Kanye West had a shitstorm on his hands. It was mid-September, and tensions had been brewing behind the scenes for months over both his Gap and Adidas partnerships. He was determined to wrestle back control of the empire he had created, feeling he had been excluded from key meetings and alleging his designs had been blatantly ripped off by his business partners.
Inside a bustling Los Angeles showroom, where staffers would work up to 15-hour days and could be fired by West on a whim, the rapper focused his attention on preparing for Paris Fashion Week at the start of October, where he planned to show what would become his ill-fated and inflammatory Yeezy Season 9 collection. West was going through designs of apparel that featured heavy hoods, tight snoods, and face-covering masks when he casually remarked that “skinheads and Nazis were his greatest inspiration,” a Yeezy employee in the room tells Rolling Stone.
One former senior Adidas executive with Yeezy tells Rolling Stone comments like these were something they had heard before from West. (Recent reports from CNN and NBC alleged that Yeezy staffers heard West praise Hitler and use antisemitic language. At least two employees allegedly received settlements from West, including one over workplace complaints.)
At the time, the Yeezy staffer says they disregarded the skinhead-and-Nazi comment, feeling like they understood West’s artistic vision. “It’s a point of inspiration for him because I think there’s so much pain that comes from that place, especially for Black people,” the staffer says. “The minute he turns it around, uses it, [and] puts himself in a position of making money off of it, I feel like he does something to it — he takes ownership over it.” Still, the staffer felt West didn’t always know how to accurately express his vision, or simply didn’t care enough to elaborate his thought process to others.
The remark was only a hint of what would come in subsequent weeks. Two Yeezy employees tell Rolling Stone about the conversations that would turn into the controversial “White Lives Matter” T-shirts. Before leaving for Paris, the working idea was for the shirt to have a message that touched on race along the lines of “We Are Niggerish,” one of the sources claims.
“It was definitely supposed to be something that called on race,” the staffer explains, a sentiment that leaned toward “making fun of white people.” “White Lives Matter [and] Candace Owens in combination just made it political, and just stupid,” the staffer adds.
West’s White Lives Matter stunt in Paris would kick off a tumultuous six-week period where he lost both his billionaire status and the respect of fashion and music industry peers over his continued antisemitic comments. At the end of his scorched-earth mission — which saw West aligning himself even further with right-wing polemicists like Owens and Tucker Carlson — he finally got what he apparently wanted: He gained full control over Yeezy going forward when Adidas and Gap cut him loose.
Despite repeated attempts, Rolling Stone could not reach West for comment. He no longer has a publicist; his high-profile attorney dropped him as a client in October; his most recent assistant confirmed they no longer work for him; his head of media and partnerships left prior to Paris Fashion Week; and because he is no longer signed with Def Jam, West appears to have no label representative. Adidas did not return a request for comment.
His anger at us in everyday interactions was just inappropriate, and honestly an HR nightmare.
The musician’s public antics lifted the veil on what nearly two dozen former Yeezy, Adidas, and Gap collaborators and staffers — from entry level workers to executives — describe to Rolling Stone as a chaotic clusterfuck and a toxic and “abusive” work environment at Yeezy.
What seemed like a dream job on paper — working for a passionate founder who championed creativity, a seemingly endless stream of money, and rubbing shoulders with world-class musicians, designers, and creatives — was derailed by abrupt firings and rolling layoffs, intimidation and humiliation tactics, and a cult-like atmosphere where sycophancy thrived, sources claim.
“His anger at us in everyday interactions was just inappropriate, and honestly an HR nightmare,” one Adidas Yeezy designer says.
“How he is on social media is exactly how he’s like with employees,” an Adidas Yeezy senior member adds.
Staffers claim the hours were brutal – 12-to-15-hour days were the norm – all while navigating West’s eccentricities and on-the-fly demands, such as packing up an entire office on one day’s notice only to move again the next day.
West was not only at the center of the storm, but the creator of the madness. “He thrives off of chaos,” one employee who worked for Yeezy in 2020 says. “He needs that around to keep him hungry and motivated and all this other stuff.”
Nearly all of the sources requested anonymity for this article, citing both extensive NDAs and West’s alleged penchant for retaliation. (The company sued an intern for $500,000 in 2021 for breaching the agreement when he posted confidential photos to his Instagram. Yeezy ultimately withdrew the case.)
