What exactly are we buying, when we buy fashion? A disruptive collaboration provides one answer. There are others.
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There was disruption, from the start. A major piece of news dropped unexpectedly, like a dare, right at the feet of the fashion establishment as Milan Fashion Week began.
The Yeezy Gap engineered by Balenciaga project, the much-hyped, ponderously named joint collection of the artist formerly known as Kanye West (now just Ye) and the designer formerly known as Demna Gvasalia (now just Demna) was being unveiled, three months ahead of schedule, in the form of 25 photos of full looks, with eight pieces offered immediately for pre-order.
In the pictures, the aesthetic was big, grim, vaguely military, like the uniforms for a post-apocalyptic world. Mostly all black, in what looked like crinkly nylon or leather (or faux leather) with some faded blue denim thrown in. There were some thigh-high leather boots and some big rubber wellies, a cool-looking short-sleeve sweatshirt, though what is available to buy now are the most basic garments in the line: the straight-leg bluejeans, a matching denim jacket, some faded black tees, a placket pocket sweatshirt. Faces, as is the want with both Ye and Demna, were covered.
And it raised real, opportune, questions about what exactly we are buying when we buy fashion.
The timing could have been a coincidence, of course. The impetus for release was, the announcement said, Ye’s Donda 2 live album drop/experience in Miami.
Yet it’s hard to believe that neither Ye nor Demna (whose Balenciaga show is to take place in Paris on March 6) was not aware of the other fashion events going on — especially given that more than half the collection isn’t available, and it’s unclear when it will be, and the part that is won’t be shipped for four to eight weeks — suggesting there was some desire to get the whole thing out there during a time when collections were in the air.
Especially given the fact they have positioned their collaboration as a sort of anti-high-fashion endeavor: “A FIRST OF ITS KIND CREATIVE EXPLORATION WITHIN THE YEEZY GAP UNIVERSE” (the entirety of the news release was in capital letters, which seems to be kind of how Ye lives his life). It continued, noting: “Ye's commitment to bringing creativity to the forefront and delivering his vision of utilitarian design for all.”
Take that, oh elitist fashionistas. These are real clothes real people can use in the real world. Or at least the people who follow us obsessively on social media, where this collaboration generates the most noise, and where Ye himself veers from drama to bombast to philosophic musing in magnetic public view.
Or are they?
As with luxury fashion, which derives a large chunk of its desirability from the ephemera of what it represents — provenance, connoisseurship, insider cool — the Yeezy Gap/Balenciaga (for want of better shorthand) collection has ridden a high-pitched wave of buzz and anticipation on the strength of the watching and listening public’s desire not to buy a faded black T-shirt, but to buy a passport to the world of Ye and Demna, to the no-limits creative counting house they share. To buy a piece of this particular cultural moment, and what they as artists represent. It just comes in the shape of a T-shirt.
That’s really what they are selling: their own visionary track record, and their point of view on the world. The collection is just the expression.
To a certain extent, that’s also what every luxury brand is selling. It’s just that Yeezy Gap/Balenciaga are doing it on a pop culture scale, supposedly at an accessible price point, and in a way that makes it particularly clear.
Because while the names themselves are intensely potent, the clothes — at least the ones currently available — are kind of … not.
There are four T-shirts, all in faded black: one with three-quarter sleeves; one with no shoulder seams, in the manner of the puffer jacket that was Ye’s first product for Gap; one with a teeny-tiny Gap logo; one with long sleeves; all with slightly cropped, squared-off proportions. The hoodie has a sort of crimped bottom. There’s a pair of slim-fit sweatpants. The denim jacket, which matches the jeans in fade and fray, has squared-off shoulders, a nipped-in waist and somewhat anatomical patches that resemble rubber treads.
Many pieces come with a dove on the back to represent “an unnamed hope for the future,” according to the release. Also, presumably, to clue in those in the know as to what they are seeing, like a kind of secret visual handshake.
The clothes are more designed, in other words, than the hoodie that was Ye’s second product for Gap, and which looked a lot like a generic Champion sweatshirt, but less differentiated than the puffer.
They are made in the same American factories as other Gap products, according to a spokesman, and are all 100 percent cotton. They cost from $140 for the tees to $440 for the denim jacket.
That’s affordable in the skewed economics of high fashion — more affordable, unquestionably, than Demna’s work at Balenciaga or Ye’s sneakers — but it’s not really “for all,” and it’s a lot more money than the usual Gap products cost, where a denim jacket is now $63 (it’s also a lot more than the Yeezy Gap puffer, which was priced at about $200).
Is it worth it?
This is a question often asked of more expensive clothes — the ones that have less presumed utility, and that are shown on runways. I was thinking about it as I sat through the Diesel and Fendi shows, which took place in the shadow of the Yeezy Gap/Balenciaga drop.
Diesel, another brand known for denim (like Gap) that tends to market itself as “democratic,” was debuting the first live show with Glenn Martens — a Belgian designer known most for his conceptual work with the cult-y brand Y/Project — as creative director. It took place in a cavernous set space art directed by Niklas Bildstein Zaar, according to Vogue, who also happened to work on the Donda shows and who decorated the room with monumental blowup people posed provocatively in jeans.
The collection was as massive as the inflatables, full of giant, shredded jeans and teeny-tiny jeans skirts that were more like big belts; bodysuits silk-screened with jeans references and ribbed knits sprayed with metallic chrome colors. But it was the sweeping grizzly bear-like great coats made from tufts of reconfigured denim, and evening gowns pieced together from odds and ends like some sort of cutting-room collage, that stood out, and apart from the brand or designer.
This was also true of Fendi, where Kim Jones played a smart game of hard and soft in the form of wispy ruffled pastel dresses (sometimes with halter necks and hoods at the back) layered over matching wisps of bras and panties and juxtaposed against seamless, tight-to-the-body tailoring in houndstooth and tweed; bustiers and boss lady suiting.
In both cases, the sheer tactility of the materials and how they were handled — the technique, the composition — was part of the value proposition; part of the justification for what can be astronomical prices (though it is perhaps not insignificant that some Diesel T-shirts are now less than the Yeezy Gap Balenciaga tees). It means that, even when you take away the complicated stew of aspiration and hype that attach to brands and fashion at all levels these days, there’s something concrete left, that can also connect to individual identity. That’s utility, of a kind.
The value proposition with Yeezy Gap/Balenciaga, despite also leaning on the idea of “utility” (which in the Yeezy case seems mostly a synonym for “basics,” which is a relative term) is much more heavily weighted to the mystique of the men behind the curtain; to their cultural currency and ambitions, rather than the currency of the brand on the label or the garments themselves.
The bet is on how much the change they have wrought is worth — and may be worth. In the end, that will dictate whether the price of entry is a steal, or a sham.