-to-wear lines in Paris in 2011/2012 were met with tepid reviews.
After signing a monster deal with Adidas, the hype has been steadily building to see what Kanye would show with greater creative freedom and the technical and infrastructural backing of a giant. The results were mixed, a collection of technical athletic clothing that leans beyond the gym. Sweats done in a largely neutral palette that didn’t exactly push the boundaries of fashion. It is clothing that can be found with a little variation, executed with a clearer vision by Alexander Wang, Rick Owens, and John Elliot, a first-timer at NYFW but certainly one of the week’s biggest winners. The sneakers were better received, but then again this is Kanye and highly-lusted after exclusive kicks come as naturally to the man as controversy and platinum albums.
If the collection was slightly unremarkable, the way he framed his collaboration with Adidas is worth a deeper look. In an interview with i-d, Kanye is quoted as saying:
"I thought it was something really new to have this Adidas collaboration where Adidas sort of positioned themselves as an LVMH or a Kering group, and supported me as a creative. It was more about using their resources and their technology than it was about using their logo.”
Name checked by Kanye West, Kering offers a great example of being an incubator of creative talent. After hiring Hedi Slimane to revamp the YSL house a few years back, the line has grown to be one of Kering’s most profitable. The control afforded to Slimane is pretty remarkable, he shoots all of the brand’s ads himself, and has changed the name of the collection from Yves Saint Laurent to Saint Laurent Paris. Far from being dependent upon the YSL logo, he has in fact redesigned it.
Nike, Kanye West’s former bed-fellow has become another model in the power of collaboration. Hiroshi Fujiwara of Fragment Design has long been a collaborator with Nike. His work for the swoosh ranges from subtly branded Jordans and classic trainers done in wearable palettes to working with Tinker Hatfield, a true legend, on Nike’s HTM line. The clothing coming from Nike’s HTM line, like the recently released free mercurial, successfully mashes up the best technology from various Nike silo’s into silhouettes that make sense for day to day life.
The future of collaboration is not a unique colorway and two logos separated by an X. It is a generative sharing of perspectives and resources that allows brands to be reimagined and technologies to be applied beyond their initial utility. West’s initial collection with Adidas may have fallen short of his lofty ambitions. But as with many things Kanye West, while his approximation of himself may be exaggerated, the sentiment he expresses is timely and culturally relevant.