WEST HAS ALWAYS CRAVED being part of fashion’s elite inner circle, taking a break between 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak and 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to intern at Fendi and trying at least three times to start his own fashion line. But partnering with Adidas for a sneakers and apparel deal in 2013 — his first model Yeezy Boost 750 sold out almost instantly in early 2015 — ended up being West’s ticket to the elusive in-group and amassed him billions. (Forbes estimated that the Adidas deal bumped up the rapper’s net worth by $1.5 billion.)
After inking the contract, West assembled an all-star apparel team, luring people away from established fashion houses to work for his then-fledgling brand, sources say. West was clear on his vision, eager to learn, placed an enormous value on skill, involved in every step of the production process, and was obsessed with the smallest, most technical design details as well as the overall creative process of conceiving a collection.
“He definitely surrounds himself with a lot of very creative people, and it’s very cool to be around,” says a former staffer from this year. “I think he has a real keen understanding of when shit works or [what] people like — he can recognize that in a pretty impressive way.”
“Everything he’s trying to do is very outside of the box,” another explains. “As a creator, he’s the best. However good he is at music, he brings the same level of execution and focus to every part of his work.”
”When you work for somebody with that much vision and that much money, you really can make incredible change,” one contractor who worked for Yeezy in 2019 says. But it was also “both the worst job I’ve ever had and the best job I’ve ever had, concurrently,” they add. “Everything he does is a giant mess of vacuuming up all of people’s time — just consuming their entire lives and then the output just gets left on the side of the road somewhere.”
Despite West’s enthusiasm and creativity, troubles at Yeezy became apparent quickly. A former early Yeezy staffer noted it took roughly 18 months to pull off the first Yeezy collection due to West constantly changing his mind over designs. “It was the most hectic and chaotic experience of my life [and] career,” the former staffer says.
When West’s clothing collection finally debuted in early 2015, Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour gave the stamp of approval by appearing at the brand’s first showing at New York Fashion Week. The rest of the industry fell in line, and top magazine editors and fashion week organizers scrambled to accommodate West’s spur-of-the-moment showings in already jam-packed schedules.
Yeezy aimed to be the intersection of affordable wearable pieces and high-quality material — an elevated streetwear brand that would cater to the masses. “If someone was to say, ‘Hey, do you want to go to a high-end house now,’ I’d absolutely say no,” he said after his first collection showing. “I’m only concerned with making beautiful products available to as many people as possible… Everyone should have the good life.”
I think he has a real keen understanding of when shit works or [what] people like — he can recognize that in a pretty impressive way.
Still, some apparel staffers felt that while West’s ambition was undeniable, his collections could border on elementary or a weak spin on whatever European fashion house he was fawning over. “If I wasn’t fresh out of school and thirsty for work, I would have never taken the [job],” one contractor who worked on the first season says. “I never understood his vision nor found it relevant; he lacked holistic vision and education in terms of apparel, design, and construction.”
“I think he doesn’t trust himself,” another former Yeezy employee adds. “The designers would gossip. With music, he’s so sure-footed, but with design, it wasn’t the same. He loves it; he wants to do it. It was like second-guessing [himself] because he’s entering a world he’s not formally trained [in].”
Although reviews of Yeezy collections sometimes hovered around mediocre — many criticized the lack of evolution and repeated themes in his collections — its cultural impact is unassailable, particularly its footwear. The Yeezy line, encompassing both footwear, apparel, and accessories, is a rainmaker, lining Adidas’ pockets with $1.8 billion in yearly sales, according to a Bloomberg report that estimated the partnership accounted for more than 40 percent of the sportswear giants’ overall profits.
WEEKS BEFORE West was about to show his first collection, he was at his studio space with his team, a talented crew of designers and apparel-makers that had been lured away from Europe’s top fashion houses. And, as West often did, he was playing his own music through the studio’s speakers.
After someone suggested he play something else, West looked around the room, landing on a nearby Yeezy employee and asking them what he should play. The staffer, who leaned more punk and rock than hip-hop, tells Rolling Stone they were caught off-guard and fumbled for an answer. “I thought, ‘Oh, he’s a rapper, I should probably mention some rap,’” the early staffer tells Rolling Stone. The staffer landed on Drake. “Big mistake — the next day I was fired,” the former staffer claims.
