Kanye West, Uncensored and Unfiltered, on the Fashion Industry: “I Wouldn’t Say Anyone is On My Side”

In a conversation with Lynn Hirschberg earlier this summer, long before Yeezy Season 4, West vented about his frustrations with fashion and his place in it, all the while using Wreck-It Ralph, Despicable Me and Elf to make his point.

Royals - Kanye West - October 2016
Photographs by Mario Sorrenti, Styled by Edward Enninful

In June, Kanye West sat down for an interview. It was the night after Game 7 of the NBA finals and the Golden State Warriors were on his mind. Though on the face of it, West is a colossus in pop culture, a LeBron James if you will, he was feeling more like Stephen Curry – a winner, sure, but not a champion. He was speaking specifically about the court of fashion, an industry that has embraced him as a celebrity but not necessarily as the designer and creative visionary he believes himself to be. A few months later, he would present his Yeezy Season 4 collection at Roosevelt Island, a show that would earn him some of the worst reviews since he seriously ventured into fashion five years ago. Still, early this summer he was already exhibiting some of the anger and skepticism towards the industry that was on display just last week at The Plaza when, while performing Runaway, he flipped off the fashion-heavy crowd while he sang, “Let’s have a toast to the douchebags.” “No matter what they write I just couldn’t stop!” he said later, evidently referring to his critics. To West, it didn’t matter that Yeezy sneakers are a huge success; what he craves most – both as a musician and as a designer – is respect, and he may not be satisfied until he gets the acknowledgement he demands.

Let’s talk a little bit about fashion. When was the first time you remember, as a kid or even while growing up, loving what you were wearing and thinking it was super cool? Yeah, like five years old. I just liked picking out my own outfit for kindergarten. Now my daughter definitely picks out her own outfits and she will lay it down and look at it and say, ‘This is not great.’ And then she tries to tell me what to wear and what she likes out of the closet, like just my mom being in a fur store and me picking one and saying, ‘I like this one mom,’ and her looking at the price and it being the most expensive one. So, I think that’s where I got the expensive taste from. And now, after having expensive taste – you know, going from expensive taste to just taste and learning the languages, the communication and where the decisions come from and then digging into something deeper that I am now able to communicate with my apparel that’s different than anything else out there. I remember I did this collection with A.P.C., with [founder] Jean Touitou, and there were people who came to see it and said, ‘I thought you were going to have a bunch of graphics on your stuff’ and and they just try to pinpoint what they expect from you as a musician and they almost come over to look more as a joke than to take it seriously. Think of how it is now – [Yeezy] is one of the leading trendsetting brands now; like top four trendsetting brands. And, and that’s with little to no support on the apparel side. Meaning, I went and did a deal with Adidas and I basically still had to do the apparel in L.A. and build my own atelier and get consultants and build a team and then so…I don’t know, have you ever seen, Wreck-It Ralph?

Yeah, of course. Okay, so you know when Vanellope puts together her car? And she’s like, ‘Made it myself,’ and everybody that has professional cars, they say, ‘Look at you with your little car and you’re going to do this,’ and then they break her car, right? That’s basically the fashion world to me. You know, I would basically take every dime I had and I would get overcharged by employees. I would get always looked at like I didn’t really have a clue about what I was doing and what I wanted to say, and when I would bring my little car to Renzo Rosso or [LVMH chairman] Bernard Arnault or [Kering chief executive François-Henri] Pinault or these guys that have the keys to the actual Lewis Hamilton-level cars – if we’re going to use the parallel of being a race car driver right now – they say, ‘Well, what about this thing you said in the press or what about this or look at you.’ Basically it would be like that moment in Wreck-It Ralph, to the point where this year I literally tweeted after doing a fashion show, ‘Hey, I’m $53 million in debt and people say, ‘I can’t understand that. That sounds like MC Hammer where we don’t relate to that.’ It’s not for you to relate to that…the people who know what the fuck I’m talking about know what the fuck I’m talking about. So I refuse people who write me off as some rich kid taking a hobby, fashion as a fucking hobby or a fashion plate. How could you even dare to think that, that you’re on the same level of this, blah, blah, blah? And the entire time, no one, um – very few people even knew that I have a fucking Ph.D. in art, you know? And not that that would even make the difference, but me saying that makes the difference to the exact people I’m talking to it’s, like, shut the fuck up. I will fucking laser you with alien fucking eyes and explode your fucking head. Shut the fuck up – try to write a rap. Okay then. I made this fucking T-shirt, now shut up. And it cost me everything I had and I gave everything I had. Have you ever seen The Pursuit of Happyness?

