Thanks for the music: The creative bond between the fashion industry and pop stars reaches new heights

In today’s era of spectacle and entertainment, a new commercial approach reflects a new focus on profitability

Pharrell Williams
Louis Vuitton welcomed singer and music producer Pharrell Williams as its new Men’s Creative Director in June 2023.Julien de Rosa (AFP / Getty Imag

No one remembers (or wants to remember) that moment anymore, but we should, as it marked the beginning of a significant change in the fashion industry. In a 2013 radio interview in New York, Kanye West spoke boldly, “They think I don’t know the power I have — they have no idea what I’m willing to do!” The interview was for West to promote his new album, Yeezus, but the conversation quickly digressed to his fashion ventures, including collaborations with Nike and Margiela. He then said he tried numerous times to meet with the CEO of Louis Vuitton, but only received an “unbelievably arrogant” response. ”He said, ‘I don’t understand why I should meet with you.’ Well, I’m going to explain why you need to meet with me. People of New York — stop buying Louis Vuitton right now. Do you want to meet me now?” The boycott didn’t amount to much, but it apparently stirred something in the world’s most popular luxury brand.

The artist now known as Ye didn’t mention any names. Reporters later identified Yves Carcelle as the offending executive, but it was actually Michael Burke, who played a pivotal role in the brand’s second golden age. Burke spearheaded the Louis Vuitton collaboration with Supreme that sparked a frenzy for luxury streetwear in 2017, and appointed Virgil Abloh as Men’s Creative Director, a position that West coveted. Burke and West first met in 2009 at Fendi, when Burke was executive director and West and Abloh were both interns there. A few months earlier, West was on the verge of launching Pastelle, his first foray into the fashion world, when he grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift onstage at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and told the world that his friend Beyoncé deserved the award for Best Female Video. The Pastelle project (which also involved Abloh) never got off the ground, and both went off to lick their wounds at Fenti. How they managed to worm their way into Karl Lagerfeld’s company in Rome remains a mystery. But what followed is now part of history.

West went on to partner with Adidas to launch the Yeezy clothing and sneaker line. Meanwhile, Abloh found an outlet for his talents as a designer with Off-White, a brand that bridged urban youth culture and luxury. Pharrell Williams deserves much of the credit for landing the job at Louis Vuitton, but a little should go to Ye. “This goes beyond fashion — Louis Vuitton is now a people’s brand,” said Williams after the February announcement of his new position as Men’s Creative Director at LVMH. It represented the fulfillment of a long-held hip hop dream: to triumph in a place typically associated with white privilege. It’s an ambition that traces back to the 1980s when rappers sought out Dapper Dan, the renowned Harlem tailor.

Ever since then, rap artists and bands have wanted to extend their street lyrics into the clothing industry. And not just rappers — pop/rock celebrities like Madonna and Gwen Stefani also recognized the commercial potential in their massive fanbases. “Fashion and music hold the power to quietly shape and mirror cultural norms. They not only define and unite distinct groups, but act as fundamental pillars of social identity,” wrote Aram Sinnreich and Marissa Gluckin Music & Fashion: The Balancing Act between Creativity and Control (2005). Ventures like Rocawear brought together Jay-Z and Damon Dash in a groundbreaking commercial licensing revolution that generated over $700 million. Another example is P. Diddy’s collaboration with Sean John, a fashion lifestyle company he established in 1998 with Jeffrey Tweedy, a former executive at Ralph Lauren. In May, Diddy made an appearance at the Met Gala to pay homage to Lagerfeld and announced the comeback of his men’s luxury brand.

Current hip hop figures are traveling the roads paved by earlier pioneers. Tyler, the Creator’s influential Golf Wang streetwear brand now has a premium counterpart called Golf le Fleur, which recently launched its first perfume. Playboi Carti’s dark Narcissist brand is also making a splash, as is rapper Ice Spice, who has become a style icon with a collection that even includes thongs. The fashion industry is taking notice, and LVMH recently partnered with Rihanna’s Fenty brand. Rihanna made history as the first woman of color to launch an original brand with the prestigious French luxury group. While her ready-to-wear collection didn’t thrive in 2021, the lingerie and cosmetics lines have been successful. Fenty x Puma, the sportswear–meets–fashion label collaboration between Puma and the global superstar, is also making a comeback. Beyoncé, however, has had less success with her couture label and is now focusing on collaborations, including one with Balmain.

This year has witnessed an unprecedented surge of musicians diving into the world of luxury fashion. We’ve seen Dua Lipa collaborate with Versace and rapper Future taking charge of Lanvin Lab. It’s a strategic move to transform products into cultural experiences, reflecting the fashion industry’s new focus on profit. It aligns with their aim to engage the younger generation, which values inclusivity and genuine content that defines brand narratives. A 2021 study by the Boston Consulting Group found that young consumers are shaping their preferences and buying decisions by exploring stories on social media. They closely follow style influencers, pop idols and urban trends, placing them above other forms of fame and fortune. It’s no surprise that the fashion industry owes a big debt of gratitude to music.

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