Abrupt firings were the norm at Yeezy, with staffers all describing the office as a revolving door of talent. There were also random mass layoffs. One staffer says they were laid off right before the Gap deal was announced, only to be offered their job back five times in the space of a few weeks.
These sudden and seemingly baseless firings led to employees feeling like their jobs were in constant jeopardy. Every day felt like an audition for their current job, two Yeezy sources describe. Anything could set West off, sources say, and the reasons could be as innocuous as wearing the wrong color.
Yeezy’s main office space was eventually established in Calabasas, with creative director and designer Willo Perron Yeezy-fying a 1970s office building into a large, modern workspace. Staffers describe the campus as a high-energy creative hub, with musicians and producers passing through, Adidas executives stopping by to check on shoe lines, designers working on various Yeezy seasons, and other creatives taking meetings with West for his numerous other projects.
“The beautiful part of working there, you’re upstairs at your corporate job and you can hear this big artist record an album below you,” says one former staffer. “It makes you excited.”
Employees dressed in Yeezy-esque streetwear style, which one Adidas Yeezy senior member described as a borderline mandatory dress code. “You start to see amongst the designers, when they joined the team, they don’t look like [everyone else], but two months into the team, they all started to dress the same, because that’s how Kanye prefers it,” the Adidas Yeezy senior member explains.
Upon entering the Calabasas office, West would document his team members’ outfits, snapping photos in the security office like a school picture day, according to three sources. Some believed the practice was a harmless way for West to draw inspiration, but there could be consequences if West didn’t find what they were wearing to his taste.
West allegedly told a top creative who turned up in a yellow sweater they needed to “dress for the palette or you dress in black.” The company then fired the employee, a Yeezy executive claims. A designer who wore a gray T-shirt was forced to leave a product review for the offending color, another senior team member says. Even the Adidas Yeezy senior staffer recalls being given a vague directive from a manager to “be mindful” of what they wore after turning up to the studio in normal, non-Yeezy-like clothes.
Nearly all Yeezy, Adidas, and Gap sources describe working for West as pure and utter mayhem, while a few former staffers say they relished the fast-paced nature. Hours were brutal, employees claim. “We [didn’t] leave unless Kanye leaves,” one says. “Nobody wanted anything to go wrong while Kanye was there because your job obviously could be in jeopardy if a mega-superstar is there and the printer doesn’t work.”
“There was no space to have a life,” a former contractor explains, adding that they felt West “expects them to work like he works.” “So, you’re always, always, always at work,” the former contractor says.
“There is a business term called VUCA: volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity. That’s a type of culture at a company when it is so hard to navigate the day-to-day,” an Adidas Yeezy employee explains. “You don’t show up at 8 a.m., have your coffee while you’re checking emails, and have a steady-paced day. It’s, ‘Oh my god, you have an hour to get ready for a flight to Wyoming, you have to be there within three hours, and you have to have a whole presentation for him when he flies over at 1 a.m. after his show.’”
Everything he does is a giant mess of vacuuming up all of people’s time — just consuming their entire lives and then the output just gets left on the side of the road somewhere.
Hectic work schedules aside, West upheaved days by suddenly pivoting to a new idea. A member of the sales team in Paris recalls turning up to the showroom in 2016 with the entire collection missing from the space because West allegedly decided he no longer wanted to do wholesale. It was just another day of working for West. “Kanye changed his mind a lot, and the whole team had to jump around and make it work,” the sales team member says.
Prototypes that had been in the works for months were flippantly scrapped, and it could take up to two years for a shoe design to be fully developed. West’s music device Stem Player, which was released this spring alongside his album Donda, had been “ready to go, way long ago” but faced significant delays due to West firing key team members and West changing his mind, says one staffer.
He could change his mind about his office spaces just as easily. After establishing the luxury Perron-designed Calabasas office, complete with a 16-page spread in architectural magazine PIN UP in early 2018, two Yeezy employees claim that West wanted to establish a new HQ in Chicago. Staffers were expected to make the move immediately.
But a few months later, West decided to stay put in Los Angeles, despite now lacking an office space. Some employees transferred to an Adidas base, while others worked out of a chilly storage space owned by West. It wasn’t for long. West made his new home base in Cody, Wyoming, where he had purchased neighboring 4,000- and 6,000-acre ranches in 2019.