Of course. Okay, do you know when he was trying to sell the bone density machines? That was like me meeting with the head of [the fashion manufacturing and licensing company] Staff International and I’m like showing him things that I think can, could be considered to be a breakthrough thing, ‘Like, look at these, you know?’ Or also, another thing is, uh, Despicable Me.

Uh huh. And his relationship with his mom? ‘Hey mom, I built this rocket ship.’ Whatever. That’s how it is. I’m talking to a guy who’s the head of a production facility [Staff International] but a really good one because they do [Maison] Margiela and all that and I’m like, ‘Look, I built this rocket ship.’ You know, it’s like I built this amount of followers, we did this certain color palette, we did this, blah, blah, blah. That I designed this, you know, the cool summer shoe with [Giuseppe] Zanotti, and it’s this top-selling shoe. Or I did this shoe with Nike and it was their top-selling shoe and these guys will just look and be like, ‘No,’ but they didn’t realize, like Vanellope, she’s like, ‘I won a race just like you guys.’ Or, here’s another one, another parallel, Elf.

Hmm, you are the elf who wants to find your father? No, I’m the elf that’s Will Ferrell, that’s too big for his hands to make the toys.

Oh, I see. But he wants to make the toys. Why? Not just so he could play with them, but he wants to bring joy to the world. I am a creator and it’s my responsibility. There is no amount of money, like as I tell my managers right now, ‘What is your opinion of success?’ So many people look at success is just like having money. True, not having money can be a sign of a lack of success and also can deter you from being successful at other things that you do, but if you take guys like LVMH and like Kering, they might only have two or three businesses that are actually profitable and they all work together, but they are successful at taking brands that mean something to people.

Yeah. And that’s what I do as Kanye West, 39-year-old Kanye West talking to you right now. Play this shit back in 10 years – I build things that mean things to people. I make the Christmas presents; number one requested Christmas present of 2015 Christmas, going into 2016, the fucking Yeezy.

True. Number one Christmas present.

But then you’re validated by that. You won. Nope. Haven’t.

Why haven’t you won? Do I have 80 people working for me like Demna has at Balenciaga?

Ah, all right. So you would like a brand. Or my own brand, but nonetheless, just a finely-tuned, running race car.

Oh, I see. So what’s the win?

The win is you made a shoe that everyone wants. Isn’t that a win? Judging off of what I just expressed to you for the past 10 minutes…

I understand what you’re saying, but you have stuck with something and made things that people desire and that you find fantastic. So that’s a win. How many points did Steph Curry score last night?

I think that he didn’t do that well last night. I don’t know the exact score; Lebron won. So 40? So, he scored some points, but he didn’t win.

Okay, I see your point. Steph Curry also is the MVP, so to make your point, Steph Curry –__ I wasn’t – you can’t make my point. Only I can make my point.

Okay. So…

To reinforce my point then – Steph Curry won many battles this year, wouldn’t you say? He was the MVP two years in a row, he was undefeated during the entire… What was the name of the Will Smith movie that I referenced earlier today? Do you think Steph Curry is happy today?

No. Next subject.

But I do understand what you’re saying. I’m just on your side because I think what you’re doing is great. Um, no. I wouldn’t say that you’re on my side. I wouldn’t say that anyone in fashion is on my side. I don’t think there’s anyone on my side.

Maybe, maybe you like that a little bit. I’m not saying I like that. I’m saying that to this date they do not understand who I am. They will not understand until after I’m gone. I am misunderstood and there is no one in fashion that’s on my side. Because if that’s the case, then take me and say, ‘Here’s your 80 people that work for you and here’s a straight up, honest deal for it.’ You don’t have to sign your soul away in order to. I don’t feel like…

But do you think that they might consider the fact that you had this little side job, that you are basically a world-famous musician, and they may think that you don’t want to be a designer when you are a world-famous musician? Yeah, that would be the point of this issue, right?

