“Yeah. It’s just the way I was consuming information in my life at the time. … going to furniture exhibits and understanding that, trying to open up and do interviews with this, learning more about architecture. Taking one thousand meetings, attempting to get backing to do clothing and different things like that. Like, getting no headway whatsoever. It was just that level of frustration. This is what frustration fucking sounds like.”
Kanye West is a man of many ideas and opinions, and his expression of these opinions never fails to elicit a dramatic response from the media, be it broadsheet or blog. In particular, it is his pronouncements on the subject of design that have been deemed the most worthy of scorn.
He has made no secret of his ambitions in the design world. The most notorious attempt to translate his star status came in 2012 when he launched a women’s wear line at a huge show in Paris fashion week. It was widely criticised by industry figures and a commercial flop. The Telegraph memorably ran a scathing review with the headline ‘Rap with a capital C’. Since that misstep, west’s design activities have been somewhat subdued; he has designed the ‘Yeezy’ sneakers for Nike, and a line of casual wear for the minimal, midmarket brand APC. Despite this curtailed design work, Kanye has been increasingly vocal in calling out his perceived injustices in the design world, speaking on the subject in interviews, notably with BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe:
“I’ve reached a point in my life where my Truman Show boat has hit the painting. And I’ve got to a point that Michael Jackson did not break down. I have reached the glass ceiling – as a creative person, as a celebrity. When I say that it means I want to do product. I am a product person. Not just clothing but water bottle design, architecture, everything that you could think about. And I’ve been at it for 10 years, and I look around and I say, “Hey wait a second – there’s no one around here in this space that looks like me.” And if they are, they’re quiet as fuck!”
When Kanye pronounced ‘I am a God’ on his most recent album, many critics latched onto this as proof of egomania. The media rarely approach his grand statements as anything other than evidence of insanity. It is important to go beyond the hyperbole of both West and his detractors to gain a clearer understanding of the reasons for West’s difficulties in the design world, by applying objective analysis to this contemporary issue.
Learning to Drive
Perhaps the primary critique of West’s fashion activities is that he has no talent for design. The critic Suzy Menkes said of his first collection ‘It is hardly surprising that Mr. West did not come on as a creative designer. Who, out of all the people who collect art with a smart eye, could produce such artistic work for themselves?’  The same logic however, does not seem to apply to other public figures, who would be expected to have a similar lack of aptitude for design due to their success in other areas.
Notable examples include Victoria Beckham and The Olsen twins (who set up ‘The Row’). Both of these endeavours were met with approval from the press, and have gone on to receive support from the industry. On the surface the trajectories of these celebrities differ little from West’s route, however there is one key difference. West has said of his design work ‘I’ve dedicated the past 10 years of my life to this. I spent 80% of my time working on this, and 20% of my time working on music. Why do you think this song Niggas In Paris is called Niggas In Paris? Because Niggas was in Paris!’ In order to go beyond ‘celebrity design’, which comprises of ghost teams and a reliance on the personal ‘brand’ of the celebrity, it is often the case that those celebrities will have to forgo their entertainment careers completely. Both the Olsen twins and Ms. Beckham have completely dedicated themselves to design. This begs the question of whether Kanye’s 80% is enough, regardless of talent.
In 2011 he made the fatal mistake of presenting product at Paris fashion Week that was not perfectly realised. His designs were not terrible, but they didn’t quite hit the bullseye that is required of new designers (especially in Paris). Yet the response was overwhelmingly hostile. Cathy Horyn of the New York Times criticised the clothes for being ill-fitting, other critics said they were overly sexy, or ‘heavy-looking’. After two shows, West quietly put his women’s wear line on hold. His more commercial offerings with Nike and APC have both been successful, however this disparity in interest irks the creator:
“So when I say “clean water was only served to the fairer skinned” what I’m saying is we’re making products with chitlins. T-SHIRTS! That’s the most we can make! T-shirts. We could have our best perspective on t-shirts. But if it’s anything else, your Truman Show boat is hitting the wall.” 
