On Monday, Kanye West debuted the Yeezy Season 9 collection to an invite-only crowd of celebrities and insiders at Paris Fashion Week. During the show, he unveiled a t-shirt bearing a photo of Pope John Paul II on the front and, inexplicably, the phrase “White Lives Matter” on the back. “We changed the look of fashion over the last 10 years. We are the streets. We are the culture,” Ye said during an extended preamble to the show. “And when it comes to the culture, I am Ye, and everyone knows I am the leader.”
The responses to the ill-conceived design suggest otherwise. Almost immediately, reports of prominent names in entertainment and fashion walking out of the show surfaced online, and Ye’s method of unleashing invective at detractors via Instagram quickly backfired. Following a string of posts slamming veteran fashion editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, who described the shirt as an “incredibly irresponsible and dangerous act,” as well as posts claiming that LVMH was somehow connected to the passing of Virgil Abloh, Tremaine Emory, founder of the brand Demin Tears and the current creative director at Supreme, took to Instagram to publicly condemn West. “I gotta draw the line at you using Virgil’s death in your ‘ye’ is the victim campaign in front your sycophant peanut algorithm gallery,” he wrote in a caption on Tuesday.
All of this arrives as Kanye, in his own words, prepares for “war.” Over what exactly remains unclear. Many of the people Ye might have expected to fight alongside him are as fed up with him as his so-called enemies. In an interview with Esquire, his longtime collaborator Kid Cudi remarked on the pair’s soured relationship. “I’m at a place in my life where I have zero tolerance for the wrong energies,” he said. “I’ve watched so many people throughout the years that are close to him be burned by him doing some fucked-up shit.”
Now, even the types of young creatives who might’ve once seen Kanye as a hero are beginning to speak out. Emerging designers who say that after they met with Kanye and his team, their work was lifted without their knowledge.
In the weeks before conservative pundit Candace Owens posed for photos alongside West in his “White Lives Matter” t-shirt — the two appearing like athletes sporting a cursed team mascot — Kanye was busy teasing the launch of YZY SHDZ. Originally planned as part of his Yeezy Gap collection, the sleek frameless sunglasses were already becoming iconic thanks Ye’s bevy of famous spokespeople. Everyone from Steve Lacy to Lil Uzi Vert and Anna Wintour have been photographed wearing the reflective, wrap-around shades. During New York Fashion Week, a handful of influencers and micro-influencers alike were reportedly invited to take selfies wearing the glasses in a Ye-designed photo booth as part of a marketing campaign.
Francisco Mateo Baca, who also goes by Franky Baca, says he believes someone from Ye’s team “borrowed” his concept for the sunglasses. Baca says he worked on his own versions of the product for around two years before he shared images of samples online late last year, not long after producer and designer Digital Nas reached out to him about working with Kanye. “He says, ‘Yo, I want to come look at all of the clothes. I’m working under Ye with music and design. He’s looking for designers, and I want to bring you in.’” Baca recalls.
From there, it appeared to be a dream come true. Baca says he was eventually invited, twice, to Kanye’s Sunday Service performances in L.A., and eventually got to speak briefly to Ye backstage. He exchanged contact information with the team and says he showed Kanye’s manager a few projects, not including the sunglasses. “I’m talking to their creatives and stuff and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is nice. We love this.’ They were telling me, ‘Yeah, Ye’s going to love this.’ So I was like, ‘All right, cool.’ And then, next thing I know, I see pictures of my glasses design on social media.”
Baca’s designs do share a resemblance to the YZY SHDZ. Both are frameless and more the size of a bandana than traditional sunglasses. Both feature similarly shaped material held on by an adjustable strap. “I was like, ‘well, am I going to stop doing it?’ Because if I don’t stop doing it, then people are going to start saying, ‘Oh, you’re just copying Yeezy.’” Baca began a rigorous social media campaign of his own. In videos posted to Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter, he includes screenshots of DMs he received from people calling to his attention the resemblance between his glasses and the YZY SHDZ. He also includes screenshots of a text correspondence between him and Digital Nas about the similarities, to which Digital Nas apparently replied: “Yeah Franky. That’s life.”
“When I met Digital Nas, the first thing I said to him was, ‘I don’t want to get my design stolen.’ And then he paused for a long time and was like, ‘I don’t know what Ye does specifically, but yeah, I definitely wouldn’t want you to get your design stolen.’ But now looking back at that moment, that was a weird reaction. Just the way he paused. He almost seemed shocked.”
