As an ambassador for athletic label Reebok, Compton-born Kendrick Lamar hosted the Reebok Classic Leather Experience in Manchester last week to celebrate his latest collaboration. Lamar, who's worked alongside Reebok since late 2014, hung out with press to introduce his newest Classic Leather shoe, and later gave a surprise appearance at a Manchester community center where kids learn and perform spoken word. That night, he performed at a secret venue to a crowd of around 300 people, wearing none other than his newest creation for the Reebok brand.
These types of rapper-and-sneaker partnerships are prevalent, especially considering that fashion plays a strong role in the genre's roots. "Hip-hop and fashion are the same thing," claims Lamar. "It's been that way since Run-DMC in the '80s. You've got to attach yourself to something that represents you." His fandom for Reebok hails from his teenage years, when he watched his favorite Cash Money Records group Hot Boys rock their own "ride or die fit." ("Black hood, Girbauds, ski mask and Reebok Classics," as the lyrics to "Jack Who, Take What?" goes.) To this day, he holds members Lil Wayne and Juvenile in high regard, noting them as style influences in multiple interviews.
Interestingly, Lamar's style doesn't exactly align with his current musical counterparts. While a handful of today's most talked-about rappers are likely to name-drop luxury labels in their lyrics — from Margiela and Versace to Isabel Marant and Rick Owens — Lamar prefers otherwise. In "Control," an unreleased track by Big Sean from 2013, Lamar spits, "I ain't rocking no more designer shit." He's apparently stuck to his word, as his style remains far from flashy. In Manchester, Lamar conducted interviews in a monochrome sweatsuit. That evening, his look was indeed dressier, but it still consisted of a simple pair of jeans, striped shirt and bomber jacket.
"A lot of artists approach high fashion, but for me personally, I just like a more classic, comfortable feel," says Lamar. "Not to exclude any of these artists' tastes, but I feel you should always do what represents you, so I'm glad I was able to find a brand that complements not only what I do, but where I'm from."
His quiet-but-impactful approach to style — something that he's applied to his latest releases with Reebok — can still speak volumes louder than most designer-loving rappers in the game. In July, Lamar unveiled a pair Ventilators inspired by the California gangs Crips and Bloods. The backs of the ashy beige suede pair are embroidered with the words "blue" and "red," while the inside of the shoes' tongues feature tabs adorned with "neutral." The signature pair, which was released overseas for approximately $144, promotes unity and peace over violence.
"I don't think a lot of brands will let you put anything that has some type of gang significance on the back of a shoe," says Lamar. "They granted our wish, which is a blessing that's bigger than just me; it's bigger than the shoe. It actually represents the struggle inside the community." The overall idea could've been met with hesitation from Reebok — this is a brand that dropped Rick Ross for promoting date rape in his lyrics — and the shoe's release did ignite a response from Compton's rivaled gang members.
Because a streetwear staple like sneakers held such an importance to Lamar growing up, he aims to to use his partnership with Reebok for more than just pushing product. Accessibility is a key factor, which is why the shoes he's put out are at accessible price points that usually ring in under $100 and are readily available in sizes for men, women and children. Compare this business model to Kanye West's Yeezys by Adidas, which are so exclusive (and expensive) that when they drop there's a raffle system, and pairs hit eBay with an exponential mark-up almost instantly. Drake's OVO renditions of Jordan 10s, while not as hype as West's, are also a limited-edition release with a hefty price tag.
"You always have to come back to the streets. You always got to look at what the next 13-year-old is wearing because these are the people who make the culture," explains Lamar. "We can't run from the kids, period — and that's something that we always try to do in our own way. We throw the high cost on shoes and clothes and try to distract it from the kids, but they make the culture."
Lamar's newest shoe, out this month, is an updated version of the Reebok Classic in all-white leather with a gum sole. The timeless style, which Lamar remembers wearing in high school, was introduced in 1983 and holds strong roots in the UK's youth culture scene, too. Lamar hopes that his continued collaboration with the sportswear brand will help push creativity, especially among the younger crowd, beyond simply providing new pairs of shoes. "It can be workshops; it can be job opportunities; it could be teaching kids [to design] their own shoe. I never came up seeing that," says Lamar. "Nobody ever came to my school and said how you can be a part of this brand, take your creativity and apply it in a shoe. I think that's the ultimate goal that I'm setting for myself as of right now."
Disclosure: Reebok paid for my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the Reebok Classics Leather Experience.