Two months ago, in the midst of New York Fashion Week’s manic, frenetic energy, Pharrell Williams sat in a silent wing of the Brooklyn Museum looking pensive, almost meditative. He’d just finished production on Ariana Grande’s album “Sweetener,” not to mention all the various singles (“Nice” and “Apes–t” for The Carters, “Skeletons” for Travis Scott’s “Astroworld,”) he’d pumped out over the course of 2018. He also had business deals to look out for: his line with Adidas and an upcoming collaboration with Chanel slated for 2019. Plus, he was at the museum that night hosting an event called Yellow Ball for hundreds of guests. So, yeah, he had some stuff on his mind.
But for the musician, businessman and creative, keeping his hands in all sorts of endeavors is an essential part of his process understanding the human experience, learning new things and telling stories. This is how he explains it, via FaceTime. It’s November now, and Williams is in California — so a pristine blue sky and palm trees are visible in the background of the parking lot outside of his recording studio, where he’s sitting. When he speaks, he has that same calm, self-assured nature he possessed while alone in the Brooklyn Museum. He’s talking about his latest line with Adidas, titled Solar Hu, which he explains differed from past lines with the athletic label.
“This one was culturally influenced,” he says, adjusting the large, black Celine sunglasses he wears throughout the interview. “The core of what it is we do visually, beyond the clothes, is we try to tap into different stories of people that I admire, or take inspiration from. A lot of the people in our campaigns were of Sudanese, Senegalese and Kenyan descent because we wanted to highlight some of the beautiful skin complexion that’s often seen there. We’re using our platform to illustrate the beauty that is in the diversity of other colors. Not many brands in the past were willing to stand with ethnic stories in such a real, authentic way. If they did it, they would do it in ways they felt were palatable.”
Williams’ first work with Adidas released in 2014: a spare collection of reworked Stan Smiths and the Superstar zip-up jacket. Today, he’s released upward of a dozen collaborative projects, and is continuing this tie-up with an expansion of the Solar Hu line. In 2019, Williams and Adidas will release a limited-edition range of reworked track jackets with the Ethical Fashion Initiative, an organization that links artisans from developing countries to fashion’s international value chain. The jackets are adorned with upcycled brass trim handmade by metal workers in Nairobi, Kenya, and the three stripes are detailed with beading the city’s artisans put together.
Williams says his interest with Adidas began in the Eighties, when he was a kid in his hometown of Virginia Beach. He first saw the company’s sneakers on the block, then heard Run DMC’s song “My Adidas.”
“We listened to that for years,” he adds, laughing.
So when A Bathing Ape’s Nigo introduced Williams to the team at Adidas in the mid-Aughts, the musician recalls he stated his case plainly.
“I just said, ‘Listen, this is long overdue,’” he says. “‘It’s time. You guys are a brand of the people. Let’s do it.’”
Nic Galway, senior vice president of global design at Adidas, remembers the first time he met Williams quite clearly. It was early in the musician’s partnership with the athletic brand, and Williams was playing at Coachella. He invited Galway to stay at his villa and they hit it off.
Once they began working together on the collaboration in 2015, Galway recalls Williams had a clear vision.
“He wanted 50 colors of our classic Superstar to represent freedom of choice and said the shoe should be available to everyone,” Galway recalls. “Our initial reaction was to focus down to the most commercial colors, but he was very clear it needed to be all 50.
“Pharrell connects with everyone in the room and encourages them to think bigger than product,” Galway continues. “He takes inspiration from everywhere, whether it be globally or across the brand, and wants to create change with everything he does.”
The musician had his finger on movements in the fashion industry that are now central to brands’ ethos years before people even considered them. A push for diversity, gender-fluidity, sustainability (he established the company Bionic Yarn, which converts plastic recovered from the ocean into fibers for clothing, in 2010), streetwear meeting luxury — and most importantly, that one word which so many ceo’s and strategists lunge after like wolves: authenticity. Brands today want desperately to participate in the cultural zeitgeist, and know their customers can sniff out inauthenticity with precision. With Williams, they have someone who not only is part of the culture, but in many ways is creating it. Each project Williams takes on as a collaboration — however varied in its cause, background or brand messaging — makes sense for him. Chanel? Sure. Adidas? Of course. The “Despicable Me” soundtrack? Why not! Fans have always referred to the man formerly known as Skateboard P as a person from the future, an alien, other. But otherworldliness isn’t a quick and singular answer to the question: How has Williams been so ahead of his time? How did he know these categories were going to be the wave 10 years before they became “It” movements?
Karl Lagerfeld, too, says he recognized Williams’ unique take on fashion, and his agility and talent across the spectrum of pop culture.
“I think this kind of person never existed before,” the designer points out. “Sometimes, people in fashion can be a little silly, but not Pharrell. He loves fashion, but he also finds fashion to be a serious business.” More than a front-row fixture at Chanel, Williams has starred in two Metiers d’Art shows — once on the runway in Paris; another time as the star of Lagerfeld’s film “Reincarnation,” which accompanied the Chanel Paris-Salzburg 2014 Métiers d’art Collection, and for which Williams composed an original song, “CC the World.” In 2017, he became the first man to star in a Chanel handbag campaign, and he customized a pair of Adidas NMD sneakers with Chanel that now resell for upward of $12,600.
In March, Chanel is to unveil a capsule of ready-to-wear and accessories by Williams and carrying his name. Lagerfeld stresses during this process — the details upon which Williams remains mum — he left the musician totally free. “It’s what he wants to do. I don’t want to influence him,” he says. “I think he’s genius. He’s a good musician, a good performer. Plus, I like his personality, and I like his style.”
