The Quiet Radicalism of Kanye West’s Fashion Collection

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Say what you like about Kanye West — everyone does — but there’s one thing for certain, and that’s that America’s most consistently fascinating musician is a mass of contradictions. They’ve always manifested to various extents in his music: braggadocio and self-awareness (contrast his verse on the remix of Beyoncé’s “Ego” with “Runaway,” for instance), arrogance and vulnerability, the desire to control his public image and the propensity for doing spontaneous, often ill-advised things that undermine it. They all seem to come back to a desire to which a lot of us can relate: wanting to be accepted by the establishment while at the same time wanting to tear it down. It’s perhaps no surprise, then, that it’s his ongoing obsession with fashion, and specifically the new line he’s created for Adidas, that have thrown these contradictions into the sharpest relief.

Equality isn’t a concept you hear about a great deal in mainstream rap. As I’ve written here before, hip-hop mythology is less about changing the game than it is about winning it, something that West is smart enough to realize bends the boundaries of oppression without ever breaking them. Achieving material success and buying your way into the elite doesn’t change the fact that there is an elite, from which, by definition, most people are excluded. At times, West has reveled in that fact — take “See Me Now,” for instance, where he proclaims, “This is an aristocracy,” leaving no doubt that he considers himself part of that ruling class.

But there’s always been a deep ambivalence about it, too. “New Slaves” contains a whip-smart distinction between “broke nigga racism” (“Don’t touch anything in the store”) and “rich nigga racism” (“Come in, please buy more!”), the implication being that either way, the ultimate source of oppression is consumerism. As far back as The College Dropout, he was talking about how “We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom/ We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need ’em/ Things we buy to cover up what’s inside.” On the Graduation-era hit “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” our hero spends the first verse musing on his propensity to blow a shitload of money on, yes, fashion: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven/ When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace… I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny/ And what I do? Act more stupidly/ Bought more jewelry, more Louis V/ My momma couldn’t get through to me.”

All this hints at varying extents to an understanding that the root of oppression in America is capitalism. This, again, is something that hip hop hasn’t touched on a great deal over the years — sure, there have been explicitly Marxist rappers (Dead Prez spring to mind), but the genre’s focus has largely been on matters of direct social justice, centered around America’s historical (and current) system of institutionalized racist oppression.

If you read back over his interviews from the last couple of years, you’ll find that West talks more about class than he does about race: “It’s not about racism anymore,” he told Wild 94.9 FM in 2013. “It’s classism… Classism is when they try to say, ‘You’re a rapper… your girl is on a reality show so you’re not up here with us. We’re old money.’” Since then, he seems to have honed that idea somewhat, returning to the thought that racism is ultimately a manifestation of classism — or, put another way, that racist oppression is underpinned and founded on capitalist oppression.

He returns to the idea in this fascinating interview with Style.com, published earlier this week, where he notes (twice) that “Racism and the focus on racism is a distraction to humanity.” This is an idea that never seems to get much traction in America, perhaps because racism is such a brutal and ongoing problem in and of itself in American society, and also because American cultural mythology is still very much founded on the idea of hard work bringing a reward in the form of the American dream.

But focusing entirely on racism tends to overlook the system that breeds racism in the first place. It’s a subtle point, and one that can get easily misinterpreted as somehow diminishing or trivializing racism — which, I want to be clear, is 100 percent not what I’m talking about. Looking at single vectors of oppression is both valid and necessary — theories of feminism, racism, post-colonialism aren’t wrong, but they’re incomplete if they lose sight of the fact that their area of focus is an aspect of a larger whole. This is what intersectionality means, really. It’s just that, for whatever reason, there’s a reluctance to follow the idea through to its logical conclusion.

And in reality, class boundaries are just as real in America as they are elsewhere — they’re not as formalized as they are under, say, a caste system, but crossing them is still impossible unless you happen upon a large sum of money. Even then, you’re accepted grudgingly, or not at all — something West has experienced firsthand, and an idea that his relationship with Kim Kardashian seems to have crystallized. He spoke in his inimitable way in late 2013 about how his wife should be on the cover of Vogue, and when that finally did happen last year, it’s notable that the reaction was pretty much exactly as he predicted, i.e., a lot of people excoriating the high-fashion bible for compromising its high standards. (And, as if to prove his point, Anna Wintour seemed to agree that she’d done exactly that.)

All of which brings us back to Kanye’s fashion collection. The whole Style.com interview is worth reading, but the quote that really stands out is when West proclaims, “I hate the concept of limited edition completely. I hate the concept of separatism. Elitism. Classism.” He speaks of wanting to “make beautiful products available to as many people as possible… Everyone should have the good life. It’s like [Amancio] Ortega [founder of Zara] and H&M group. Before that happened, you could tell who came from money, who didn’t, who had a bigger paycheck, who didn’t. It was about separation and I think high fashion is about elitism and separation, and I am completely opposed to that.”

This clearly isn’t an idea to which West has always subscribed — it wasn’t so long ago that he was insisting people on his G.O.O.D. Music label wear matching Dior Homme suits — but the concept of democratizing fashion is a pretty powerful one in a world where high fashion exists as a sort of cultural shibboleth of class. Kanye being Kanye, of course, things are never quite that simple — even in the middle of this interview, he speaks of how he’ll “still go to crash the Saint Laurent fashion show so I can be closer to the genius that Hedi [Slimane] has, even if the prices aren’t genius, even though the prices are completely unfair.” There’s no shame in liking beautiful things — but in its own way, the idea of distributing those things widely instead of hoarding them for the select few is as radical as anything you could do in America.