The Art Of The Fashion Crossover For Male Pop Stars

What The Weeknd’s collaboration with H&M reveals about expectations for pop dudes

This week, The Weeknd’s H&M Spring Icons collection was released to the masses, and with it came a short promotional video in which the singer detailed his approach to creativity.

"I don't believe in icons," The Weeknd says over an arty shot of himself punching a marble bust of The Weeknd (whoa). This gives us insight into how he wants us to view his fashion line: the spoken-word narration and Tumblr-like imagery signal that this is Serious Art, not just a business deal. And that level of involvement with the fashion industry is still relatively rare for male pop artists on The Weeknd's level — which is why it seems like a big deal when they do something like this.

Female pop stars collaborating with designers or labels are a dime a dozen. Rihanna designed three seasons of mall-friendly pieces for River Island before joining forces with Puma for collections that evoke her own style. FKA twigs recently aligned with Nike, producing a line of streamlined athletic wear and a campaign that centers on the complexity and beauty of modern dance. Rita Ora's Adidas line is still standing. Similarly, everyone from Grimes (the face of Stella McCartney’s POP fragrance) to Ariana Grande (who fronted MAC’s vivid and ultra-feminine 2016 Viva Glam campaign) have lent their personas to branding and beauty. It's almost expected that female musicians double as creative fashion talents. Yet the same doesn't go for their dudely counterparts.

This has to do with the broader way we categorize pop artists by their assumed fan bases. Male musicians are expected to spend most of their time winking at their coveted male audiences, whether it's Zayn’s lyrics about how he has definitely had sex or Justin Bieber’s alleged 2 Fast 2 Furious reenactment. When these artists break the mold to announce an interest in style — a field that's still largely outside traditional ideas of masculinity — it makes them seem like rebels. Art and music are supposed to be all about risk, anyway.

For some, like Bieber, fashion serves mostly as a smart PR tactic. Following the example of Mark Wahlberg (whose underwear ads in the ’90s were the missing link between the Funky Bunch years and his acting career), Bieber used his 2015 Calvin Klein campaign as a jumping-off point for his new, adult brand. After a tumultuous 2013 and 2014, his modeling gig was a key element of his apology tour. Shot in black and white, our prodigal son stood humbly in his boxer-briefs before the camera, his hands posed as in prayer, as if asking us to take him back. And it was effective: If Calvin Klein thought Bieber was cool, he had to be. Or better yet: If Calvin Klein considered Baby Biebs old enough to model underoos, then a grown-up he must be.

Clearly this worked out for everyone, since CK reenlisted Bieber last year to join Kendrick Lamar, Fetty Wap, and others for their “I [blank] in my Calvins” campaign — a who’s who of musical personalities that served to make the brand seem hip, with it, or at least attentive to who we’ve been talking about on the internet.

And, in turn, these artists got a billboard-size platform on which to advertise themselves as young men who’ve rejected gender norms in a cool and commercially appealing way. Through these campaigns, they have had the chance to announce themselves as risk-taking rebels who don’t limit their interests or business ventures to what male artists are “supposed” to do or be. If these men are secure enough to pose in their underwear and wax poetic about how much they love said underwear, we're meant to understand that clearly they're serious artists.

But of course, Bieber didn’t design for CK. Unlike The Weeknd and H&M, Justin simply and generously lent his face and abs to an ad campaign, and then moved on. More interesting parallels come from Kanye West and Zayn Malik, who have cemented their statuses as complex creatives via more in-depth designer alliances.

Kanye, of course, has used his relationship with Adidas as the foundation for his apparently very serious commitment to building a Yeezy empire. Zayn, meanwhile, appears to be one-upping Bieber's use of fashion as a gateway into grown-up solo-dom. In October 2016, we learned that after nearly a year spent sitting front row at various Fashion Weeks, the former One Direction member would join forces with Donatella Versace to create Zayn x Versus. And last week, we got a feel for what the line will actually be. While he has yet to release any images of the pieces themselves, Zayn took to Instagram to announce that Gigi Hadid is the photographer behind the campaign. The method of his announcement further establishes Zayn’s self-made reputation as a Real Artist: Opting for a low-res video that shows just enough action to keep us enticed (but not enough so that we can entirely figure him or his collaboration out), Zayn is cementing his reputation as creative and mysterious. This carries on the narrative he first established as a member of One Direction, while also building on his current reputation of a young man who’s not like the other boys. (It’s not like Liam Payne has released surveillance footage of a fashion shoot.)

In a way, though, Zayn's latest move parallels the way his former bandmate Harry Styles began to change his style as the 1D hiatus drew nearer. Harry, if you'll recall, started wearing lots of Gucci suits, alluding to a fancier, more adult taste — as well as riskier aesthetic choices that were far removed from his stage uniform of t-shirts and skinny jeans. Through fashion, Styles seemed like an individual, a young musician exploring trends outside his boy-band bubble. For both him and Zayn, then, labels like Gucci and Versace suggested an affinity for (and graduation to) the finer things in life.

A$AP Rocky’s second collaboration with Guess, meanwhile, is adding complexity to his artistic image in a totally different way. While the rapper’s first line with the brand was inspired largely by Guess's 1980s history, his second (set to hit shelves next week) is based largely on his own childhood: As he put it, this line is meant to evoke "Saturday morning and early afternoon with cereal and cartoons, toys, records and eight tracks, Toys ‘R’ Us. I want to be a kid forever.” With these references, Rocky is telling us that he respects where fashion can go (by designing new pieces) and where it came from (by evoking the past). The implication is that this is how he approaches all of his creative work. He's also telling us that he’s above and beyond the gendered rules of musical stardom. He’s not splitting his creative output into two lanes suitable for male and female fans; he’s presenting himself as a complex and interesting artist, with a legitimate interest in many fields of expression.

The thing is, we could and should apply that way of thinking to many more artists, regardless of gender, who begin investing or working in fashion. Because while capsule collections and campaigns serve to legitimize male musicians as rebellious, multifaceted artists, they're often more like an add-on to the list of expectations we place on their female contemporaries. That imbalance is on us to check, as much as it is the music and fashion industries' responsibility. Pigeonholing artists and their audiences based on gender does a disservice to both fans and musicians. Plus, it perpetuates an outdated idea of what fashion’s supposed to be, as opposed what it actually is. So let's look forward to The Weeknd's new line of jackets and sweaters, by all means — but don't call him a rebel. He's just being an artist, and that's more than cool enough.