In 2015, Kanye West noted Williams’ uncanny ability to predict what would heat up, culturally speaking, next. West presented the CFDA Fashion Icon Award to Williams, and in his speech, referenced his peer as being one of the first members of the rap and hip-hop community to pervade the high fashion scene.
“Fashion had to be the hardest high school that I ever entered,” West said onstage at the time. “But at least I had a big brother, [who] had already worn the tight jeans, and went to the fashion shows — and had been called too hip-hop to be at the fashion show. Pharrell has always been my style idol. And there would be no me, no A$AP [Rocky], without Pharrell…”
These days, much of fashion exists in tandem with hip-hop — this past season saw Offset of Migos walking down Jeremy Scott’s runway and Cardi B sitting front-row at nearly every show. Rap culture has morphed into something of pop culture, and luxury has converged with streetwear at every price point. Williams paved the way for West, and West, in turn, served as inspiration for Virgil Abloh.
Williams himself was one of the few who did it first, spearheading the meshing of street and high fashion early on. He wore replicas of Chanel’s iconic costume jewelry necklaces — done with real gemstones — with white Ts and a leather Adidas track jacket. And in the midst of all this, he is a co-owner of denim label G-Star Raw.
But in conversation, the producer does not seem pumped up to talk about how special he is. In fact, it makes him squirm a little — he pokes fun at compliments and downplays moments of clarity or deep thought. He insists he would give everyone else he works with on a particular project credit, but would never demand his own credits be publicized. When asked about his childhood obsession with pop culture, he stresses he wasn’t different from any other kid in this respect. Before hanging up the phone, he states, “The idea that you guys even want to talk about anything that I’m working on, I’m grateful.” And so, when discussing the meeting of Fashion with a capital F and streetwear, he defers to those around him — who he says inspire him.
“Just like anyone else, I wore both [designer clothing and streetwear],” he notes, shaking his head. “It’s not like I discovered anything. We just did a whole lot of arguing [with those in high fashion] to get people to see that they were putting these partitions up. If you look at what pop culture was doing on its own, beyond what you could get at a retail store or a boutique, everyone was always mixing it up.”
Williams is deeply tied to his feelings and intuition — they guide his decisions when it comes to which collaborations he’ll take on and with whom he’ll work. In September, he said he engages in a “therapy session” with the musicians for whom he’s producing songs in order to draw out the song — slowly, through their hearts and minds. He takes on a similar approach for his business deals. He does acknowledge that music has informed his approach to brand collaborations, saying his work comes from the same place.
“It all originates from the same taste palette. There’s an eccentricity, I think, to my taste,” he says. “That’s how I am across all senses. What I learn in one artistic discipline, I may be able to transcribe into another. What I learn in music, I might be influenced by and be able to transform and transpose it into something that is visual.
“I do a lot of brand collaborations, but I do them because they motivate me and they move me. It’s always about the feeling. If there’s no feeling, you don’t really have a project.”
Williams’ understanding of today’s market and the habits of consumers could explain his deftness when it comes to collaborations, and his staying power as a brand collaborator. He knows that these days, there are no genres. There are no labels. When he entered the public eye in the early Aughts, he says he was coming off an era when everything was compartmentalized; people were classified one way or another, and could never contradict themselves publicly. Folks were put into boxes so they were easier to understand for society at large, but ultimately, that kind of classification went against human nature.
“Working with my collaborators, it’s like, why are we continuing to follow these old customs?” He asks. “It’s not how people think, let alone shop.
“Advertisers, because that’s the way they make their money, tend to continue to push the narrative that there are all these boxes. But it’s really not true. So many people check so many boxes. People are way more eclectic than the industry gives them credit for. They market toward [customers] as if everyone’s one-track minded,” he adds. “Now, more than ever, if you look at the careers of my peers and a lot of people who are coming up right now, everybody’s pluralist.”
Much of his talk concerning projects outside music comes back to paying attention to people and their emotions. Williams is something of an anthropologist, and a perpetual student. He likes to learn from other humans, and is fascinated by them. He asks almost everyone he meets what month they were born, and talks to them about their zodiac signs. He understands people contain multitudes, and can be contradictory in their personalities at times. Pharrell’s fine with all that. He believes humans will be the saviors of companies reliant upon algorithms and chatbots.
“As long as [companies] are peopled by humans, there’s always that opportunity [for authenticity]. When that doesn’t happen, it’ll hurt your [brand],” he says. “We’re human beings. Human meaning flesh, being meaning spirit. As long as we have that, there is the opportunity for growth and elevation.”
At this, Williams brings his fist to his temple, bearing the same meditative look on his face as two months prior. He changes the subject, starts talking about FaceTime. (“It’s so much better than just a voice. Right?” he says). Then, he hangs up the phone. He’s got more projects to tend to, more events to attend to promote them. Later in the evening, Williams will head to The Novo in downtown Los Angeles for a question-and-answer session and book signing of his new Rizzoli book, “A Fish Doesn’t Know It’s Wet.” It’s one of the many endeavors he takes on, which constantly vary — but without fail, they bear the signature Pharrell stamp. It’s his way of learning new things and contributing unseen narratives to the ears and eyes of the masses. Before he goes, he puts one hand on his heart. It’s a human thing to do, a way to show gratitude and connect with whoever’s on the other end of the line.
“I’m driven by goodwill,” he states. “But I ain’t preachin’. I’m just making music and seizing these opportunities — enjoying them and sharing them as much as I can.”