Social media is Kanye West's preferred pulpit these days, a place for the star to share updates on the progress of his latest album, The Life of Pablo (which he described as "living breathing changing creative expression"), declare the death of the compact disc ("no more CDs from me") and espouse Mr. Rogers–like positivity ("I think human beings can create a Utopia"). Last Thursday, his timeline featured a different kind of announcement — he planned to open a pop-up shop for Pablo merchandise in Soho over the weekend.
In the past, Kanye has presented himself as a warrior for equality in fashion, an underdog battling his way into an elite world and throwing the gates open behind him. "I'm only concerned with making beautiful products available to as many people as possible," he explained to Style.com in February 2015, adding "this is very much a Robin Hood approach that I have to making clothes." A few months later, he expanded on his clothing revolution in a conversation with the New York Times Magazine. "Right now, people use clothes to telegraph [class]," he noted. "I want to destroy that. The very thing that supposedly made me special — the jacket that no one could get, the direct communications with the designers — I want to give that to the world."
But Kanye also admitted that he hasn't reached Robin Hood status yet. "There's a transition," he continued. "I need to partake in what's of value and of quality and soul in order to understand it, in order to give it back."
The conflict between access and exclusivity was very much on display on Wooster Street in Soho on Saturday. I got in line around 2 p.m. The pair of teenagers behind me stayed in line until the pop-up shop closed its doors — with the help of a large squad of policemen — shortly after 8; the whole time, their conversation oscillated between expressions of frustration at this absurd ritual and reassurances that this was a small price to pay in order to get into the promised land of Pablo. "This is not worth it. Why won't he just put this stuff online?" Ten minutes later: "It'll be another three hours. But it'll be worth it."
In an attempt to make the throng's slog to Kanye's shopping nirvana orderly, prospective shoppers were herded from metal pen to metal pen like lambs to sartorial slaughter, gradually inching from the south side of Wooster to the north, crossing the street, and then filing another 50 yards back south to get into the hallowed doors of 83. "It's cow time," a man next to me declared as we shuffled along to the next barricaded section.
As the fashion faithful got closer to the store, what was once more or less a line became a tightly packed scrum. At key junctures, like when crossing the street at the top of Wooster, we were forced to collapse into a single-file line, which caused everyone to push forward at once. The police presence was heavy, adding a martial, somber air to the proceedings.
Perhaps because of this — or because the wait was long, the temperature was falling, and the stock inside the store was presumably diminishing at a rapid rate — the mood in line was subdued. Tensions flared as people jostled for position, and anxiety increased in direct correlation with the length of the wait and the density of the crowd. At least three different times, someone declared, "I'm never doing this again." But most people stayed.
A few moments stood out in the tedium. At one point, young kids in oversized Pablo sweatshirts riled up the crowd by handing out a few slices of free pizza. One teenage fan started jumping up and down and shouting Kanye's guest verse from Travis Scott's "Piss on Your Grave" as he got closer to the end of the line. "We 'bout to go ape/These streets is not safe!" he yelled. But no one went ape; everyone was too stupefied by the work of standing in line.
The woman next to me, a 29-year-old from the Bronx, was hoping to pick up two T-shirts, one for her and one for her boyfriend. Her boyfriend had told her not to bother waiting — he thought the quality of the shirts was subpar. But she was committed. "I feel like a teenager again," she said cheerfully. "I'm waiting for my favorite boy band." She had experience with lines like this: "This is nothing! When the cast came to sign copies of The Hunger Games — that was out of control." But after three hours in line, her hopes of getting the shirts were dimming. "I'll settle for a hat."
She was an outlier in a line dominated by young men. Though Kanye attacked Nike in "Facts," a song on The Life of Pablo, Nike gear was all over the crowd. Other popular brands included Supreme and Billionaire Boys Club. No one standing near me seemed to have a high opinion of the goods that they were waiting for. While they acknowledged that the Pablo bomber jacket was "fire," they thought the price was too high. The headgear was dubbed a "dad hat," they accused the hoodies of being Hanes, and the blue-and-orange color scheme of some shirts was more baseball than Pablo: "I ain't trying to buy Mets gear."
Still, we waited. A few minutes after 8 p.m., the bouncer told the police to let in the last 15 customers, so we all rushed forward, clear of the barricades at last. We were met by a line of cops, who allowed a few lucky shoppers to slip through — although not this reporter. "I got fucking responsibilities," Jason, who graduated from high school last year, complained just a few minutes before the final rush. "And I'm standing in line for a fucking hoodie."