The result of this according to West is that ’my opinion is no more than the patina on top of it, when I understand the reason from my core of why something should work all the way through.’ As a creative individual, West is used to the freedom of making music. However, successful product design is founded on compromise and teamwork. A true designer thrives on the boundaries and limitations that come from creating product that must function in the physical world. Recently he has said his Paris show ‘was kind of like me hopping in a Lamborghini and driving really fast.’ And that his with his APC line, ‘Jean [Touitou] is teaching me how to drive’. This newfound humility suggests that the star is not unaware of the unique challenges facing him.
The hip-hop mindset is founded upon expressions of supreme confidence and the performance of a bravura masculinity, which prioritises direct, demanding communication. At odds with the rap mentality, which Kanye has perfected in order to get to the top in the music world, is the muted deference expected in design culture. The role of the designer is often a silent one, with private negotiations of power taking place behind closed doors. Many successful designers spend their careers on a tightrope, balancing the needs of clients, creativity and commerce. These rules of expression go unwritten, and are rarely broken.
Name-dropping is a case in point. It is second nature for rappers to position themselves through their music and appearances as in allegiance with certain brands, names and figures. This in part is the seed that grew into Kanye drawing parallels between himself, God, Michelangelo and Le Corbusier. Comparing himself to Jesus comes not from inherent narcissism, but a learned form of communication. His success in design is partly contingent upon his ability to learn how to express himself in his new surroundings. Much of design discourse is about what is left unsaid and un-photographed (and maybe the design world would benefit from adding in some of West’s verbal expression to this established mode).
What of this glass ceiling? Is there some great conspiracy at work, which the design world colludes in, to remain enviably ‘exclusive’, and overwhelming white? There are successful black designers, but few position themselves as all-powerful creative masterminds like West does. Ozwald Boateng comes to mind, however his success has been contingent on his mastery of the subtle codes of Savile Row. On a recent trip to the Harvard School of Design, West met with Héctor Tarrido-Picart, co-president of the African American Student Union, who stated that:
“We were struck first by the depth of knowledge that Kanye West actually had on architecture and second, because of the real question that he raised, which is [that] when you’re a very clearly a very talented and creative person and you choose to expand that creativity to new fields, you run into a wall. And that wall isn’t a wall that’s revolving around your creativity but a wall that’s revolving around the colour of your skin.”
Although difficult, it is certainly possible to be a successful black designer in the 21st Century. The ‘glass ceiling’ spoken of by West only really seems to come into play when the designer in question deviates from conformity, and starts trying to break the rules. Kanye is many things. He is demanding, loud, creative and uncompromising. In his music he innovates at a wild rate, which outruns his contemporaries. Why is it that in design, this ambition and wealth of ideas suddenly becomes a bad thing? Is it that black people are only permitted a certain amount of leeway, before their temporary membership to the cultural class is revoked? West’s fellow music star, Prince, recently stated in an interview that:
“It’s like Chris Rock said: Leonardo DiCaprio can make one bad movie after another, and he just keeps going. Chris Rock makes a bad movie, and he doesn’t work again. Black people aren’t allowed to make mistakes.”
West makes a valid point when he declares that the design world has taken against him for reasons other than the quality of his products. Race can play a significant part, but in reality it is more complex than that. The complexities of this issue cut to the very heart of what it means to be a creative individual in today’s world. What does it mean to be a designer, an artist, and a musician? Can one person be talented in all these spheres? What part does honing a craft play in a digital culture?
The world of design is a rarefied one, and Kanye is risking his reputation in order to go from consumer to creator. Will Kanye’s fame, commercial success and critical acclaim be enough for him to leap into another cultural sphere? Or must he start at the bottom again, as if life at the top is just a high stakes game of snakes and ladders? This issue has broader relevance to the state of the creative classes. The possibility of becoming ‘post-discipline’ is a central concern for today’s emergent creatives. In this digital age, why label things and divide creativity into different classes? However this idea has largely gone unproven. Kanye West’s ability to succeed has greater ramifications than the media likes to admit. He is fighting for a multiplicity of creative expressions, and a fluidity of outcomes of the creative process.
Rosannagh Maddock –
Rosannagh came to Design History after studying Fashion Design at UCA Epsom. As a graduate, she became increasingly interested in the space between verbal and visual expression, which led her to studying the History of Design at the V&A/RCA. Her research interests lie in ‘Design Media’, and the forms of expression and mediation that surround Design.
© Rosannagh Maddock 2014. All Rights Reserved