When Kanye West (finally) released a full lookbook of his new capsule for the GAP — co-created with Balenciaga’s designer Demna — earlier this year, he could not have picked a more unfortunate timing. Less than 24 hours later, Russia invaded Ukraine. Normally the fashion press would have been all over anything Kanye does, but fashion suddenly felt irrelevant as it, understandably, tends to do when a humanitarian crisis hits. And yet it is worth revisiting what a watershed moment for fashion we have let pass us by, perhaps not entirely unrelated in its dark outlook.
Regardless of what one thinks of Ye or Demna, this release should go down in the history of fashion as a major step in redefining (or erasing) semiotic boundaries between high and low, and between designer fashion, streetwear, and what I call apparel — everyday clothes for the masses that don’t demand much thought.
Before we get to the design elements of the capsule, the most important thing must be stressed: The collection whose imagery is chock full of edge, darkness, and downright menace was released by the GAP. Let me rephrase that — it was released by the motherfucking GAP, the gold medal Olympic champion of staid mall Americana, the most inoffensive, mind-numbingly bland brand that has ever graced the face of Earth. This symbol of American naiveté that ruled the mall in the ’90s on the back of a commercial in which a bunch of mostly white innocents danced swing in khaki pants, has been subverted in one fell swoop, which makes it very hard to avoid words like “revolution.”
Maybe not revolution, but subversion is definitely a fitting term. I would give anything to have been in the boardroom of the GAP when this lookbook was first presented. Visualize it — a bunch of old white dudes in khakis and gingham shirts looking at this — their Protestant brains trying to process what exactly it all means. Yes, the GAP has been in decline for years but still making a ton of money uniforming conformist America. Did they just throw it all away? Will this bring an evangelist, heartland blowback like the one that happened to Converse when Rick Owens presented his first collaboration imagery featuring a pentagram? Did they really just erase their entire Instagram — even if for a day — for the apocalyptic, dark vision that is diametrically opposed to everything the GAP has stood for in its entire existence?
Because that imagery, now resurrected in a dedicated Yeezy Instagram profile, is as dark as dark gets. Demna’s work has been gradually taking a bleaker turn in the past two years. The pre-Fall ’22 Balenciaga collection Demna showed in December of last year — and probably his best — was goth and grit that recalled the heyday of ’80s and ’90s New York, which in its cultural outlook was lightyears away from the vanilla cheeriness that GAP was peddling at the time. It certainly reflected the darkness of our current state of the world.
To bring such a vision to the masses via the least likely channel is a ballsy move. Whether the masses will buy into it is another matter. So far, at least judging by my Instagram, the Yeezy GAP customers are fashion insiders or at least people who have more than a cursory interest in fashion (and, of course, your average hypebeast). There may be a reason for that. The strong-shouldered, oversized silhouette presented, as well as the dirty/shiny fabrics the garments are made of is a challenging proposition by any mass market standard. Imagine these clothes anywhere outside of the streets of major fashion capitals, and then imagine how ordinary people dress, and it will become apparent what a bold proposition Yeezy GAP is.
I keep going back to subversion, because this is key. In the big picture, the real fashion prize goes not to someone who wows fashion diehards, but to someone who can convince the masses to reset their eye.
Which brings us back to that erasure of semiotic codes. What is Yeezy GAP engineered by Balenciaga? It’s neither designer fashion, nor luxury, nor streetwear, nor mass-market apparel. It’s neither a high-low collaboration of the kind H&M and Target have pioneered, nor a simple product of celebrity-brand tie-up a la Dior x Travis Scott. It’s everything in between. It has broken all semiotic codes and definitions that surround fashion right now. It’s too mass for the elite, and too elite, considering the difficulty of the proposition and the price point, for the masses. But most importantly, it’s food for thought, and that’s what good design should be.