When Kanye West, a rapper who transformed a decade of pop dynamics with a few songs, promises you a revolution, you might actually have reason to believe him. He was his own best hype man, attempting to goad the imagemaking industry into believing he would singlehandedly evolve it with his debut womenswear collection, Dw.
Of course, fashion folk are cynical. Celebrity-centric clothing lines are nothing new, nor have many collections, even from established masters of the craft, truly revolutionized. Still, while no one invested literally in West's lush optimism, they did expect more than he gave them in Paris earlier this month – a collection universally dismissed as a flat-footed pastiche. Failing to deliver upon his astronomical promise in his new venture, West endured the barbs without (much) drama, and is returning focus to his métier, music, announcing that he's already working on a compilation for his G.O.O.D. Music imprint.
In the meantime, fashion reflects upon his sartorial fallout. The reviews are sobering, but they also open a dialogue about what we have come to expect from celebrity clothing lines. Was Kanye's failure on the runway really so spectacular, or only in relation to his otherwise sparkling output?
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"The biggest problem with Kanye’s line was the level of expectation attached to it," explains Alyx Gorman, fashion editor of The Vine. "He had some of the most talented designers in the world working with him, and near-unlimited resources, and he’d spent years as a fashion fanboy. People expected something that was legitimately groundbreaking." The industry's hope for Dw was reasonable enough, given West's credibility as an overall aesthete; the stakes were further raised through his own hypemongering and the daring luxury price point he instated for the line. Dw will command Chanel or Fendi rates at retail; no other celebrity has attemped this. Even The Row, helmed by Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen, and DVB, Victoria Beckham's line, don't generally charge anywhere near as much. Interestingly, they could afford to – they happen to be the best-regarded in the pool of celebrity-driven labels.
Understandably, some might find the success of those two lines surprising. Unlike West, neither party seems endowed with the sui generis quality of an innovator. Victoria Beckham's post-Spice Girls legacy as a tabloid queen first and solo artist far second does her credibility no favors. And the Olsens are a peculiar artifact of American media – people are curious about them as reflectors of their own passing youth, but few know how to evaluate them as adult entrepeneurs. But even if Beckham and the Olsens are not creators, they are curators with impeccable taste; these are women long-hailed as fashion icons, giving them some license to mass-market their own wardrobe visions. And while they hire teams to design and produce their lines, they also influence the process, skillfully editing the final result. Conversely, West, overwhelmed with ideas, managed to convolute his debut collection's vision considerably, according those who witnessed its creation.
It was obvious in the line's lack of direction. "Editing is probably one of the more important things a designer has to do," says Out assistant editor Max Berlinger. "One clear, fully fleshed-out idea is much more powerful and potent than a dozen half-baked ones." West, with years of front-row voyeurism fueling his ideas, was probably hoping to wow his audience with variety, without realizing how much harder it is to be eclectic and cohesive on the runway than on an album. Calling his show a "mélange," Gorman says: "It owed too much to the labels he loved." Harsh, but fair: unlike with his albums, there was very little on the runway that felt distinct.
West could take a few cues from Beckham. Her DVB collections provide a strong design perspective and focus, which is why it thrives both in the reviews section and at retail. People know what to expect with DVB – amazing, form-fitting little dresses and lithe accessories. In other words, looks that capture the essence of Beckham's own style without caricaturizing it. "Other celebrities rely on lazy, diluted, cartoonish versions of their personal style or persona," says Ana Finel Honigman, who covers fashion and art for Interview, The New York Times, and The Guardian. "But Beckham's collections are serious – they are remarkably less flashy, camera-catching and status-seeking than her public image."
Gallery: Kanye West's Debut Womensear Collection
Similar to DVB, The Row is not a persona-driven label. It successfully fills a simple but endless void: high-quality basics for women with an eye for the finer details of silhouette and tailoring. These are fit points that the Olsens learned as small-framed teenagers interested in enhancing their petite proportions. Honigman hails The Row for its "integrity," while Gorman calls the identical twins "the perfect spokeswomen for their aesthetic." But the line doesn't depend on their celebrity to succeed: "Women who didn’t grow up with [them] still want to wear their clothes," Gorman says. "I think because they were child stars, there’s this general feeling that they really always wanted to be fashion designers, and acting was just an incidental, something that helped them get to where they wanted to be. They feel like fashion people."
To his credit, West is keenly aware of, and celebrates, the dynamics of this crowd: they share a special vernacular, one that extolls a precision-cut armhole and can justify the existence of a $39,000 alligator backpack. When The Row released the latter, it sold out, making CNN headlines. "They made an anti-It bag the It bag," says Kelley Hoffman, a contributing editor at Elle. Beckham also offered a popular $29,000 bag for DVB's accessories line. Both mimic the success of Hermès Birkin bags, in spite of the recession. West, with his line's extreme cost, optimistically courted this potential.
But he would be unwise to attempt such consumer demands right now. The Row only offered a couture-level item after establishing themselves as viable players in the luxury game and cementing an exceptional quality standard. Whereas when West presented last month, even design's cardinal virtues – fit and basic construction, for example – went awry for him, as many critics decried. "The collection literally looked like the clothes kids craft straight on their Barbies from random scraps of material," says Honigman. To be fair, tailoring issues come up far too often on the runway. Even a trained eye can miscalculate a seam. Berlinger agrees fit was a distinct if manageable issue for West. "[Those are] ultimately technical issues and could be dealt with easily with the right team in place," he says.
Overall, no one believes West should quit his runway dreams after one failed attempt. Other musicians-turned-designers have let their craft grow legs over time. Gwen Stefani's L.A.M.B. label debuted to lackadaisical reviews in 2005, but has since proven to be a commercial hit. Her show this past September created a human traffic jam at Lincoln Center. Her secret? Being herself – and knowing others want to be like her. "Gwen’s style is a little costume-y. But that’s fine, because there are a lot of people who are really interested in that and want to dress like that," says Gorman. "Being kitschy and costume-y makes you money, it shifts units. It’s just more likely to land you in Cosmo than Vogue." Honigman agrees: "She seems happy to court a mainstream audience rather than woo more intellectually-rigorous editors and insiders."
Stefani's L.A.M.B. is also unapologetically musical. The singer's lyrics appear on the clothing, and their very purpose seems to be to lead the wearer to the nearest club or concert venue. Since West seemingly wanted his clothing to do the same, L.A.M.B. might be the best template for him to shadow. Unlike Beckham and the Olsens, he seems unwilling to detach his star from his clothing label. Following Stefani's lead, he wouldn't have to.
There's a crucial difference between West and the leading celebrity labels, of course: no matter how commendable his personal style, West is a man designing for a woman. Whereas female style icons-turned-designers have an honest knack for knowing what women want to look like, West has only the women of his "beautiful dark twisted fantasy" to dress up in his visions.
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