The problem with Kanye West’s fashion show

The controversial artist and Yeezy designer's Paris Fashion Week presentation was nothing short of racism.

On the last night of fashion month — during which we have watched countless shows, spoken to an array of designers and, generally, tried to make sense of where fashion is heading in the near future — we went to see what Ye (FKA Kanye West) had in store for his ninth collection for Yeezy. There was a lot of buzz, an intimate guest list, and pandemonium upon entry. Everyone was rooting for Ye, which is why everyone showed up even though the show was only announced a couple of hours before. 

Ye invokes a cult-like devotion, and plays on it in his work. At the show, children from his Donda academy sang religious songs; masked figures handed out sesame smoothies. The show kicked off with him speaking directly to the audience, extemporising everything from the fashion industry’s reluctance to take him seriously, to the difficulty in building an independent business. A lot of what he said in his eight-minute prologue really does resonate with POCs trying to navigate traditionally white spaces. You want him to succeed because he is a visionary, a talented artist who has hugely changed the culture. He leans into his role as a cultural leader, often making us laugh or simply roll our eyes. He is beyond a fashion icon — he is a cultural powerhouse. 
But it soon became clear that the event was the equivalent to clickbait — provocation, but to what purpose remains a mystery. It started when Ye appeared in the forum of the venue wearing a T printed with Pope Juan Pablo II on the front and “White Lives Matter” on the back, followed by a model (Selah Marley, Lauryn Hill’s daughter and Bob Marley’s granddaughter) wearing a similar style in the show – and ended with a photo-op of Ye and right-wing political pundit Candace Owens standing back-to-back in their matching t-shirts. 
A slogan tee is the most opaque and rudimentary way of conveying a message. It turns a human body into a canvas for a political cause. Think of British designer Katherine Hamnett, a designer often referenced by Yeezy, in her “58% Don’t Want Pershing” t-shirt when meeting then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher in 1984. Think of how T-shirts are rallying symbols of collectivism in protests — whatever the politics, right or left. This humble garment can reduce the most complex of issues down to the space available on a piece of clothing. If you have something to say, put it on a T-shirt. 
And that’s exactly what Ye has done. Yes, it was a stunt designed to go viral — not for the first time — but it’s also endemic of a wider problem with the broader cultural landscape. Are superstars the new politicians? Do we take what they say as gospel? 

The controversial artist and Yeezy designer's Paris Fashion Week presentation was nothing short of racism.

Kanye has now made his populist right-wing politics a central feature of his work. He knows what he’s doing — he understands how to make use of inevitable outrage and how social media’s algorithms will amplify his message — but most importantly,  he understands the power of clothing. He’s always been a provocateur, but there’s a difference in provocation and incitement. It’s already caused the desired social media scandal – but has also galvanised a lot of people with questionable politics to log on and pop off.
Nuance is important in understanding complicated things, but this is, quite literally, written in black and white. As Kanye said after the show, followed by a chuckle: “It says it all.” You don’t need me to explain why Black Lives do Matter — if you’re reading this, then you already know that. Just as with symbols of hate, or visual motifs linked to historical violence, you have to take it for what it is. Fashion can have the power to disrupt or challenge our comfort zones, to reflect the harsh reality of the world. But some things are just as they appear. It’s not clever or funny, or subversive. It’s not a comment about the extinction of white supremacy in a dystopian world, or a provocative imagining of a faraway world. In 2022, Black people are still being murdered by the police. It’s as simple as that.
But it’s also not just the case of one man’s view. It’s dangerous to underestimate the power of fashion’s ability to communicate to the world. Already, that T-shirt has vindicated an entire swathe of the population who believe in white supremacy, who have revived the hashtag #WhiteLivesMatter with considerable enthusiasm. They now have a stamp of approval to wear their views on their sleeves as a fashion statement, and this T-shirt will probably become an easily-replicated object of political ideology. One of the most famous men in the world — a Black man — has seemingly validated white supremacy. In the hands of the wrong people, this sentiment will amount to more than mere words — it will translate into physical violence and lost lives. It will empower the wrong kind of people to think and do unspeakable things. 
For someone who spoke so much at the show about wanting to create clothes for the future, it was a painfully regressive statement to make. It puts power to words that will be used to diminish a fight for equality. It makes a mockery of the many people who, perhaps without knowing, worked on the show or appeared within it. Most importantly, it’s insulting to people of colour and the families of people who have died at the hands of racist violence and brutality. Regardless of who says this — famous or not famous; black or white; man or woman; on a t-shirt or in a hashtag — it means the same thing. There’s no reading between the lines. It’s there written in plain view.

Source: I-D

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