Kanye West and I don’t have a lot in common. He’s a famous rapper with an estimated net worth of $100 million; I’m a third-year media student who can’t even afford to pay $8.50 a month for Vogue Australia. This year he became a father and released his sixth studio album to rave reviews; this year I celebrated my 20th birthday by starting a blog. And from what I can tell, he seems to adore Kim Kardashian and her sisters whereas I am not, uh, particularly fond of them. One thing we do have in common, however, is that we both have very strong opinions about the fashion industry. That’s why I want to address some of the comments Kanye West made in part 5 of his interview with Jimmy Kimmel, in which he blames the fashion industry’s racist and classist tendencies for his short-lived fashion career.
Kanye West is absolutely correct to say that the fashion industry is classist–of course it is! That’s not something it has ever tried to disguise or even seems to be ashamed of. Pick up any issue of American Vogue and you’re bound to see some random rich white woman you’ve never heard of before yapping narcissistically about how she’s “going green”, which probably means that she grew her own tomatoes and installed solar panels on the roof of her country house. How is it that Emmanuelle Alt has put Charlotte Casiraghi (a member of Monaco’s royal family), Carla Bruni (ex-First Lady of France) and Stephanie Seymour (whose husband is made of money) on the cover of Vogue Paris, but has yet to feature a single black model? How is it that unpaid internships are still legal, and worse still common, when there are so many students already drowning in debt and can’t afford to work for free? There is a lot of class discrimination in the fashion industry–some of it is insidious, some of it is more overt.
However, I don’t believe that Kanye West failing as a fashion designer is about class discrimination. It’s not about his being a rapper, or the fact that he’s in a relationship with a reality television star. He funded his spring-summer 2012 runway show out of his own pocket and presented the collection at Paris Fashion Week, making him a little fish in a big, big pond from the very beginning. He had the audacity to invite two of the most visionary designers alive, Azzedine Alaïa and Olivier Theyskens, to what was ultimately a sloppy rendition of bandage dresses and Belgian deconstructionism. Not only that, several of his garments appeared to be complete rip-offs of Balmain, Alexander Wang, and Baby Phat (yes, Baby Phat). Anything that looked remotely original was only so because no real designer with formal training or a professional eye would dare send it down the runway. Case in point: Mirte Maas wearing slinky leggings made from a cheap iridescent fabric with a matching bomber jacket. Truly frightening.
There were graduate students from Central Saint Martins, the best design school in Europe, helping him create the collection. British designer Louise Goldin and Australian stylist Christine Centenera reportedly acted as “consultants”. The front row was filled with famous friends like Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen. He had a very expensive cast of models to walk the collection. It was covered on style.com, which everyone in the industry looks at. Anna Wintour was even there. And let’s not forget that Kanye didn’t present at some derelict warehouse in Brooklyn, but instead at Paris Fashion Week. PARIS. The city that is the pinnacle of every fashion season, which draws tens of thousands of buyers and journalists to one location twice a year. He had every opportunity to succeed and he didn’t. People gave him a chance. In fact, they gave him two if you count his less offensive fall-winter 2012 collection.
Contrary to what Kanye West claims, this is not the same thing as Michael Jackson struggling to get his videos on MTV. This is not a case of class discrimination or racism. This is about a man delusional enough to think that sitting front row at fashion week for nine years somehow means he understands garment construction, fit and form. This is about a man whose ego is so big that he quit after two seasons because he didn’t have editors rushing to feature his clothes in their magazines, or buyers ringing around the clock to make orders, or journalists spilling every review with effusive praise. The only person who seemed to love it was Anna Dello Russo (she wore a complete look the next day), who basically loves anything that’s gold and shiny or will get her on a street style blog. Did Michael Jackson quit after being rejected? What if Alexander McQueen had given up after two seasons? Or Tom Ford? Or Marc Jacobs? If every designer who is serious about their craft decided to quit after two bad seasons, there would be no fashion designers in the world.
I’d like to end this post by sharing some thoughts about celebrity designers in general. One of my main criticisms is that celebrity designers do not have any formal training and have not learned the ins and outs of garment construction. They tend to take a very passive approach to design, acting as a figurehead on the label while their team ghost-designs with all of the pressure but none of the praise. Sometimes they’ll just copy clothes right out of their personal wardrobe, make a few tweaks (I almost wrote “twerk”–damn you, Miley!) and then pass it off as new. I am well aware that there are many successful designers without a formal fashion education: Rei Kawakubo, Consuelo Castiglioni, the Olsen twins, etc. But I think times are very different now. It’s much more competitive and the value of a fashion education is so crucial.
I agree that this industry is classist, I just don’t think it applies to Kanye in this situation. One way in which we can counter the elitism and classism, however, is by giving more value to fashion students. Completing a fashion design degree is not easy. It definitely requires a natural creative ability (which is nurtured rather than “taught”) but it teaches lessons. It teaches you that all this is going to amount to something one day. It affirms that there are no short-cuts, and that people should not be able to buy their way to success. Most importantly, there’s nothing more inspiring than seeing designers who started off just like you–as hopeful students–succeed and go on to establish internationally recognised brands. And if Kanye West should by chance come across this post, please understand that just because you excel in one creative field it doesn’t mean you have some kind of ‘carry over’ respect in another. It’s hard work. It’s not something that brings immediate success.