By Meg Zulch
At this past New York Fashion Week, Kanye West premiered his Yeezy Season 2 Collection, a continuation of his ongoing collaboration with Adidas. The show was highly organized, and included performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, all-star models meticulously arranged by skin tone, and the first unveiling of his new song "Fade." The clothes could only be described as post-apocalyptic streetwear, with an obvious consciousness about race relations in America. However, critics tore the show, the clothes, and the man behind it to pieces, calling the whole thing amusing and even deceptive. And so goes the media-shaped tale of Kanye, the court jester of pop culture, and a caricature of his own art.
The validity of Kanye's art has come into question for most of his career. As a proud black man, he has been written off by a good portion of society as being too cocky, too offensive and too ridiculous. This is of course referring to some particular media "incidents," like when he interrupted a Hurricane Katrina telethon in 2004 to say that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." And his most recent public sin, when he drunkenly interrupted Taylor Swift's acceptance speech for Video of the Year at the 2008 VMAs (which he then was temporarily banned from).
Kanye West is passionate and can be impulsive at times, but he's not crazy. Putting things into context helps (shockingly). Interrupting the live broadcast of the Katrina telethon was his attempt to publicly call out the government's slow response to the desperate and predominantly black community that was badly affected by the hurricane. He also pointed out the unfair media representation of black families looking for food, saying that news outlets called these people "looters" while white families in the same situation were "just looking for food." Similarly, Kanye interrupted Taylor's speech to express his frustration over award shows' refusal to acknowledge female artists of color in all categories.
But, classic of White America, it's not okay for Kanye to express any anger, even when it's concerning valid points about racism. It's not okay for Kanye to go dabbling in an art form other than hip hop or other pursuits that are stereotypically prescribed to people of color. And he's certainly not allowed to be proud of any of his achievements.
This year, designers first had beef with Kanye when he announced the date for his show, September 16, only days beforehand. Of course, this is inconsiderate to other designers like Anne Bowen and Naeem Khan, who had shows scheduled at the same time on that Wednesday. But who in the fashion community is completely considerate of others' time? If Anna Wintour decided last minute that she wanted to rent out the space Bowen's show was to be held in at the exact time of her show to host an impromptu orgy, no one would bat a false eyelash. I'm not saying that this behavior is right, but the conversation surrounding this when regarding white people in fashion would be very different. But Kanye, a man of color, is expected to remain acting as a humble and unworthy child, who is grateful to just be breathing the same air as all the white shiny fashion designers regardless of his talent or earned merit.
Bowen expressed her anger about his last minute announcement in an interview with Women's Wear Daily. "We have been prepping for a year for this at considerable financial, labor- and commitment-cost to our company,"she said. "Our show date has been scheduled for months and has been on the Fashion Calendar for weeks. We went through all the proper channels to make this a reality. And just yesterday we learned that Kanye West is having a show at the same time on the same date as ours."
This language she used, like "we've been prepping for this for a year," and "we went through all the proper channels to make this a reality" includes a lot of racially-charged subtext. Her words imply that Kanye has not been putting just as much work into his own line, and that he somehow didn't earn his place in NYFW, an imposter riding off the backs of others who actually know what they're doing.
Kanye has earned his spot. He's always been a trendsetter, from the "Stronger" era shutter glasses to his leather skirt he rocked at the Hurricane Sandy Relief concert. Coming from a musical background where he wrote, produced, rapped and created award winning video concepts, he crossed over into his first love (aka fashion) around 2008 when he came out with his first streetwear line Pastelle. Since then, he's pursued fashion study (and even bought a studio) in Paris, has designed/scrapped/perfected multiple lines of his own, landed a design contract with Louis Vuitton, designed sneakers for Nike, and featured in NYFW as well as Paris Fashion Week. His feverish obsession with constantly improving, his love for trying out new styles, and his intense devotion and respect for designers like Vuitton and Givenchy makes it crystal clear that Kanye is not just simply "dabbling" in fashion. He lives and breathes it.
Kanye is an outsider to the fashion world not because he isn't talented, not because he's not a real designer, not because he doesn't take the industry incredibly seriously. It's because he's a black man who produces hip hop music, a black man who didn't get the memo about his "place" and respect politics, a black man who refuses to be silenced and is made out to be a clown and a thug because of it.
Cathy Horyn, a fashion critic for New York Magazine, reviewed his show, saying: "Yeezy Season 2 was kind of amusing." She also said, among every other garbage word she managed to churn out (seething with condescension), that his line of "broken-down basis proved he can't be taken seriously as a designer."
The line's aforementioned basics were highly wearable, while the rest of the clothes presented in NYFW aren't realistically wearable on the street. The collection features mostly nudes, basics that could be easily layered and captured a very Mad Max: Fury Road aesthetic (as well as the health goth vibe fashion lovers have been embracing as of late). By capturing this feeling, Kanye summed up oppression in the United States, as well as a feeling of apocalyptic chaos born out of the institutional racism that has been characterizing national conversation over the past few years (thanks to a rise in police brutality against people of color). The militaristic style of the show captured his (and other people of color's) intense experience of feeling like a slave to capitalism, a slave to racist rhetoric, and a slave to his own demons. But the consensus? "Amusing."
Downplaying and even laughing at the oppression of others is unacceptable. But when these tastemakers, designers, and critics who are racist and find the struggle of marginalized identities "amusing," this drastically affects who is and isn't erased from history. If white people and gatekeepers of fashion history don't think his work is valid, then he may never be remembered as a designer, but rather the fashion industry's personal court fool (if he makes fashion history at all).
So if Kanye is a little disrespectful when regarding the time and money of a room full of white people, the same people that are telling him his art is amusing and that he's a fake, please excuse him. He's forgotten he needs to be a humble, self deprecating human, riding the coattails of Anna Wintour to get white people and their industry to like him in order to be successful. Instead, he continues to bravely present his art to the world everyday, angry and refusing to be discouraged.