The Social Commentary Hidden in Kanye West and Vanessa Beecroft’s Fashion Show

Screen Shot 2015-09-21 at 6.04.31 PM
Kanye West’s second Yeezy show at New York’s Fashion Week (screenshot via malinajoseph/Instagram)

In the blur of fabric and fanfare that was New York Fashion Week, Kanye West’s second Yeezy show caused the most confusion of all. Never one to be burdened by civil convention, West announced his addition to the event roster mere days before the show. Ruffled feathers didn’t keep the fashion hawks at bay, though, and the packed house was treated to a spring line that looked almost exactly like his debut fall collection from earlier this year. The rapper/designer once again presented flesh-toned, pared-down casual wear that begged the question: is this show even about the clothes?

kanye 1
Yeezy, Spring 2016 (via @kanyewest)

West’s repeat collaboration with Italian artist Vanessa Beecroft on the show’s choreography suggests that this may be as much of a performance practice as it is a Project Runway pantomime. It’s certainly no secret that West likes to think of himself as an artist — he’s already compared himself to Marina Abramovic and he now holds a PhD from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Beecroft is thankfully no stranger to the fashion, either, as her work has often featured monochrome models standing around looking miserable, much like they did for last week’s Yeezy event.

Many of Beecroft’s performances have critiqued the fashion world by revealing the industry’s exploitative use (and misuse) of the female body. Funnily enough, the artist’s work has been criticized on similar grounds — she’s been lambasted for underpaying her models and forcing them to stand for hours in ill-fitting, blood-drawing shoes. Instead of subverting the industry norm, Beecroft has unapologetically confirmed it in service of her own creative vision. Indeed, after a 2008 documentary was released on Beecroft’s attempted adoption of two Sudanese babies to use as subjects in her work, a Vulture article called her a “hypocritically self-aware, colossally colonial pomo narcissist.”

kanye 2
Yeezy, Spring 2016 (via @kanyewest)

Beecroft’s self-aggrandizing, pseudo-cultural critique is evident in the Yeezy spring line, too. While the clothes might have been the draw, the models’ bodies seemed the real focus. Grouped and dressed according to their skin tone, they were marched down the runway in phalanx formation, while a drill sergeant barked orders at them. Pale blondes in beige led the charge, taupe-clad brunettes made up the middle, and dark-skinned models in brown and black brought up the rear. In a year plagued by perpetual racial tension, the show seems an overt reference to cultural trends — the #blacklivesmatter movement, mass incarceration, the recent @IStandWithAhmed story, etc. — versus fashion trends.

In a post-show Vogue interview, however, West denied that there was any intentional social commentary. Instead, he referred to it as “just a painting, just using clothing as a canvas of proportion and color.” Beecroft has similarly referred to her staged performances as “living paintings,” so perhaps he is deferring to her obtuse style of artistic accountability. But coming from the same guy that claimed George W. Bush hates black people, it’s hard to imagine there’s not a nod to racial inequality in the US. As an artist and designer, West should embrace politicizing his fashion line — it can only help his 2020 bid for president.

beecroft 1 (1)
Vanessa Beecroft, “SHOW” (1998) at the Guggenheim Museum (screenshot by the author for Hyperallergic via YouTube)
comments (0)