Since the start of his promotional media blitz for Yeezus, Kanye West has been telling every outlet willing to listen about his struggles in the fashion industry. Even with a four-month stint interning at Fendi, a two-year apprenticeship with Giuseppe Zanotti, close friendships with influential designers and editors, and self-proclaimed “genius” creative vision, he hasn’t been able to achieve the level of respect that, say, Victoria Beckham or The Olsen Twins have.
In recent interviews and public rants, West has cited industry racism and snobbery as the reasons for his difficulties. I’ll be the last to deny that racism is alive and well in fashion, but it’s hard to take his complaints seriously when he hasn’t exactly been a bastion for the change he wishes to see.
Make no mistake: There is a tremendous underrepresentation of blacks in fashion. Yet West, even with his cultural capital, influence, and opportunity, has done very little to increase the visibility of brown folks in the industry… well, at least brown folks other than himself.
In his recent interview on Jimmy Kimmel Live, West laments, “There is no black guy at the end of the runway in Paris,” forgetting Olivier Rousteing’s existence for a moment. True, there are few black designers, but how often do we see Yeezy endorsing those who are putting out collections? West has been quick to show support for labels like Céline—mentioned on the Diversity Coalition’s no-no list for not casting black models in their shows—Maison Martin Margiela, and Givenchy, proudly parading in bespoke and off-the-rack pieces from each. Yet you would be hard-pressed to see him pair his beloved leather jogging sweats with an Ozwald Boateng jacket, or find mention of designers like Duro Olowu in his rhymes.
It’s widely known that he makes style suggestions for his boo Kim Kardashian, who we often see outfitted in many of the labels Yeezy loves most: Céline, Lanvin, Givenchy, and Alaïa. In fact, with the exception of Balmain, West consistently outfits his fiancé in garments from non-POC designers. We rarely (or never) see Kim in creations by Cushnie et Ochs, Stella Jean, Tracey Reese, Mimi Plange or Duro Olowu. The reality star was recently photographed at the TAO nightclub in Vegas, with Yeezy in tow, in separates from Dolce & Gabbana, who sparked ire last year from many fashion fans after they presented a pair of offensive, minstrel-like earrings as part of their Spring 2013 collection.
This is not to say that West has been entirely unsupportive of black designers. He’s given his share of shoutouts to indie labels Hood by Air—whose head designer Shayne Oliver is a person of color—as well as Virgil Abloh of PYREX Vision, with whom he has worked with for several years. Both are dope designers, and I applaud him for bringing these niche brands out of obscurity. But in his much-publicized BBC Radio 1 interview with Zane Lowe, West complains that black designers are often limited to producing t-shirts: “That’s the most we can make,” he said. “We can have our best perspective on T-shirts, but if it’s anything else, your Truman Show boat is hitting the wall.”
Ain’t nothing wrong with a good tee, but considering West is backing brands like Pyrex, who is mainly putting out the causal athletic wear he’s talking about, and since Kanye released a collection in collaboration with A.P.C. consisting mostly of $120 plain cotton t-shirts and hoodies, his complaint sounds a little disingenuous. With A.P.C., he had the opportunity to get across this grand creative vision he claims to be dedicated to, but he simply opted out.
Take a look at the tour merch for West’s ‘Yeezus’ tour: Much of it is emblazoned with the Confederate flag, the very symbol of racism, exploitation, and murder in the United States. While he says that his intention was to co-opt the dubious banner, I wonder how someone so concerned with racism would be so eager to disseminate such iconography.
Even when West wielded power as “the black guy at the end of the runway in Paris,” when he presented collections for his namesake label, black representation proved to be an afterthought. For his first runway showing in a cast of about 21 girls, only three were black. The ratio was the same for his Fall ’12 effort. One would think someone so concerned about racism in fashion would make add a little more color to his runway, no?
As an internationally known artist, Kanye West is in a position to really spark some change in this industry. However, in some ways he’s managed to maintain the status quo. It seems fashion is only racist when he is not given the praise and recognition he feels he deserves, or when it’s relevant to one of his songs.
To this I say: Girl, please.