We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
I went to see Yeezy Season 4 on Roosevelt Island, and I had a bad time. It was hot; it was crowded; for an industry defined by our ability to unquestionably follow trends, fashion people are incapable of patiently waiting in line; and the performance was conceptually identical to previous seasons, not to mention to Vanessa Beecroft’s work as a whole. The clothes were fine. The items I liked best (boxy camo jacket, shrunken velour sweatsuit with matching coat, thigh-high clear vinyl boots) were neither exceptional nor surprising, being either very close to past Yeezy looks or ones I had seen Kim wearing the day before.
As other writers and editors have pointed out via social media and in their columns, the show itself was a theater of cruelty: one model nearly fainted, and then seemed to refuse offers of help from other nearby models, who broke “character” (if that is what their role inside a Beecroft installation can be called; Beecroft has said she considers them little more than material) to help her sit up and rub her back, where a suntan line was visible in her low-cut bodysuit. After a few very long minutes, a man sitting close by offered the model water. More time passed before a woman who seemed to work for the production (this observation hinges on the fact of her Yeezy heels, and nothing else of substance) led her off into the shade. When the runway show finally started, one model visibly struggled to complete her lap in the thigh-high suede stiletto heels she was wearing, her left ankle made perpendicular to the rest of her body. We winced as she walked by, and when she made it to the end, assisted by the men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman, we applauded with more relief than respect. How fast can an ambulance get to Roosevelt Island? I had wondered the second time the model collapsed, always first in line for the worst conclusions.
Here is, in my constantly catastrophizing mind, the problem with a Yeezy fashion show as a concept: The clothes, contractually, must be produced and sold by Adidas. They are guaranteed a certain amount of editorial play by the publications who are favored and seek favors from West and his in-laws, the Kardashians. We know we’ll see the clothing on Kim’s Instagram and Snapchat, and if we’re really lucky, miniature versions on North. This means that every possible reason for staging a fashion show — whether artistic or commercial — has been accounted for before a single sweaty style editor is even admitted past the wrought-iron gates.
So why do we go? For the spectacle! We go for Kanye, for the prospect of seeing Kanye, for that wide grin as he takes his bow. We go for the Kardashians, who are exactly as beautiful in real life as they are on our browser windows. We go just in case something happens. Cathy Horyn, for The Cut, made a good point:
“[A]s the British designer Katharine Hamnett once observed, perhaps before the birth of Kanye West, the whole point of fashion shows is being there. It isn’t for any artistic or utilitarian reason. It’s just to sit your ass down and feel blessedly in the mix of things.”
And now, it seems, we also go so we can return to the island we inhabit with heat-blistered critiques. We are all too eager to ride the Yeezy shuttle bus, and then throw Kanye under it.
There has been little range in the response to Yeezy Season 4. Robin Givhan, for the Washington Post, had the most succinct summary when she said:
“... the event was a pastiche of convoluted logistics, discombobulating secretiveness and repetition: an hour-long shuttle ride, an hour-long wait in the sun and the unsettling sight of amateur models, posed in a tableau vivant and crumpling one by one under the unremitting heat.”
Givhan details the flaws of the clothing, too, pointing out that it was not just that the clothes were banal and the production disastrous, but that this kind of behavior is boring, perhaps the greatest insult in fashion, that despite getting our attention with bad behavior, the collection has failed to sway us in any direction at all.
The question that kept reappearing was whether we were complicit in this kind of performance, never mind bad or boring. By participating in a fashion show that had, it seemed, heightened versions of the kind of frenetic disorganization New York Fashion Week is known for — emails sent at 4:30 a.m., shifting and confusing location information, shuttle buses from Midtown — were we giving our permission — or worse, our blessing — for this kind of behavior? That’s an easy answer — of course we are! To look at what Kanye did at Yeezy Season 4 is to see only what Givhan said it was — a pastiche of so many fashion weeks that have come before it. I straight-up LOL-ed at this:
Fashion journalists have seen — and still do see! — much worse than Yeezy Season 4, and more so than that, much of the same. The judgments, while deservedly harsh, scolded Kanye with no comparative context, acting as though they were surprised or shocked by what is, in many respects, standard treatment for writers and press. The criticisms boil down to: The Yeezy show began unacceptably late (like Marc Jacobs, known for his tardy runways — in 2007, Jacobs began his show two hours past the scheduled start time, and apparently Anna Wintour once threatened to boycott him after being forced to wait 30 minutes). The Yeezy show put the health and heels of his models at risk (like Alexander McQueen’s “Atlantis,” which had heels so punishing several models refused to walk in them — and if you want to talk about fashion designers and performance artists being hostile to media, I could go on for another 2,000 words about McQueen’s relationship with Michelle Olley and the indictment intended for press at the “Voss” show). Kanye exploited a harsh environment for his own artistic vision (like Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel in 2010, who shipped 265 tons of snow from Sweden and kept the Grand Palais at subzero temperatures to preserve it, telling reporters that he was unsure global warming was even real — the show was called “Global Cooling”).
Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times wondered if it was a commentary on the Emperor’s new clothes, which, maybe!
The question I have in response, then, is one I know the answer to: does that make Kanye our Emperor? No, although perhaps he would prefer that designation over others. He’s an indicator of the fashion world he has so determinedly courted — symbolic, not literal. Because if a show has been so completely cleansed of any real purpose or function, well, that wouldn’t be a show at all, and then what would we say? Maybe we could talk about the distinction between “merch” and “ready-to-wear,” an increasingly irrelevant line to draw; or maybe we’d talk about the very existence of New York Fashion Week, and whether the use of runway shows as an effective and efficient use of a designer’s time and money and not simply a breeding ground for next week’s fast-fashion shipment. (I was not surprised to read that Kanye was flattered when Zara ripped off his Life of Pablo merchandise, considering that they do the same with one of his idols, Pheobe Philo. Céline has essentially created a cottage industry of poorly made replicas onto itself. “It made me a more authentic apparel guy,” he told Vogue, which is true.) If anything, Kanye is being criticized for behaving too much like a typical fashion designer. Imitation might be a favorite form of flattery, but fashion operates under a maddening set of rules: Do what we say, and we say you need to do something new. If we are, as so many people said, complicit in such bad behavior, I know what it is we’ve been implicated in: more of what we’ve seen so frequently before from designers who are given much more forgiveness and patience than Kanye, for all his hard work and friends in high places, has ever had extended to him. In this instance, Kanye’s behavior was entirely too close to the behavior of designers he reveres, and to punish him for that without recognizing what it reflects sells us all short.
Even rarer than earned outrage is originality, so I would bet that next season we’ll either see some of the harshest critics banned from Yeezy (like Georgio Armani and Horyn) as the best possible way to diffuse a boycott, or forego a runway show altogether in favor of a presentation or lookbook, like many smaller lines who cannot afford the cost of production choose to do.
Less cynically, Kanye has always proven himself to be someone who pays close attention to criticism — maybe too close; I just googled “Kanye responds to critics” and got 598,000 results — so he may listen, and learn, and do better next season (I have less faith in Vanessa Beecroft). Even less cynically, my fellow fashion critics and I could examine which fashion designers we’re willing to immediately disavow, and why. It costs us, as an industry, very little to make Kanye West the source of the inexcusable issues within fashion, and it would cost us much more to recognize Kanye as a canary in the mine we built.
Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.