Kanye West wants to be a fashion designer. And he wants it really badly. But the reviews are in on his most recent collection and the result is…meh.
While it’s undeniable that Kanye has a steller sense of style and influence in the fashion world, the verdict is still out on whether he has what it takes to add Fashion Designer to his overflowing creative resume.
The musician has had a hand in the fashion world for over a decade now. He has collaborated with brands ranging from Nike to Louis Vuitton—mostly on footwear—and held fashion internships at design houses like Fendi.
But, in 2011, he presented his first full, eponymous collection of womenswear at Paris Fashion Week to pretty awful reviews. Fashion critic Cathy Horyn cut him down to size in The New York Times, writing, “What Mr. West needs is a tailor so the clothes will fit.”
So all eyes were watching to see what he would come up with for his very first show at New York Fashion Week: his debut collaboration with Adidas. The result was a line that relied heavily on earth tones and inspiration from other designers. Many of the models were clothed in nude body stockings that highlighted his sportswear pieces in blacks, tans, greys, greens, and whites. Plus, lots and lots of camo.
The footwear was expansive, ranging from the much-hyped Yeezy 750 Boost sneakers and white high-top platform snow boots to a variety of sleek, if somewhat nondescript women’s boots. Plus, one lone model wearing no shoes at all. Fashionista editor in chief Lauren Indvik summed it up nicely, writing “[The clothes] were urban, cool, athletic—but in their drab colors and conventional shapes (sweatshirts, parkas, drop-waist pants, cargo vests), indistinctive and unremarkable.”
After an initial slew of reviews that trended positive, Horyn’s own biting take for New York Magazine equated the hype with a type of fashion Stockholm syndrome. Both she and REDEF’s fashion editor, Adam Wray, noted that his designs relied heavily on past creations by other designers, like Haider Ackerman and Rick Owens.
“Of course, I think that in the fashion world, as in music, it’s totally ok to be inspired and steal from other creatives,” Wray tells The Daily Beast. “That’s kind of how new stuff happens. [But] I saw more of what he’s interested in and not so much of his own voice or energy coming through.”
The Washington Post’s Pulitzer-winning fashion critic, Robin Givhan, told The Daily Beast that Yeezy Season 1 is Kanye’s “best effort [in fashion] so far,” saying that “it had a point of view. It looked like a cohesive collection, instead of just a grouping of random ideas.” But still, it left a lot to be desired.The event did prove, once again, that the guy has unparalleled talent at putting on a show.
The family affair (both Kendall and Kylie Jenner modeled his new looks) featured a well choreographed army of models, a front row worthy of the Grammy’s (Jay Z and Beyoncé, Diddy, Rihanna, Russell Simmons), the debut of a new single from his upcoming album, and one diva outburst.
But this is precisely where his problem lies. Kanye wants to be taken seriously as a fashion designer, but he can’t separate his role as a successful performer from his efforts to make it in the design world.
The musician is undeniably creative, and very publicly passionate about fashion and making his mark in the industry. And his status as a fashionisto and style influencer is firmly established.
His biggest project has been wife Kim Kardashian’s fashion makeover. While his intervention may seem a little more controlling than educational, Kim has said that he has “made me love fashion so much more” and that he’s “her best stylist.” And it’s hard to argue when confronted with her vastly more interesting and bold red carpet choices.
“I do think he is one of the most important, creative, cultural people living today,” Wray says. “He brings something to the industry that nobody else was in terms of getting people talking, generating discussion.”
But his sense of style and role as an influencer—not to mention ability to put on a show—does not a designer make.
“He is an amazing performer, but his merits as a designer are still in doubt. And it seems to me that the fashion world should be holding West’s feet to the fire—expecting more integrity and discipline from him,” Horyn wrote.
Part of Kanye’s problem is his tendency to focus more on loudly proclaiming his intentions and demanding his “rightful” place, rather than on listening to the legitimate feedback he’s getting.
The fashion industry isn’t full of haters. According to Givhan, even as early as his first solo collection, critics wanted to take him seriously because they “knew he had a very sincere interest in the fashion industry.” The efforts he’s taken to educate himself about the ins and outs of creating a collection and to talk to people at all levels of the design business are appreciated.
But then he goes and starts his show with a recording of his voice booming over the dark room: “I’m here to crack the pavement and make new grounds sonically and in society, culturally…I want people to think more, I want people to feel like it’s ok to create and follow what their dreams are and not feel boxed in. I want people to feel like awesome is possible.”
Nobody ever said awesome wasn’t possible. And the creative minds who have given up everything to make it in fashion don’t thank him for implying he’s the first to try to achieve it. “His obnoxiousness is tolerated in music because he’s extraordinarily talented and he’s proven that…But to come into another [field] where he is still so clearly at the beginning of a learning curve, and to display that same level of cockiness, who wouldn’t be put off by that?” Givhan says.
Celebrities can make successful fashion designers, as the Olsen Sisters and Victoria Beckham prove. But they’ve done two things very differently from Kanye, according to Givhan. First, they “let the clothes speak for themselves” and followed through with good collections.
Secondly, they proved their commitment to the industry by wholly embracing it. “In both cases, their primary job now is fashion. It’s not acting, it’s not singing, it’s not performing…they are focused on fashion, and they’re not treating the fashion industry like it’s their part-time jobs.”
“When Kanye has talked about this own music in the past, he kind of attributed his success to, when he was a teenager, he made 5 beats a day for three summers,” Wray says. “There’s no shortcuts to substitute for putting in that kind of work.”
Kanye gets some credit for delaying his next album’s release date to focus on his Adidas collection, which has proven to be a big step forward in his design evolution. And he may be taking at least some criticism to heart.
Horyn’s 2011 review also pointed out that “for a performer who has been a front-row face, his casting showed a surprising lack of imagination.” Four years later, his runway was one of the more diverse, a fact that stands out in an industry that continues to struggle with predominantly white faces.
But he's not there just yet. Fashion, like music, is all about collaboration. It’s also about showmanship and making a statement. And in these respects, Kanye is king.
But, if he wants to make it as a fashion solo artist he needs to listen to criticism and not just assume everyone is ignoring his talent. He needs to continue learning from the experts and, Wray says, “spend more time really thinking about every piece he sends out the door. Is this a garment that needs to exist? Am I doing something new that hasn’t already been done?”
The fashion industry could use the creative genius of Yeezy. But if he wants to be more than a style influencer, he needs to get back to work.