Kanye West is finally beginning to find his voice in fashion, and as he himself predicted, it is not so much as a designer as it is an artist.
Let me state from the outset that West, in his campaign to conquer the fashion world with his monumentally staged Yeezy Season 3 collection at Madison Square Garden on Thursday afternoon, did not move the needle one bit in terms of fashion, at least not as fashion relates to the notion of creating new designs. But at the outset of a season that promises to be filled with so-called disruptions, his latest show – coinciding with the debut of his The Life of Pablo album – was a fascinatingly effective political, social, and, yes, fashion statement that might achieve what West has been looking for all along, which is affirmation of his ability to more than just sing. His filled-to-the-rafters listening party was as provocative and loaded with potent lyrics and imagery as Beyoncé’s “Formation” video released last week.
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Once West had commanded a DJ station from one side of the garden, and his family of Kardashians and Jenners had taken their seats dressed in startlingly coordinated Balmain fluffery that gave the impression of a troop of showgirls (North West, too; below), a satiny sheet that covered a stage set built on the floor of the garden was pulled away to reveal the Yeezy collection. It was provocative, to say the least. The immediate impression was that of a refugee camp or a post-apocalyptic scene where more than 1,000 people, all but a few of them African-Americans or non-whites who responded to an open casting call by West, were crammed into a large pen that looked about to burst at the seams.
On top of a shanty-like structure in the center, dozens more, including several top models, stood in formation, again in a collaboration with the artist Vanessa Beecroft. For nearly 20 minutes, they all stood stock still, as if frozen in a moment, even as another show was happening all around them. A camera that projected their faces onto the Jumbotron above showed expressions that could be read as challenging or indignant. The hundreds of people on the floor were wearing variations of West’s streetwear – T-shirts, hoodies, overalls – in a range of only a few tones of mustard, off-white, and maroon. Up top were outfits more in line with West’s previous collections, mixed with Beecroft’s signature bodysuits, this time with pops of color here and there.
The scene as a whole was fraught with symbolism to contemporary issues of racial injustices, as models raised their hands in protest, or prayed, overtly echoing the protests of the Black Lives Matter movement. One held his hand to his head as if it were a gun. But perhaps the most seering image was that of a group of black supermodels – Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede, and Veronica Webb – walking through the space in floor-length mink coats, next to others dressed nearly in rags (below), evoking the lyrics of his own song “New Slaves.” One woman stood throughout the entire presentation, which lasted nearly two hours, with her buttocks exposed to the audience, an indictment, for sure, but of whom?
In a sense, there were two shows happening here, the record release and the fashion presentation, and a third if you count the spectacle of celebrities, models, and the Kardashian-West family, all of them integrated to clearly telegraph West’s command of the music, fashion, and media worlds. And it worked in a way that his previous shows have not, even though the clothes themselves have hardly changed (something that you could say is true of almost all of contemporary fashion). That may be because at the start, when West disastrously showed his first collection in Paris in 2011, he had so eagerly sought the fashion industry’s approval, playing by its rules, with overblown runway spectacles and clothes that sought to emulate his design heroes (Tisci, Alaïa, Scott, et al), rather than speak in his own voice.
At Madison Square Garden, he showed fashion on his turf with a presentation that spoke volumes, more so than clothes alone can ever say.