Kanye West wears Yeezy Season 3 hoodie and pants. Grooming: Clinique.

Hair by Ibn Jasper at Frank Reps. Makeup by Aaron de Mey at Art Partner; Manicures by Honey at Exposure NY. Set design by Philipp Haemmerle.

Photographs by Mario Sorrenti, Styled by Edward Enninful.

Kanye West wears Yeezy Season 3 hoodie and pants. Grooming: Clinique.

Because you are Renaissance man, yes. To be a Renaissance person. It’s like if the Michelangelo was working with the church and he was really good at drawing cherubs and he said, ‘I want to draw a saint and I want to draw, like, a mature angel.’ And they were like, ‘No, Michelangelo. First, we’re going to say for the first eight years that we don’t even believe that you could use your artistic skill set and capacity to create outside of the form of a baby cherub angel, Michelangelo.’ You know, so…

Okay, so let’s talk about who you think is a Renaissance person. So, who are your heroes? You were saying earlier that Calvin Klein is somebody you admire. Is there anyone else you admire or anyone that you look up to or did look up to when you were younger? I definitely look at Calvin Klein. Um, James Perse

James Perse, really? Because you think he built a successful business? Well, what’s your definition of success?

Well, you’re looking up to him. I wouldn’t have included James Perse in the Calvin Klein conversation. I mean, he’s good, but I think you’re better. Well, perhaps you are on my side. I mean, I’ve I told you guys this countless times as LeBron told you guys at the beginning of the season. What did LeBron say? He said, ‘I’m going to bring a championship to Cleveland,’ and anytime they asked him about how he felt about anybody, he said, ‘I’m the best basketball player.’

Except when he fell, when they found him and he fell, I was really worried about him. Hey, you’re gonna fall sometimes in a run for greatness. So when you ask me, who do I look up to? I’m like, I’m inspired by Walt Disney. I’m inspired by Howard Hughes. I’m inspired by Henry Ford. I’m inspired by Steve Jobs. I mean, I’m inspired by James Perse. I’m inspired by Calvin, I’m inspired by Ralph [Lauren], I’m inspired by Bernard Arnault. He’s like one of my absolute favorites. But as far as what I’m going to do? It’s like you – people see it and they don’t want to say it out loud. It’s like once you listen to the eighth Drake song in a row on the radio do you basically say he owns 80 percent of the radio? So when, when I sell 40,000 sneakers in one minute, does anyone raise their hand and say, ‘Hmm, maybe he can actually design something.’ I’m telling you the guy that hires people for Pinault to invest in through his family group, not even Kering, because obviously my shit wasn’t good enough to be supported by Kering, like Stella McCartney or something. So they had this other fund, right? And that guy told me in a meeting – this is a guy who told me that there was no good American designers, first of all. And Calvin Klein is the first thing that I brought up to say, ‘What are you talking about?’ This guy looks at me and says, ‘Have you ever designed something that didn’t have your name on it?’ So basically, what he was trying to say is the only reason why people buy stuff from me is because it has my name on it. Well, you could take that two ways. I take it as a dis that you say that obviously none of my designs are good and they wouldn’t sell without my name. And I also take it as a – you fuck, it’s called a brand. That’s why it fucking works. What’s the difference between the Louis Vuitton wallet and the wallet without that? ‘Hey, Picasso, this work looks like a four-year-old. What’s the difference between you and another four-year-old?’ Picasso’s response? A four-year-old can’t sign a Picasso. So, and I’m telling you – these are the guys that fucking hold the fucking keys to selling that bone density machine. What is your definition of success? For me, money is not my definition of success. Inspiring people is a definition of success. Doing things to the maximum….You know what’s my definition of success? Being able to be 39 years old, a black male, and articulate myself in this way and back it up. My definition of success is dropping a Charlie Sheen-level tweet and being like, ‘I am in debt and fuck you.’ Now what?

This is an excerpt from a longer interview and it was edited and condensed for clarity.