NEW YORK — There were so many things that were intriguing and confounding, fascinating and bold about the unveiling of Yeezy Season 3, Kanye West’s men’s and women’s sportswear collection. But none of them had to do with the cut of the clothes.
This is not an insult to West’s fashion sense or to his place in this city’s fashion week, which began Thursday. It is simply to say that there is nothing particularly ground-breaking about his aesthetic and there is nothing about it that leaves one breathless with desire. But even the most accomplished and experienced designers only rarely achieve that level of creativity, and West has only been sending frocks down a runway intermittently since 2011.
The clothes in this fall 2016 collection were a continuation of a Yeezy sensibility that is focused on athleisure-wear — clothes that walk the line between something that one might wear to yoga class and something fit for brunch. There were slim leggings and body-conscious tops, along with cropped shearlings, giant sweatshirts and skinny knit dresses. The shoes are the big sellers and there were desert boots as well as snug-fitting, booty-style heels. And it was all shown in a warm palette of saffron, cayenne and coco. Fine. Wearable. Nice job.
These were modest clothes shown in a most immodest way. West champions an enticing idea: that frocks are important, meaningful tools for change and a potent form of mass entertainment.
West unveiled his collection at Madison Square Garden alongside the release of his album “The Life of Pablo.” It was an overwrought and over-hyped event that the public bought into with enthusiasm, spending $100 and more for seats, commemorative T-shirts and hoodies and the pleasure of having their rib cages rattled with uppercuts of jolting bass.
There were some 20,000 people at the Garden, according to West. And who are we to doubt him? There were people watching a livestream of the show and others who viewed it from the seats of multiplexes around the world. People paid to watch his fashion extravaganza.
The clothes were given a pointed and timely symbolism with the help of the artist Vanessa Beecroft, who has regularly collaborated with West. She installed the models on a towering platform in the center of what evoked a refugee camp. The setting recalled the photograph of Rwandan refugees that was featured on the show’s invitation. In this moment of debate about Syrian refugees, immigration reform and nationalistic political rhetoric, the scene packed significant cultural punch.
These fashion refugees — yes, the very notion of glamorized pain makes one squirm — were people of color and, except for brief appearances by star models Naomi Campbell, Liya Kebede and Veronica Webb, mostly anonymous. It was frustrating not to be able to see the clothes up close. But this show was never about fabric and tailoring. And the distance — the fact that one could only see the group and not the individuals — was a reminder of how the culture sees so many of the world’s disadvantaged, disaffected and downtrodden. They are not singular individuals; they are a problem, an issue, a talking point, a political football.
The models simply stood in their stylized tent city. They did not pose or glare or smile. Occasionally they sat down when they were tired. They got sweaty under the lights. They looked a bit sad. They existed.
But throughout the nearly two hour production, they would periodically act out — as if they simply couldn’t take the stillness any longer. Some of the models threw up the middle finger in response to a West-encouraged, vulgar audience tirade against Nike. (Adidas sponsored the Yeezy show.) They raised their fist in a black power salute. They were silent and they were political. And that was potent.
West believes in fashion — or more precisely, West believes in his ability to use fashion as a tool for communicating his creative vision, for sharing the anger, frustration, pride and joy that all appear to swirl and collide in his head. And he is willing to declare that fashion, his fashion, has such a tremendous capacity to speak that it deserves a stage as big as those occupied by legendary musicians and heroic sports figures. Fashion is culture — sweeping, mass and powerful.
The wonder of West’s show was not in some new silhouette or embroidery technique. Certainly, that is the heart of fashion; that is its essence. But that’s not all that it is or all that it can be.
Madison Square Garden, home of the Knicks and the Rangers, was filled with a cheering crowd that had come to see a cultural happening — one that was at times scattered and disorganized, awkward and self-aggrandizing. They had come to hear an album. And they had come to see a bunch of clothes. What did they have to say?
West disrupted fashion week. He elbowed his way onto the schedule, forcing designers that lack his clout to scurry out of his way. He is still prone to interrupting his music to lash out at the fashion industry or demand that his audience properly adore him. He is indiscreet with his thanks. And shameless with his rage.
But West has something to say — about corporate politics, race, ego and fame. Something that he believes can only be communicated through fashion. And even when those thoughts are muddied and rambling, he’s willing to yell them at the top of his lungs.