When you ask Theophilus London a question, be prepared for the long story. Not that it’s a bad thing: The Trinidad-born musician clearly has a gift for storytelling. In the case of this question—how he got fashion’s elusive kingpin Karl Lagerfeld to shoot artwork for his new single “Tribe”—the answer is particularly fascinating. Theophilus recounts each detail down to the phone call, the hellish flight to meet him, and the moment the Chanel designer “air-walked” up to the artist in his selfie-filled Paris house. If Theophilus wanted another career, he could easily write comedic films—but he already has his hands full with other projects. On top of gearing up for the release of his next album, Vibes—executive-produced by Kanye West—Theophilus is collaborating with Vans and Stussy, when he's not assisting Kanye with Ye's upcoming Adidas collection. We managed to catch up with the musician—who's made as many friends in fashion as he has in the music world—on his way to Shanghai.
We talked about Lagerfeld’s gift to him, keeping his idols at a distance, and how Kanye’s "It ain’t Ralph, though" verse came about on his new album.
MTV STYLE: You're balancing so many different kinds of fashion projects right now. Do you have aspirations to have your own brand one day?
THEOPHILUS LONDON: Not at all. It’s a very constructed life. You have to get all of your seasons together, build your show, and that's not something I want to do. I’d rather be a creative director and owner of an all women’s lifestyle agency, which I started already. I want to start a film company, which is in the works. I’m already a brand ambassador which means I can share my likeness with another brand, instead of me having a store. I don’t want all that weight on my shoulders. I’d rather bill myself as a creative director honcho. I’m a collector, and I want to create things that people will collect.
How did the artwork come together with Karl Lagerfeld for "Tribe"?
I was in Hong Kong last December, and on the flight back to Palm Springs, where I was working on my album, I forgot my passport and luggage. When I went home, I didn’t have anything. I was an alien for two months, knowing that I had a shoot with Karl Lagerfeld and his people told me he only had three hours freed up for the rest of the year and I had to take them or not take it at all. So, I did everything I could. I got back to New York City by using a piece of mail to get on the plane, and they believed me. Then, I got my passport and a snowstorm happened. It took me six hours to get to the airport—thank god my flight got delayed—and when I made it, the doors to the plane were closed. I had to do a lot of ass-kissing and yelling to get in. I got in the plane and woke up in Paris the day before the shoot. I had brought all my old clothes and was like, "I'm about to shoot with the biggest fashion photographer in the world," so I'm trying to call my friends and get clothes. I got to the shoot and everything went well.
He has the most chic walk I’ve ever seen. He's like air-walking when he walks. He stops to look in the mirror, wipes something off his jacket and keeps walking. I was like, "Wow, this guy has no art, but he has a lot of pictures of himself everywhere." And a million books. He was drawing out Vibes and kept throwing away different pieces of paper, and I was like, "Oh my god, that’s like $5,000 in the garbage right now. I can probably get something for this later on."
I told him he had a really nice jacket on, and he was like, "Follow me," so he goes to this place in his house and grabs this rumpled up bag in the corner and pulls out a Dior jacket in a ball that he didn't give a s*** about. It was identical to his but in different colors. He told me to try it on and of course it fit like a glove. He was like, "Keep it but let me shoot you in it first." I was so happy I just jumped for joy—that was the first shot he took of me and it ended up as the single cover.
Wow, that sounds like something out of a movie. What was your impression of him before you met?
I was super scared of him, like, "This guy is the Terminator." He’s the first person I took off my hat for upon his presence. His presence deserves attention. He walks the slowest of anyone I've ever worked with. I've found that the slower you walk, the richer you are. He has someone holding his wine in a goblet. He gets fresh vegetables from a farm everyday. He deserves respect. He gave me a lot of books while I was there about his outlook on life. He got me really interested in reading books about him.
It made me interested in things I could do later in life when I turn 40. I don't want to be rapping and s***. I want to have a good music vibe, but I also want to change the world and improve it. It's cool to have a mentor like him.
At Paris Fashion Week, I was too everywhere, and one time at this party, this photographer was, like [adopts French accent], "Karl, Theo, turn around for a photo.” We had already taken so many photos together, and he was like, "No, no photos." And then he took a picture with another girl. I felt bad. But it's cool. I respect him from far away. It's like all of my idols—I never want to become close friends with them because then they lose their idolness. I try to keep a good balance of mentorship and how I feel about them as an artist, even with Kanye.
With Kanye, what advice has he given you in the fashion realm?
A lot man. This guy is Lagerfeld. I'm shocked by his integrity. This guy goes through 15,000 images a day, and no one knows it. I was in the studio with him, and he goes through 15,000 images a day, emailing people every five seconds; sending his wife photos of outfits he thinks she might like and, "Wear your hair back like this." He’s designing his new Yeezy shoes, and he’s very amazing. People don’t know this side of him.
Now, he's realizing that he doesn’t have to say, "I'm Steve Jobs or Ralph Lauren." He's like those guys, but those guys aren’t saying that they're him, so he just has to do his thing, and he's doing it. He's at the height of his life where he’s going to be really respected. I can't wait for the rest of the world to respect him like that.
He'll show me something and be like, "What do you think of this? Should the zipper go here? Should the logo go here?" At the end of the day, he's going to pick what he wants, but he wants my opinion. He has a whole amazing collection for Adidas coming.
All these other people that do Adidas are a joke. It kind of makes me question Adidas. They got a good guy in Kanye. He’s a good designer, he has a good team, and he thinks of culture. It’s all about themes.
How did Kanye's verse "It ain't Ralph, though" come about on your track "Can't Stop"? Were you guys talking about the incident with Sway before you recorded it?
[Laughs] Yeah. That’s my favorite moment of his—all-time. Expressing yourself, whether it's right or wrong, is cool. That interview with Sway is the realest press. He’s going through that right now, that’s why he talked the way he did and raised his voice, [imitates Kanye] "It's not Ralph, though!" People are designing clothing everywhere but it's not at their best level—that's the point he’s trying to make.
He knew that was a popular term, and by the time we were writing it was during Fashion Week [for Spring 2014], and I played him one song of mine in his Porsche, and he immediately fell in love with it. It was called "New Law," and he was like "You gotta play me this album." So, I played for him, and he was like, "Meet me next week in Paris." I was like, "Man, you don’t care about my schedule. But I'll meet you next week in Paris." So, I met him and played it for him, and we started eliminating songs. Kim was there at one point, and "Can't Stop" came on, and you could tell he was really in love—and that's the first song I wrote for the album. It's like, "No matter what you do to try, you can't stop my love for you." He's like hugging his girl, listening to it, and he really was honest in his verse.
I gave him the song, and it took him two months to hand it back to me. That's how much dedication he has. It took him two months to write 16 lines, and every line he wanted to mean something to him. Every day I would ask my label, "Hey, has he sent it?" I was supposed to hand my album in December, ended up handing it in like a month ago, but it was worth it.