By summer 2020, a few months after the pandemic took hold, the rural landscape became the new Yeezy campus. Sleek office furniture, large machinery and 3D printers were plucked from the Calabasas space and delivered to the outpost. In total, around 90 staffers either temporarily moved there or commuted into Wyoming via a private plane that departed weekly early Monday morning and returned Friday night. The plane ferried members of his apparel and footwear teams, music producers, architectural crew, and, as one source recalls, award-winning artist James Turrell into the ranch.
The kitchen sink of creatives turning up on West’s doorstep meant roles could bleed into each other. West encouraged visiting musicians to pitch ideas for the apparel line and clothing designers for their thoughts on aspects of Sunday Service. West also had lofty expectations on deliverables. “With him, it’s just that the timeline that’s normally bonkers is even more bonkers,” says one former employee from the Cody ranch days.
Two staffers claim they stayed up all night following one of West’s brainstorms to come up with a 3D model of a shoe. Like many other ideas West dreamed up, nothing came of the design. Instead, he just shared it on social media for what the team felt was mere bragging points.
“It was all just an act,” one staffer says. “A way for him to say, ‘Look at what we’re doing at Yeezy! It’s so innovative. Look at this shoe! It’s made out of 50-percent recycled material! You can hike in it! You can swim in it!’ But it was never gonna happen — like, we can’t physically make this.”
There was almost a cult-like atmosphere around West from the way people were expected to dress, with the artist surrounding himself with “yes men” and sycophants, sources say. “You have to constantly agree with him and it’s hard. It’s hard to work that way,” says one former early staffer.
One Yeezy employee from 2020 describes an atmosphere of shrewd politicking, with everyone vying for West’s ear and trying to curry favor — and not lose their position.“Everyone’s always on the verge of losing their job, so the dynamics are total chaos,” the former employee explains. “He doesn’t necessarily have people that he can trust around him.”
West seemed to admit as much. In mid-October, while in the thick of the fallout from his White Lives Matter shirts and subsequent antisemitic remarks, he appeared on a podcast hosted by MIT research scientist Lex Fridman. Fridman asked West point-blank if he had anyone he could trust. “No, I trust God,” West responded flatly. “If I go and really treat this guy like a piece of shit, am I supposed to trust him to be loyal and stay in the situation? No, I trust people to be people, and people are flawed.”
The conversation quickly got heated, and West declared he doesn’t need anyone to “call him out on his bullshit.” Fridman tried to wind down the topic by encouraging West to find a trusted adviser. “Don’t tell me what I should do!” West said, raising his voice.
Yeezy staffers agree that West didn’t seem to have a longstanding trusted inner circle, with people flitting in and of his orbit, creating a disorganized environment where there was no reliable structure.
An early Yeezy staffer recalls West bringing in top apparel-makers, but failing to give anyone a clear role. “It was just pure chaos,” the early staffer says. “There was no structure; no one knew who the boss was, other than Kanye.”
One Yeezy contractor compared West treating his company to how he’d produce an album: parachuting in a variety of collaborators to create music, who would then depart when the song was complete. While that process might have earned West 24 Grammys, it doesn’t work for building a successful and stable company, the contractor theorizes.
“The biggest issue is that he doesn’t appear to have high-level operational people that he trusts,” the contractor explains. “Without the operational backbone, no company can really exist for a super long time. You can’t build a multi-billion-dollar brand without an operations director who stays in the job for more than six months … He needs professionals that don’t give a shit that he’s Kanye West.”
A lot of us were very uncomfortable with it. It was professionally frustrating for everybody who had worked really hard and then for the talk of the whole thing to be the shirt.
Many point to the lack of structure at Yeezy as one of its core problems. “We would call it ‘the billion-dollar startup’ because it truly felt like a startup and a mess,” says one staffer.
Payment was an ongoing issue, former staffers say, with some going months without seeing any money hit their bank accounts and others having to borrow money from family members until they got paid. One says they went on a “mini-strike” until funds were in hand. Two sources with knowledge of the current situation at Yeezy say that there are still employees and collaborators waiting to be paid.
A long-term former Yeezy member suggests that West used withholding approval of payment as a form of “revenge” against Adidas’ corporate demands. “I’m not sure he ever realized that people in his orbit weren’t getting paid,” the former long-term staffer says. “I think he just thought, ‘I’m not approving this stuff because I’m pissed for XYZ, so I’m just gonna put a halt on whatever [Adidas] bring[s] to us for payment.’ I really don’t know that he ever looked deep enough to know that it was affecting his own people.”
