Kanye West is an undeniable cultural powerhouse. He is just as surely one of our culture’s most polarizing figures. Whether he’s claiming on television that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people” or producing the visual magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, his undeniable brilliance is countered at nearly every turn by the tantrums and unfiltered utterances of a spoiled child. His Nietchschean will-to-power has even gotten him on New York’s runway calendar, and his wife, Kim Kardashian, on the cover of Vogue, despite a rumored blackout against the West-Kardashians at the publication. But who needs whom? Is Kanye truly in charge of his fashion prowess, or is he merely treading water in new triple-filtered, rarified pools of tokenism?
With two solid fashion seasons under his belt, Kanye debuted his third Yeezy collection as a fashion show-cum-album release party at New York’s Madison Square Garden in February. The artist hailed as “fashion’s foremost disrupter” on Vogue.com presented another monochromatic, dystopian collection of streetwear on a cast of more than 1000 models. This is where we find him after a failed attempt at Kanye West womenswear in Paris a few years ago, intern stints at Fendi; and, going even further back, the never-quite-realized “Pastelle,” a brand only seen worn by West himself but never produced.
But while Kanye may have traveled a rough road on his way to becoming a fashion force, his influence, particularly in the world of hip-hop fashion, is unquestionable. From Ralph Lauren teddy bear sweaters and shutter shades, to cross-dressing in a Celine shirt at Coachella—with a shout out to its designer, Phoebe Philo—no other celebrity in recent memory comes close when we talk about pushing the boundaries of sartorial choices for the African-American male. However, fashion cred does not buy you fashion loyalty; those who you stand for will not necessarily stand for you. Case in point: the aforementioned Ms. Philo is notorious for never using models of color. Ever.
Kanye’s Yeezy clothing line is a success hobbled by compromise and naïveté. Black success in America is always somehow negotiated, mediated, or manipulated in some way; how else can one navigate a system not built with you in mind? And in Kanye’s case, improvisation and jerry-rigging are the necessary strategies needed to drive a machine built too small for his big ideas. Are Yeezy sneakers selling? Absolutely. But so are Jessica Simpson heels. Celebrity and talent are different things.
The fashion system tolerates and uses Kanye to stay youthful and alive, yet it retains control of the narrative. It dips a toe into the experience of blackness to stay relevant, sacrificing nothing, and hoarding the spoils from un-lived authenticity and struggle. Like John Boyega in the latest Star Wars, Kanye scores plenty of screen time, but no power.
Can Kanye turn off his ego long enough to realize he may just be the one to create a new system? When one tweet can cause a near stampede at 2 a.m. (google “Kanye Webster Hall”), his cultural sway is undeniable. However, his self-perceived calling to fashion may not be as a designer but as a disruptor of the system itself. Sure, it’s an ego boost to see your name on people’s backs, but how much more impact could he have by eradicating altogether a capitalist system that turns garments into disposable and consumable goods by creating deficiencies in people, particularly his people?