A common complaint among fashion insiders is that Fashion Week has grown into too much of a spectacle – more about Instagram clout and celebrity appearances and street style photographers than the art of the clothes. Many of those same tony insiders have mixed feelings about Kanye West, the rapper and designer who's point-blank refused to accept that he can't be part of their world. Today, he issued a clear reminder that he's so influential that no one can hope to ignore him and remain relevant.
Few Fashion Week spectacles could compare to West's presentation for his Yeezy Season 3 line, held on an unforgivingly frigid New York afternoon at Madison Square Garden – the arena where he last performed two sold-out nights in 2013 during his Yeezus tour. Staged in tandem with the premiere of his forthcoming album, The Life of Pablo, and broadcast in theaters worldwide as well as on Tidal, it was so ambitious an event that it threw off the Fashion Week schedule. (At least two designers, including Rihanna stylist Adam Selman, rescheduled their own shows in order not to compete.) The day ultimately clarified West's vision both as an artist and a cultural force at a time when fashion's desire to perch at the intersection of music has never been so acute.
That thirst is all about reaching the young, artistic, highly influential audience that flocks to everything Kanye does. Speedwalking into the arena as the doors opened at 3 p.m., they were sharp-looking bearded guys in MA-1 flight jackets and young women in "boxer braids" and furry coats, paying homage to looks that both Kanye and Kim Kardashian West are often seen wearing, reflecting the duo's cultural impact. Several lines coiled around the Garden's innards, packed with streetwear kids hoping to buy an item from an almost laughably tiny merchandise booth made of textured metal and giving the air of a super-secret taco truck that doubled as a nightclub. (Before the show, the line wait time was about an hour, according to one young fan who'd toughed it out. He bought a $90 maroon sweatshirt that read "I Feel Like Pablo" in Olde English script, but opted out on the $40 beanie.)
Barely any fashion event starts on time, so as showgoers trickled in, they were afforded the opportunity to contemplate an arena-sized sheet of olive-colored silk draped over what looked like a giant dome. Occasionally, a group of ushers fluffed the fabric so it ruffled in waves, but it soon became clear that it was not a visual callback to one of West's discarded album titles but a way to keep the cover from collapsing on the models stationed underneath. Art!
And then – a murmur, cheers, then full-on screams as the Kardashians arrived in a flurry of sherbet and snow-pristine fur coats, projections of baby North booming from the Jumbotron. Kanye emerged in that same Pablo sweatshirt and walked straight across the arena floor – the same ground where the Knicks lost a game by a hair two days before – to plug his own laptop directly into the soundboard. (Even from afar, you could imagine the white-haired soundguy suppressing a flinch.) "I'm about to play my new album," West announced. "If you like any of the new songs, feel free to dance."
By the first Kirk Franklin gospel round of Pablo opener "Ultra Light Beams," a woman in front of me was holding up her prayer hands, and the way the bass was configured on the MSG speakers fostered some kind of chill up the back of your skull. At the song's end, the olive silk peeled back to reveal two prosceniums of models wearing Yeezy Season 3, while a phalanx of extras stood bone-still beneath them, looking like lovely chysanthemums in shades of maroon and ochre – a more consistent palette than his last two collections, and one that read as sumptuous and pleasing, particularly beneath the heaven of a gospel choir.
As The Life of Pablo played, the models – presented, once again, as a performance by Italian conceptual artist Vanessa Beecroft – remained still and expressionless, yet the effect was that of total sensory overload, in a pleasing way. Choosing where to fix one's eye could be disorienting: on the hordes of twentysomethings delivering vehement rap head bops to the sub-bass, on the faraway Kardashians gleaming like ice cream cones, on the puffs of cigarette or weed smoke coming from the stands and the models, or on Kanye himself, clearly feeling the ecstasy of accomplishment as he and a throng of friends including G.O.O.D. Music president Pusha T formed a mosh pit?
Just when it became clear where to stare – at Kanye, of course, emanating his own joy – O.G. supermodel Naomi Campbell emerged on the platform in a black bodysuit and floor-length mink, striking slow, sensuous poses among her fellow models and smizing to kill. It was more than just a flex on West's part: his models seemed to be, from my vantage, 100% black, perhaps less a commentary on the painful lack of diversity in the fashion industry and more a reflection of unity and his mindstate during the creation of the album. (At the event's close, the models held up black power fists.)
West's desire to be both populist and high art is apparently confusing to some fashion and music critics, but he's spent his career coming up with new ways to meld the two seamlessly, consistently pursuing his vision toward new pinnacles. (Referencing Pablo Picasso, one of the world's most renowned fine artists, is a good example of that.) You could feel those parallel roads clicking at this event, a mind-blowing spectacle where West's aesthetic came into sharper focus. Fashion-wise, his garments for Adidas might seem like a simple celebration of neutrals and Lycra, but in this context, his penchant for military style design (accessorized with durags and wig caps) clicked: This is what warfare looks like for an artist who has often been backed into being on the defensive. As Frank Ocean's coo on "Wolves" rippled into the arena, the Jumbotron camera panned up to the face of a bored-looking model who'd long since sat down. (The rest of the models stood at rigid attention for at least an hour.) It appeared to be stylist and Kanye muse/disciple Ian Connor; he was wearing a lemon-colored jacket made of either fleece or shearling or fleece so luxurious it looked like shearling. As the camera focused in on him and the beats whirled, the musicality of the moment was overwhelming.