Lynette Nylander recounts her experience at the corrosive YZY SZN9 show and its continued fallout
A Kanye West fashion show comes with a certain amount of intrigue.
Where will it be?
Who will walk?
How late are we talking?
Will it even happen at all?
Yes, his shows have long been associated with disorganisation and chaos. But between all that, you usually imagine there will be flashes of brilliance. Flashes of brilliance like the ones he’s always been able to convey through his music. And so, you’re hopeful – at least I was, on Monday night, as Kanye’s last minute, hush-hush fashion show happened in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.
That hope was in vain, though, and all I was left with was disappointment and regret.
After keeping his confused crowd on hold for almost two and a half hours, with a brief video montage interlude that included clips of Anna Wintour, Phoebe Philo, The Beatles, and ex-wife Kim Kardashian – all of which were pulled from pre-existing footage – Kanye himself finally stepped onto the floor of the four-storey cylindrical show space to attempt to explain what was going on.
Peering up at the crowd, which had rushed from their seats to peer over the barriers for a better look, he started what would turn out to be a nine-minute-long monologue. The musician touched on his lateness for the show and how his critics would fixate on that rather than the clothes, his early forays in fashion and struggling to be taken seriously, and his supposed role styling Rihanna in the early 2010s (despite there being no evidence to support this).
He also detailed his constant strive for perfection when it come to his clothes – including the ones we were about to see – his struggles with his mental health, and Bernard Arnault being his “new Drake”, all while wearing a message that rang far louder than anything that came out of his mouth during his nonsensical speech. On his back, emblazoned across a long-sleeved t-shirt were the words “White Lives Matter” in bold type, worn as he went on to introduce a choir of mostly young Black and brown children from his recently founded DONDA school, who sang a medley of songs.
“Under the guise of a fashion presentation, Monday night was in fact a thinly veiled attempt to co-opt the fashion media to spread a message that is reductive, harmful, and extreme”
It didn’t stop there.
Following behind the models who filed through the space in second-skin bodysuits, slip dresses, and balaclavas, came Selah Marley – daughter of Lauryn Hill and granddaughter of Bob Marley. Like Kanye, Marley wore an oversized “White Lives Matter” t-shirt, her floor-length dreadlocks trailing behind her. The crowd, largely made up of the world’s leading fashion press and industry heavyweights, took in the chaos. And then, whispers were exchanged and eyes darted between each other, seemingly as a way of clarifying what they had just seen was actually what they thought it was.
Was this a Trojan horse? “We’ve been lured to a show under false pretences,” I thought. Under the guise of a fashion presentation, Monday night was in fact a thinly veiled attempt to co-opt the fashion media to spread a message that is reductive, harmful, and extreme.
Fashion faced one of its biggest reckonings in 2020, as the Black Lives Matter movement spread across the globe. It vowed it would do better, and it feels like the industry has made strides. Or steps, at least. As the press took their seats in good faith, Kanye’s show used fashion to spread the White Lives Matter message – a slogan which took hold in 2015, used by racist organisations to fuel hate and belittle BLM, and has since been classified as hate speech. There was no context, or conversation, and it was all broadcast live to his global and fiercely loyal fanbase.
“During his opening speech, Kanye once again detailed his struggle as an underdog, claiming no one would touch this show because the brand was independent. But in reality, he cannot continue to choose whether he’s the victim or the bully”
In doing so, he once again cast aside his support for the Black community, to whom he owes most of his early success, fame, and influence. This is not an isolated incident. He has readily suggested that slavery was a choice, and proudly sported “Make America Great Again” caps while cosying up to Donald Trump in the Oval Office. On Monday, he hammered home his right-wing standpoint, as he invited controversial Republican mouthpiece Candace Owens to sit front row. The political pundit has previously denounced BLM and claimed COVID was a scam.
During his opening speech, Kanye once again detailed his struggle as an underdog, claiming no one would touch this show because the brand was independent. But in reality, he cannot continue to choose whether he’s the victim or the bully. The constant jumping between portraying himself as hard-done-by by the industry, and freely bullying anyone he likes should they offer any views that oppose his own – as we have seen from his vicious social media attack turned in-person meet on Vogue editor-at-large Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, Supreme creative director Tremaine Emory, model and close-confidante of Johnson, Gigi Hadid, and the newest in a line of targets: the team at Balenciaga.
Kanye wants to silence negative discourse while being the poster boy for negative discourse. It is especially confusing given, despite his protestations to the contrary, Kanye West has largely been embraced by the fashion industry, so why couldn’t we just focus on what we were there to see? Perhaps it’s because, underneath it all, without the gimmicks and dangerous epithets, there isn’t much to see when it comes to Kanye’s fashion. Certainly not enough to keep me there: I left.
“Kanye has made his position clear. Now the industry must decide what it will do. Will we simply forget next time the YZY invite lands and assemble once more en masse? Will he have our attention, our platforms, our positions?”
In the cab on the ride home, the story of the emperor’s new clothes immediately sprung to mind. Kanye and his courtiers pretend he is wearing clothes because they do not wish to appear foolish. Did everyone not see the truth? Or were we, and will we still be, happy to go along with the group consensus, no matter the consequences?
Kanye has made his position clear. Now the industry must decide what it will do. Will we simply forget next time the YZY invite lands and assemble once more en masse? Will he have our attention, our platforms, our positions? I hope not. Because you cannot omit his message from his clothes. They are one and the same.