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Menswear issue 03/17/2015

On the last day of New York Fashion Week, as the likes of Terry J. Lundgren and Huma Abedin shifted in their seats at Ralph Lauren’s 10 a.m. show, Kanye West emerged from backstage and quietly took his place. Though he had been ubiquitous in the preceding weeks, it was surprising to see him here, as he usually gravitates toward designers of more recent vintage, and there was something different about his appearance, too. He looked, well, sedate. The hostile Kanye who’d snarled at a reporter for asking about his “damn kids” was gone. You might even say he was happy.

In the insular, clubby world of fashion, he was sitting in what passes as its royal box, to the left of Ricky Lauren in the section reserved for the family. Finally, as far as the kingmakers were concerned, Kanye, designer, had arrived, and he knew it.

This story first appeared in the March 17, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“I think he’s the greatest designer of our time,” he gushed about his host, before adding a telling correction, “The most important designer of our time.”

When West presented his first women’s collection, he came across as a clueless parvenu transparently trying to cash in on his celebrity for design credibility. Critics were not kind. A little more than three years later, he emerged a winner of the New York collections, his and missus Kim Kardashian’s mere presence the story that dominated a season light on Instagram moments (…the frenzy followed them to Paris). And his splashy collaboration with Adidas, Yeezy Season 1, drew, if not unanimous praise, then respectful approval, and by far the starriest front row seen throughout the shows—not just superstars Beyoncé and Jay Z and Rihanna, but designers Alexander Wang and Robert Geller. In the end, the New York shows may be remembered most as the season when Kanye West finally seduced fashion and, slowly, he’s cementing his place as the first solo musician since Sean Combs to be welcomed into the industry’s inner sanctum.

“Fashion is not an easy business [in which] to gain respect, especially when you come from the outside with an already established identity,” Alexander Wang said. “His show during the recent New York Fashion Week was a seminal moment for him, and I was so honored I could be there.”

“When he told me he was interested in working with Adidas, I actually reached out to the powers that be and encouraged them to give him a chance,” Jeremy Scott said. “His passion for fashion was so great I felt that something good would come out of the relationship.”

West’s stunning comeback into fashion’s embrace has been in the works for some time, helped along by his tabloid-ready marriage, which has landed him a Vogue cover and a Balmain advertising campaign as well as the undivided attention of the world’s paparazzi corps. But above all, it’s the result of West’s own canny and savvy courting of the industry.

His flirtation with fashion began a decade ago, when, riding high from the unanimous critical reception to his sophomore album, Late Registration, he decided to take the road well trod by many of his peers in the music business to release an apparel line, Pastelle (which eventually shuttered). Various collaborations followed but didn’t stick, including a footwear line with Louis Vuitton. In 2007, the year he released “Stronger,” a song that generously name-checks Vuitton, he attended no fewer than 10 shows, including Chanel, Givenchy and Jeremy Scott.

“He came by the studio where I was doing my fittings to say ‘hi,’” Scott recalled of his first meeting with the singer. “I was immediately struck by how curious he was about fashion and my work. He asked me when I’d be back home in Los Angeles and said he would come by and hang out. Sure enough, the day I got back, there was Kanye at my doorstep with his laptop.”

West finally got serious and showed a full-fledged women’s collection in the fall of 2011, but the reaction from critics, not to mention scores of commenters online, was vicious. What may have passed as swagger in the music world struck the fashion industry as distasteful braggadocio. “Stick to the day job,” the Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong advised him. A follow-up the next season fared only slightly better, but it was around then a little television personality known as Kim entered his life.

It was 2013 when West’s fashion reboot began. He teamed up with APC on a capsule men’s collection and he replaced Nike with Adidas in a wide-ranging deal that eventually gave us Yeezy Season 1. Around then, he also began treating the fashion industry as a fraternity he desperately wanted to pledge. He played the part of cheerleader, going to as many shows as presidential candidates attend state fairs in Iowa. Just the fall collections: John Elliott, Wang’s namesake show and Balenciaga, Scott, Geller, Ralph Lauren, Balmain, Lanvin and Dior.

Asked what appealed to him about Lauren, his aesthetic or his marketing genius, West said: “I appreciate both things. That’s all I think about. When I pick out a home, I think of Ralph Lauren, the way he gave me the American dream, and he really set an amazing standard for us to aspire to.”

Later, he turned up at a party in Paris for the LVMH Prize to both kiss the brass ring of the top brass—he mugged it up in pictures with Karl Lagerfeld and Michael Burke—and to praise the up-and-comers. And he’s also sought the advice of industry shamans, like the late Louise Wilson, whose funeral he attended, and designers he admires, like Scott and Geller.

“We had an hour-long conversation. We talked about denim washes, washing techniques, color palettes. I thought, ‘This guy is really into fashion.’ It took me by surprise,’” Geller said. When West asked him to join his team at Adidas as a consultant, he found the singer deadly serious about the work.

“He wants to work as a designer. He wants to have a place where there are sample makers and patternmakers working together. He didn’t want to just put different color stripes on a hoodie,” Geller said.

The full-court press, by and large, had its intended effect. West was always appreciated as a front-row guest—a star is a star after all—and that continues to be the case. After Lauren posted a picture of the designer with West, it became the label’s “most engaged social media post ever,” according to a spokesman. “One site even likened it to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel image of God touching Adam. Ralph Lauren saw an increase in followers of 82,000.” Ka-ching! But it’s not just that. There’s something endearing about an outsider who so badly wants to be invited in that’s won over designers. And, a funny thing has happened as West has gone on his listening tours: He may have picked up a few tricks. After Yeezy was presented, their verdict, and various critics’ was: Not bad, not bad at all, as WWD put it. (Social media was another story.)

“Kanye is an extraordinary talent, and a boundless creative force,” Wang said via e-mail. “One of the many things that makes him special is that he sees possibility where others see limitations. He is fearless, he breaks boundaries and defines new standards.”

“Between his passion and curiosity to continuously learn and expand his horizons, and the amount of great things he’s had access to—which he’s earned as a musical artist—he has acquired a vast knowledge,” Scott said. “I feel like he can bring to sportswear a refinement coupled with the innovation of the Adidas brands. Why shouldn’t good design also feel good?”

Geller was impressed by West’s sangfroid under pressure. He points out that unlike Stella McCartney or Yohji Yamamoto, who brought their entire ateliers to work on their collaborations with Adidas, West assembled a team from scratch, and then presented a collection under immense scrutiny.

“It took a long time, but not if you think about the fact there wasn’t an infrastructure there for him to start with,” Geller said. “I’m glad nobody put a microscope on my first collection. It’s a great first outing. There’s some really beautiful things in there.”

If, during the New York shows, West sometimes couldn’t help himself—there was the hectoring at a reporter, the 45-minute wait time in the freezing cold to see his show—at Ralph Lauren, he was the picture of sweetness, in RRL camo pants, crewneck shirt and fur-lined hooded jacket. When a reporter approached to ask some questions, he even offered him a seat.

“I simply love clothes and I’m trying my best to learn,” he said. “You know, making clothes is an extremely difficult exercise and you have to be very experienced and very knowledgeable to do something that’s worth people actually buying. It’s a long journey and I just wanted to come here and bow to a true master. And hopefully one day I can make one garment that can be mentioned in the same breath as his.”

After West respectfully stood up with the rest of the family as the designer took his bow, he was backstage waiting patiently to pay his respects. Lauren gave him a fatherly pat on the cheek and West broke out an elated grin, like an autograph-seeker who’d finally met his idol.

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