Adidas Originals x Kanye West. The official description announces it simply as, “the world’s first ‘solutions-based’ clothing line”. While his critics may interpret a Kanye-designed shoe as another egotistical venture for the bold (and often reckless) celebrity, West explained the line as being “bigger than who I am” during his release show last month.
West’s vision for the Adidas collaboration represents another fearless challenging of the status quo, equal to that which awarded him success and critical acclaim as a musician. But now, he has a new stage: sportswear — specifically sneakers.
The Feb. 21 international-release of the Adidas Yeezy Boost serves as West’s most recent venture into shoe design, but these Yeezys have new meaning. The line is confronting an ambitious challenge, as West aims to create meaningful social change by combating the alleged damaging nature of the current shoe industry.
West’s influence has shook up sportswear before, as a past collaboration with Nike inspired a shift in the commercial approach to selling basketball shoes. After their 2009 arrival, the Nike Air Yeezys instantly became a trophy of urban culture, retailing at $215 (incredibly high for the time) and only a limited number were produced.
The exclusive nature of the shoes created intense demand, as the Air Yeezys quickly sold out and were resold for over $1,000. A business success for Nike, they have since continued to recycle this model for the sale of basketball shoes, as Retro Air Jordans and other desired shoes are sold for over $200 in extremely limited quantities.
In his Feb. 26 interview with the BBC’s Zane Lowe, West pointed out the broader problem with this high-priced, limited release strategy. He explains that these ‘exclusive’ products encourage social separation, feeding America’s currently destructive issues of wealth inequality and classism. It’s easy to find stories of murder over Jordan or Yeezy shoes, as these tokens of culture seemingly cause more social dismemberment than empowerment.
In addressing the issue, West stated, “exclusivity is the new N-word… Nothing should be exclusive. Everyone should have an opportunity to drink from the same fountain”.
As a harsh-commentary on the sportswear industry, West said, “there are so many things that are meant to wear the people, instead of the people wearing it”. His perspective is grounded in a belief that culture becomes ‘a part’ of a person. Through a shoe, a sports team, a song, or other artifacts of culture, people are provided a resource for individual identification and self-expression.
This is obvious, for example, every time you hear a sports fan refer to their favourite team not as ‘them’, but as ‘we’. In that way, culture is who you are. To express this, anyone can listen to a Kanye West album (nearly all CDs are priced the same), and anyone can cheer for their favourite team on TV. But with shoes, product exclusivity and extreme price-points, it allow for access to only a slice of the population. This system is encouraging separation for the sake of profit, rather than empowering people through culture. Kanye’s vision is to level these barriers, and create common ground through a product desired, and accessible, by all.
As West approaches this new opportunity with Adidas, his focus is redefining how sportswear is sold. The aspiration of Adidas Originals x Kanye West is to create valuable sport products that are accessible to the masses. Meanwhile, the first release of the Adidas project, the Yeezy Boost, is priced at (a modest) $350. Kanye claims this was solely Adidas’ decision and he has openly apologized, articulating confidence that future releases will build towards accessible price-points. With the shoe industry clearly holding on to the profitable exclusivity-model, it is uncertain whether Kanye will be able to lift the price barriers as he envisions. We will ultimately have to wait and see if ‘Yeezus’ can be so generous.