YEEZY STAFFERS FELT THE TENSION during the height of the public breakdown with his Gap and Adidas business deals. With the Gap deal, two Yeezy Gap staffers describe feeling like a child caught in the middle of two parents on the brink of divorce. “It was laughable,” says one member of the Gap Yeezy team. “Obviously you guys are on completely two different ends; you’re not getting along. This is a dysfunctional marriage.”
“I just felt like I was working between two companies,” adds a Yeezy Gap contractor, saying that Gap was very concerned with budget, while West’s team focused on creativity.
West’s frustrations with Adidas were also palpable. “It was kind of a weird yin and yang,” an Adidas Yeezy employee says. “There was always this sense of [Kanye] wanting to leave [Adidas] because he felt like if he left that partnership, then he would be in control completely of his designs and his portion of the work that he did for them…. the threatening: ‘I can do this without you, so drop me if you want,’” another Adidas staffer adds.
But West first set his sights on cutting ties with Gap via a letter to the board demanding for the deal to be terminated. Over at the hybrid Yeezy Gap office space, two sources say that West demanded everyone pack up their work and belongings because they were moving offices that day.
It led to a cinematic scene of employees scrambling to accommodate the sudden move. “[West’s team] ordered the moving truck, and everything was being brought to a location in the [Los Angeles’] Arts District,” one staffer says. “Everything, like sewing machines, the whole interior space, all the fabrics, everything. We moved to that space, and he didn’t like it. So then we moved again; like, one day later, everything moved to another space.”
During the haphazard move, the source says, the company lost fabrics, and Gap had locked a hard drive that contained all the patterns they had in development. West was still set on showing a collection at Paris Fashion Week, meaning every team was scrambling to make apparel and footwear without the blessing of Adidas and Gap. “There were all these contracts up in the air at the time,” one says. “All the things that he wasn’t allowed to do because of his contracts with Gap and Adidas. There was a whole list of things that he wasn’t able to do under the Yeezy name, but then nobody cared about that at that point.”
The show somehow came together, but Yeezy team members say they were caught off-guard when West turned up with the White Lives Matter shirts. “It was like, ‘What the fuck?’” one recalls. “It was definitely a topic of conversation among everyone. A lot of us were very uncomfortable with it. It was professionally frustrating for everybody who had worked really hard and then for the talk of the whole thing to be the shirt.”
Two recent former Yeezy workers speculate that West’s downward spiral could have been designed to ensure he’d be so radioactive that Adidas and Gap would fold and call off their contracts. But it also could have just been a symptom of West’s pride and ego, the two sources say. “There is always an element of control with him, and you feel like all these moves are deliberate, but then there’s also the element where you feel like, ‘Ah, no, there is no control right now,” one says.
Business litigation attorney Mark Brutzkus, of Stubbs Alderton & Markiles, tells Rolling Stone he wouldn’t be surprised if West sues Adidas over ownership designs that were developed while the partnership was still in place. “[Adidas is] staking claim to the designs, which was one of the fights that [West] was having with Adidas because he felt they were knocking them off and using it with non-Yeezy products in their brands,” Brutzkus says. (During Adidas’ Q3 earnings call on Wednesday, the company confirmed it would continue selling Yeezys under a new brand name, saying it owned “all design rights” to existing products.)
And despite Adidas projecting a $251 million loss on its 2022 net income for severing the deal, Larry DiMatteo, a business law professor at the University of Florida and former editor in chief of the American Business Law Journal, says he doesn’t envision either Adidas or Gap successfully winning a case against West for a loss of profits.
It leaves the future of Yeezy unclear. While West hasn’t given any clues on his next moves, he was reportedly escorted off Skechers’ headquarter grounds in late October for being “engaged in unauthorized filming” after turning up “unannounced and uninvited.” Last week, he declared on Twitter he was taking a 30-day cleanse, fasting from talking, booze, sex, and porn. (Minutes later, he fired off a series of tweets criticizing his former personal trainer.)
Former Yeezy staffers are doubtful on whether West will be able to support his once billion-dollar brand without the backing of larger corporations to keep things in line, nor repair his personal image from the damage of his antisemitic remarks. As one Adidas Yeezy senior team member put it, “Nothing has ever compared to the amount of chaos, the amount of stress and [the amount of] anxiety you go through working for Yeezy.”