This month, Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West, broke his lucrative partnership with Adidas and Gap, the brands that supported his fashion line, Yeezy. “Everyone knows that I’m the leader. I’m the king, right? So a king can’t live in someone else’s castle. A king has to make his own castle,” West declared, after the news went public that he had accused the company of breaching their contract. It wasn’t much of a surprise. It would be stranger if Ye were capable of maintaining a stable collaboration. The exception is his close friend Denma, the designer formerly known as Demna Gvasalia, who is the creative director of Balenciaga. Gvasalia was responsible for the creative direction of Donda, the rapper’s most recent album, as well as the now-defunct collaboration with GAP. On Sunday, Ye opened the Balenciaga show at Paris Fashion Week, decked out in the post-nuclear aesthetic that both enjoy.
On Monday, the rapper posted an Instagram photo – a mood board of various celebrities when they were young, including his ex-wife, Kim Kardashian – that sparked speculation that he was planning a secret runway show, this time without Adidas. It was true. At noon, Nick Knight, one of the most prestigious photographers in the world, posted the invitation to the show: a sort of white fetus in movement (perhaps linked to West’s anti-abortion views). The event would be available for viewing on Showstudio, the runway show streaming platform that Knight founded over a decade ago.
A secret location near the Arc de Triomphe brought together a hundred people who had received the invitation that morning. Among them were British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enniful; Russian model Irina Shayk, actor Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith), Zara CEO Marta Ortega, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and, in a rare public appearance, fashion designer John Galliano. Ye appeared onstage with a typically incendiary phrase: “You can’t manage me. This is an unmanageable situation.” “I want everyone to know that [Loouis Vuitton co-founder] Bernard Arnault is my new Drake,” he said, referring to the historic enmity between the two musicians. A children’s choir began singing gospel music. The children were members of the Donda academy, a controversial school the rapper founded a few months ago. A few years ago, Ye created Sunday Services, a sort of alternative Mass in which he preaches to a largely Black audience. The school was the next step in his strange indoctrination strategy.
But none of this was surprising. What did cause an impact was that Ye himself, and some of the Black and Asian models in the show, wore a t-shirt with an image of Pope John Paul II on the front and the phrase “White Lives Matter,” on the back – a slogan used by white supremacists in response to the anti-racist movement Black Lives Matter. Some of the attendees, like Jaden Smith and fashion editor Lynette Nylander, left. “It doesn’t matter what the intention was…it’s perception to the masses out of context, as well as the implication of the choir made up of children that all looked under 10. He knew what he was doing and it was harmful,” Nylander posted later.
Naomi Campbell, whose activism for racial equality has almost been as significant as her modeling career, closed the show. Michele Lamy, the wife and muse of Rick Owens, the designer that Ye idolizes, also walked the runwalk. Galliano, who was fired from Christian Dior after a video was leaked of him making anti-Semitic comments while drunk, was there too. Demna, who only 24 hours prior had used his Balenciaga show to spotlight issues such as refugee rights also there.
Several years ago, West shocked the world by wearing a hat with the pro-Trump “Make America Great Again” slogan. Shortly thereafter, he announced that he would run for president of the United States. But, as Vogue contributing editor Gabriella Karefah Johnson, who was also present at the Paris show, explained in an Instagram story: “He neglected to realize the importance of object, when he tried to extend that kind of subversion to the BLM slogan.” She explained: “It didn’t land and it was deeply offensive, violent and dangerous.”
What’s more, Ye was photographed at the show with Candace Owens, a pro-Trump commentator who is opposed to Black Lives Matter. This undermines the argument that the show was hinting at a world in which white people not the Black community are marginalized.
“It would be nice to swiftly dismiss the shirts as clout chasing. Another stunt to mess with the status quo, to ruffle feathers, to challenge. Depending on your viewpoint, the shirts are either dumb, flippant, or dangerous,” wrote Vogue columnist Raven Smith. “For me, they’re empowering right-wing ideology, further enabling its airtime when we should be stamping it out.”
Has Ye’s role as a provocative artist finally turned against him? The new Yeezy collection was created in collaboration with Shayne Oliver, the legendary cofounder of Hood By Air. Five years ago, the brand won praise for addressing with topics such as structural racism and gender stereotypes. The world may have been wondering for a while what happened to Ye, who was once one of the most talented hip-hop artists of his generation. Now, we should also ask what is happening to the fashion industry, which has spent years advocating for racial diversity.