Digital Nas declined Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
On TikTok, Baca’s video about his experience has been viewed more than 300,000 times. “Nobody wants to go against someone that’s a hero to them publicly in a negative way. It’s something that was really hard for me,” Baca says. Still, it’s hard to imagine him having much other recourse for the injustice he feels. As Jason Drangel, Managing Partner at the IP Law firm Epstein Drangel, points out, “ideas are not protectable.” He says sunglass shape designs are most often covered by design patents but only with minimal protections against knock-offs. “With greater exposure in time and advertising,” Drangel explains, sunglass designs could be protected as trademarks. He points to many of Oakley’s now iconic silouhettes as an example.
Baca says he’s not pointing fingers at anyone specifically, and is adamant that he isn’t accusing Ye or his team of blatant theft, but something perhaps more subtle. “My impression while I was surrounded by all these guys was that these dudes are almost walking on eggshells,” he says of Ye’s orbit of young design collaborators. “They don’t want to cause any disturbance, because they don’t want to be cut from the team. Maybe they saw one of my friends post something about my work, there’s endless possibilities of how it could have happened.”
“Celebrities and their design teams have significant access to emerging designers’ looks, whether via meetings with designers eager to collaborate, unsolicited submissions, or borrowing by the stylists who dress the celebrities,” Susan Scafidi, the Academic Director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, says. “Whether deliberately or accidentally, some of the designs that flow through celebs’ studios and closets are then copied, and a famous figure may not even be aware of the origin of a particular design.”
Baca isn’t alone in his specific experience with Yeezy. The Harlem-based brand Legendary6ix posted about a similar encounter after Ye’s Donda event in Chicago. According to the brand’s Instagram, after one of the label’s hats caught Ye’s attention, they were invited to work with the Yeezy brand on a collaboration. “He told me [to] bring all the hats I had in stock … and to bring the 200 hats that we had at the time to be used for the show in Chicago,” a post from May says. “He told us to make some [ideas] for a Legendary6ix x YZY collaboration which we did but then Kanye stopped responding. Now instead of doing it with us he stole our idea and made his own hat.”
The hat in question was from Ye’s first collection with Gap, and featured a flame detail on the brim. In the post, Legendary6ix also share screenshots of both Kanye and Kim Kardashian wearing the original Legendary6ix design in various paparazzi photos, as well as of apparent messages between them and Yeezy’s team. Like in Baca’s case, however, it’d be nearly impossible to definitively call the Yeezy hat a copy.
Representatives for Ye and Gap did not return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.
The fact that both designers saw items resembling theirs released after an invitation from Ye’s camp is an ironic if not somewhat cruel coincidence. Kanye’s public feud with Adidas and Gap centers around allegations that the companies have essentially done the same thing to him. Except unlike the smaller designers he’s allegedly sourced ideas from, when a creative partnership doesn’t go the way Kanye wants he can launch a competing business all by himself, as Sway rightly pointed out. Last month, Mascotte Holdings, Inc., Kanye’s holding company, filed 5 new trademark applications for “YZY SHDZ.” According to the dates on the filings, the applications were submitted the day after Kanye’s appearance on CNBC’s Closing Bell where he announced plans to terminate his Gap deal. He was wearing the YZY SHDZ. West would later tell Forbes that he hopes to sell the glasses for the affordable price of $20.
“Even a couple of decades ago, fashion designs were shared with editors and buyers in secret and then made available to the public approximately six months later,” Scafidi says. “Today, most fashion is born online, and young designers live in a world where success requires sharing, with all of the risk that entails.” Baca says he’s not naive about the realities of the industry, but he hopes he can be something of a cautionary tale. He says he received messages from other designers, including Legendary6ix, sharing similar experiences. “I think a lot of these people were suffering in silence. Because nobody really wants to go up against Ye.”
That would appear to be changing, as the world of fashion seems to have finally had enough of Kanye’s antics. After unveiling his shock-baiting t-shirt, Ye remains publicly on the defensive, posting feverishly into the Instagram void. In a post responding to Emory’s comments on Tuesday, he wrote: “In war they will send your own people at you.”
In war, you can also shoot yourself in the foot.