There Is No Excuse for Ye’s ‘White Lives Matter’ Shirt
PARIS — Yeezy is dead. Long live YZY. Stage three of the ambitions of Ye — the artist formerly known as Kanye West — to dress the world has begun.
Presumably that was supposed to be the takeaway from the surprise show of Paris Fashion Week, held off-schedule in an empty office tower just down the road from the Arc de Triomphe.
Though it turned out to be only nominally a fashion show and more like “The YZY Experience”: a chaotic mess of self-justification, confessional, bone-picking and messianic ambition, with a “White Lives Matter” shot of shock and provocation that overshadowed the clothes on the runway.
The rumors began during the weekend, just a day or so before the Balenciaga mud show. Ye was in Paris and was going to stage a fashion show — a little more than two weeks after ending his much-ballyhooed partnership with Gap.
Maybe it would happen Monday? Maybe not; Ye had just fired his PR agency. No wait, it was happening; he had found another agency. Then, Sunday night, a digital invite arrived. For the next evening. Guests were asked not to share the address.
Monday at 5:45 p.m., the Avenue de la Grande Armée was heaving with screaming fans and photographers. So much for secrecy. They outnumbered the show’s actual attendees by what seemed like 100 to one.
Still, Anna Wintour came. So did John Galliano. Demna, the Balenciaga designer, and Cédric Charbit, its chief executive. Alexandre Arnault, the chief marketing officer of Tiffany & Company and a son of the LVMH chieftain Bernard Arnault. Then they all sat, playing with the soap-on-rope that looked like three granite blocks and had been left on every seat, waiting an hour and a half for the show to begin. (Well, OK, Anna and John left before the whole thing ended, but that was because they had another appointment, Ms. Wintour said.)
It was as good a reflection as anything this week of just how the culture and power structure of fashion and entertainment has changed in the past decade. Because it was 11 years ago, in early October 2011, that Ye held his first fashion show in Paris.
The line at that time was called “Kanye West.” Heavy on the luxury frills — leather and fur and gold hardware — it was widely dismissed by its audience. But this time there they were, the powers that be of the industry, jumping at the last minute to see what Ye had to deliver.
Which involved a live choir featuring a host of children from Ye’s new Donda Academy in California as well as his daughter, North, and began with his rambling speech about critics who complained about his shows being late; his former manager, Scooter Braun; his hospitalization (Ye has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder); the pain of being called “crazy”; critics who complained that his clothes might not be well made; the people at Gap who didn’t get his vision; Bernard Arnault, whom he called “his new Drake”; and the news that he was establishing yet another version of his own fashion house and it started now.
Because “we changed the look of fashion over the last 10 years. We are the streets. We are the culture.” And when it comes to the culture, “I am Ye, and everyone knows I am the leader.”
Except this leader was wearing an oversize shirt with a photo of Pope John Paul II and the words “Seguiremos tu ejemplo” (“We will follow your example”) on the front, and “White Lives Matter” on the back — a phrase that the Anti-Defamation League has called hate speech and attributed to white supremacists (including the Ku Klux Klan), who began using it in 2015 in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The shirt was impossible to miss because, as he spoke, Ye’s image was projected behind him on a wall four stories high.
Besides, Candace Owens, the conservative commentator, was in the audience and wearing one, too. Later the shirt appeared as part of the collection, modeled by Selah Marley, the daughter of Lauryn Hill and granddaughter of Bob Marley. (Matthew M. Williams, the Givenchy designer who worked with Mr. West earlier in his career; Michéle Lamy, Rick Owen’s wife; and Naomi Campbell also walked in the show.)
It was the only message garment in the line, which was called SZN9 in reference to the Yeezy shows that had come before, created in conjunction with Shayne Oliver, the former designer of Hood By Air (Ye is nothing if not a great spotter and cultivator of talent). Which made it stand out even more in a show otherwise focused on garments that could simply be pulled onto the body, with no hardware — buttons or zips or snaps — involved, an idea that Ye first began talking about in the context of his work with Gap.
As it happened, a lot of this line looked like that line, especially that part of that line engineered with Balenciaga’s Demna, including the full-body catsuits that opened the show, the duvet-like puffer ponchos, the blouson jackets and sweats that made the torso into a sort of steroid-filled G.I. Joe triangle, the lack of seams and the semi-apocalyptic palette.
It has potential, but the import got swamped by the shirt, what it symbolized, and how its endorsement by a figure such as Ye — even one with a track record of wearing MAGA hats and toying with Confederate imagery — could be used as a rallying cry by those who already buy into its message.
“Indefensible behavior,” wrote Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, the Vogue editor, on Instagram. Later adding, “there is no excuse, there is no art here.” Jaden Smith, in the audience, walked out. So did Lynette Nylander, the Dazed writer and editor.
The next day, at the Chanel show, Edward Enninful, the editor of British Vogue and the most powerful Black man in fashion media, called the shirt “inappropriate” and “insensitive, given the state of the world.”
Ms. Nylander had posted, “It doesn’t matter what the intention was … it’s perception to the masses out of context.”
Indeed, in the end, it is the shirt out of context that made the news: not Ye’s theories about dress, or his allegations that Mr. Arnault promised to set him up in his own house and then reneged and now has become Ye’s biggest competition (an LVMH representative said Mr. Arnault had “no comment”); not even Ye’s assertion that, having disrupted the fashion week spotlight, he still felt “at war.” If so, this was a grenade that backfired.
As to why he did it, backstage Ye declined to provide any theoretical framework. “It says it all,” he said, of the shirt. But what exactly does it say?
That he truly believes he can appropriate the language of racial violence with irony? That someday the power structure of Black and white will be reversed, and since he says this collection is the future, that’s the world he envisions? That Ye gets a kick out of pushing everyone’s buttons? That he wants to see how far he can go and doesn’t really care about, or think about, the collateral damage in the meantime (including to those children singing at his feet), despite the violence this could feed?
Or that, as he said in his speech, “You can’t manage me. This is an unmanageable situation.”