You'd be hard-pressed to find a fashion collaborator as prolific as Pharrell. Since the early aughts, the wildly creative artist has not only launched successful brands of his own — Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream — but he's also partnered with some of the most influential labels in the world on an impressive range of products.
In the past few years alone, Pharrell has designed sunglasses for Louis Vuitton; developed a unisex fragrance for Comme des Garçons called "Girl;" starred alongside Cara Delevingne and Hudson Kroenig in a Chanel campaign; released a collection of colorful sneakers for Adidas Originals; and even delighted luxury shoppers with a train-shaped collection of bags for French trunk-maker Moynat. Let's not forget his unabashed sartorial risk-taking, either — from his vintage Vivienne Westwood Grammy's hat that launched a thousand memes to his occasional affinity for dressing like a (very chic) bellhop.
Last year, he was recognized for these achievements and more at the CFDA Awards, where Kanye West presented him with the Fashion Icon Award; in his speech, he waxed poetic on both his lifelong love of fashion and the power of imagination. The latter is so important to Pharrell, in fact, that he recently added the title "Head of Imagination" at G-Star Raw — the Dutch denim brand that he became co-owner of in February — to his resume. His relationship with the company dates back to 2014, when he partnered with G-Star on a sustainable fashion project called "Raw for the Oceans." As the creative director and co-founder of Bionic Yarn (yes, another job), an organization that transforms discarded waste into fabrics, he helped to develop a collection of denim with threads made from recycled ocean plastic. Not an easy feat, but one he's very passionate about — and visibly proud of.
While Pharrell has been a member of the G-Star Raw family for some time, he'd only visited the label's two-year-old Amsterdam headquarters — a hangar-like glass and concrete space designed by Rem Koolhaas — just once until we met last week. He invited a sizable group of international editors and influencers to join him on a comprehensive guided tour of the factory, where every single department of the company (from the creative to the corporate) is based. To make the experience extra special, he invited a couple of his famous, fashion-loving friends along: ASAP Rocky and Miguel, who seemed genuinely enthused to accompany him on the adventure, which was not only educational, but also a rare peek into Pharrell's vivid imagination.
We were greeted at the factory by an impeccably on-brand staff, clad in head-to-toe denim. Almost immediately, things took a turn for the weird, when two performance artists, whom Pharrell later called "ocean friends," posed perfectly still in what appeared to be blue jean biohazard suits. Soon, Pharrell and his posse arrived — the man of the hour dressed in a denim jumpsuit embroidered with "Head of Imagination" on the back — and we embarked on our grand tour, starting with the company's 35,000-piece archive in the basement.
G-Star Raw doesn't consider itself to be a "fashion brand;" rather, it's a company of product engineers with the common goal of constantly innovating while paying respect to the past. Its decades-old archive is the true core of the label, where inspiration is sourced and the design process starts. We were allowed to roam the racks freely, and they're filled not only with early G-Star collections, but also with one-of-a-kind pieces that employees have sourced from all over the world. This place had everything: firemen's coats, military uniforms, diving equipment, vintage denim, submarine escape suits, motorcycle gear and more. (I was particularly fond of a classic striped Pendleton coat, which Miguel also gave his seal of approval as he walked by.) The team insists that, while the collection is vast and seemingly random, revisiting these pieces it crucial to G-Star Raw's directional design process, as the company always looks to the history of a garment before trying to reinvent it.
As we moved through the rest of the factory, we dropped in on the denim designers who were hard at work inside the atelier, and were introduced to one of the label's newest creations: a pair of classic five-pocket jeans transformed to include a fanny pack-like pouch in the front. The team called them an "experience" to wear, and while they're only available for women at the moment (much to the chagrin of ASAP, who called them "dope"), there's a chance they'll be integrated into more collections thanks to the positive response thus far.
Next, Pharrell gave us a briefing on the inception of his "Raw for the Oceans" capsule, and the G-Star Raw team shared that it's been so successful that they will begin incorporating recycled yarn into the main collections to further increase sustainability. "All we're saying is we don't want to make virgin polyester anymore," Pharrell added later. "That contributes to the carbon footprint. What we'd like to do is sustain what we have... so we'll just use recycled plastic that's been around the block a few times."
The last stop of the tour was the most eye-opening, despite the fact that there was very little clothing involved. The G-Star Raw team makes an effort to extend its design talents to things that have nothing to do with what people wear, with the hope that it will help them better understand what they do wear. So, nearly everything inside the office — from the custom reception desk to the rugs to the chairs created in collaboration with Prouvé — is designed in-house, and there is seemingly no limit to what sorts of objects they'll come up with using their signature denim. It's art for art's sake, if you will.
Over cocktails and a DJ set by Harley Viera-Newton, we were let loose inside the open gallery space to explore G-Star Raw's most out-there products, including a giant denim shark (and other sea creatures) that hung from the rafters; a tricked-out kayak; two-headed mannequins styled in post-apocalyptic looks that could have been straight out of the "Mad Max" costume closet; and denim fold-out chairs surrounding a sky-high denim teepee, which was conceptualized by Pharrell after an outdoor movie festival he attended with his son inspired him.
As the "Head of Imagination," Pharrell made sure to acknowledge how privileged he is to be a creative force that co-owns a private company. "That allows me as an ideator not to be cuffed by customary business practices," he explained. "When I want to make a raw denim teepee, I can do it. There's not a board of people I have to ask." This unbridled freedom is what will keep him working to push G-Star Raw's sustainability efforts forward, without shoving the "eco-friendly" message in customers' faces. Before the day came to a close, a fellow editor asked Pharrell (while inside the teepee) if fashion's always been of interest to him. "Fashion's important to everyone," he replied. "Unless they're walking around naked, what they wear is a reflection of what they think and feel. Period."
Disclosure: G-Star Raw provided my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the tour in Amsterdam.