“Kanye stood from a mountaintop long ago and yelled, saying, ‘The future of fashion will be like this!’ I wanted the world to see that the guy who fought for this moment is a part of it…”Virgil Abloh – British Vogue
Virgil Abloh’s debut Louis Vuitton show
These were the words of Virgil Abloh in conversation with Naomi Campbell for British Vogue when asked about his embrace with Kanye West at his debut Louis Vuitton show. A moment that has encapsulated the emotion of the show, and tells a broader tale of the influence Kanye West has had on Virgil, and fashion culture in general.
Polarising, ambitious, but deeply conflicted, Kanye West, of his own admission and the admission of those who exist within the fashion world, has become a vital cog in shaping the culture, in both luxury and street fashion. Speaking after the Louis Vuitton show Ye said: “The breakthrough with Virgil, is now we have someone who’s come from Donda, who’s come from the school of Kanye West.” A statement which reads more like a boast when written on the page, but actually comes from a place of deep and sincere pride. Kanye West is the first to acknowledge his impact on the fashion landscape but has always done so as a collaborative effort within the community. After all, this, as Virgil himself tells it, all began 10 years ago, when Kanye West and his close friends Virgil Abloh, Don C, Taz Arnold, Chris Julian, and Fonzworth Bentley crashed the party at Paris Fashion Week. Which ultimately started them on a journey to redefine themselves as significant players in a world they weren’t always invited to be a part of. I don’t think anyone could have predicted how these men would manifest in the next ten years. At the time Virgil Abloh couldn’t even get into a Louis Vuitton show, but from that moment, it speaks of their unwavering desire to shape a space for which they can exist within the fashion industry. From relative nobodies in that world, they have etched their vision, refusing to be defined by stereotypes and in Kanye West’s case, defiant to not be put in a box. West has always brought his people with him, and that collaborative belief has been the key to the success of all these men, but it only really began to take shape in terms of product, when Ye himself made his breakthrough, which came in the form of his first opportunity to design his own footwear. Although in the early 2000s Kanye West already had a shoe, the Bapesta FS-001 ‘College Dropout’ which served as a homage to his debut album and was made possible by the minds at BAPE, it was with first with Louis Vuitton and then with Nike that we first saw precisely what Kanye West was capable of.
Nike & Kanye
Early on he called himself Kan, the Louis Vuitton Don and it was in the upper echelons of fashion that he made his mark, for a lot of similar rappers the prospects for a signature shoe were much less ambitious, Jay-Z had collaborated with Reebok, as had 50 Cent. Where Kanye differed was, he insisted that he started at the very top of the mountain, believing himself as a part of the discussion before even being invited to speak, and once Ye had achieved the seemingly impossible, it felt like he was capable of anything. From there Kanye wanted to appeal to a broader audience, he wished to influence footwear irreversible, and his debut four shoe Nike collaboration made him one of the hottest properties in fashion, and now everyone in the game began to take notice of the impact Ye was about to have on the culture.
The Nike Air Yeezy encapsulated everything Kanye wanted to be in the fashion world, unapologetic, bold, and unmistakably Ye. You could see his albums in these shoes, all very different, but somehow still cohesive, you look at the kicks, and it makes sense. Securing Kanye West was evidently huge for Nike, but I don’t think anyone realised how big it would be when he decided to leave. After the fact, in an interview with Charlamagne tha God, Kanye West sighted frustration over Nike’s unwillingness to change as his reason for leaving, likening the Swoosh to Obama: “perfect” but “not really going to change anything”.
In a heated exchange on a Shade 45 interview with Sway, Kanye West had some choice parting words for the Nike CEO: “Mark Parker … I will still accept an investment in DONDA. I’ve got some more ideas that don’t involve shoes, so if you guys are investing in the arts … I am standing up, and I’m telling you. I. Am. Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation, in the flesh. I am Shakespeare, Walt Disney. Nike. Google. Now, who’s gonna be the Medici Family and stand up and let me create more?” The answer to that question appeared in Kanye’s mind as Nike’s biggest competitor Adidas, describing their CEO as “someone who allowed me to build something”. It is that freedom that ultimately has enabled Ye to realise his dream to create his own vision of fashion, and it was in his creative content company DONDA where these ideas would be grown and cultivated.
Named after his late mother, DONDA would serve as the proving ground for the community Kanye West wanted to inspire, and from a group of friends and creative peers posing for a photo at their first visit to Paris Fashion Week to a new age of creatives with a platform on which to promote their version of fashion. Kanye West’s philosophy behind DONDA was articulated as a need to “put creatives in a room together with like minds” in order to “simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see, taste, touch, and feel”. These creatives were hand picked by Kanye, similar to the approach taken with forays into music production, and it was his talent scouting ability in both fields that have helped further establish his vision. Virgil Abloh would be the first to admit the influence friend and mentor Kanye West and the “School of DONDA” has had on him creatively, but Abloh isn’t the only one from West’s fashion circles to find success. Samuel Ross, a former creative consultant for West, and founder of British streetwear label A-COLD-WALL* has found a home at Nike, collaborating on his own take on the iconic Air Force 1, and Jerry Lorenzo, the founder of the Fear of God brand, who was hired to work on pieces for Yeezy season and Ye’s personal. Has since also delved into the footwear world with his own growing Nike collaboration including the excellent Nike Air Fear of God 1.
What Kanye West has been able to create, intentionally or inadvertently is a future Mount Rushmore of footwear design, which transcends even brand, and puts their version of the culture at the forefront. There is no surprise why both Ye and Virgil stand on a hill above the footwear world casting a large shadow over the ground beneath. Yeezy and Off-White have changed the footwear industry irreversibly, challenging what is possible, acceptable, and what is to be expected. The rise of the resale market and hype culture can be directly attributed to Kanye West’s four shoe Nike collection and then his jaw-dropping switch to Adidas which caused Nike’s stock to plummet. Virgil Abloh was employed by Nike to essentially challenge the dominance his mentor had established with Adidas and the list of designers who attribute some if not all of their success to work done by Kanye West is as long as my arm. Ye once quipped in the song ‘Facts’ that “Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman”, and that is a statement that we can debate all day, but what you cannot deny, is that the confidence Kanye exudes, and his unrelenting belief in everything he works on has propelled him into the conversation. Breaking down barriers that have allowed his idols to become his rivals, and has proven that with no formal training, no notable background, but with bright ideas, and a dedication to change, he and his creative peers can rewrite the rule book as to what we call fashion, and who gets to define it. Kanye doesn’t just talk a good game, without a doubt, Kanye West is the most influential man in trainer culture, long live the GOAT.