All you need to know about fashion is Kanye West

Fashion in a microcosm.
Fashion in a microcosm.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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To kick off New York Fashion Week, Kanye West is launching a new fashion collection and dropping a new album today (Feb. 11). Fans and media alike are in a frenzy, as one of the world’s biggest pop artists combines projects for a single, massive spectator event in Madison Square Garden.

Whether this year’s show is a success or not, you can’t miss West’s huge presence in fashion. For better or worse, he conveniently personifies several of the large-scale shifts that have been shaking up the fashion business of late, as well as some of the biggest trends in clothing of the past couple years. Look at what he’s doing and you get a sense of just how the industry is changing.

Fashion as entertainment

Fashion has always been a form of enjoyment for a few people—mainly the rich—but never has it been such a major part of mainstream entertainment.

The internet has opened up the once-closed fashion industry to a global audience. Brands such as H&M and Zara have helped bring runway knockoffs to the mass market. Shopping has become a pastime for everyone. Now even designer fashion is something we consume through our screens, just like sports and movies—and West is literally making the debut of his new collection into a concert.

The runway show has taken on a different role, as fashion opens up to the public. Once held as industry events for store buyers and magazine editors, they’ve been re-oriented to appeal to general consumers.

That change is at the heart of much of anxiety about the fashion system being broken: Companies such as Burberry are hurrying to engage consumers by making products immediately available for purchase after a runway show, for example, while New York Fashion Week recently hired a consulting group to determine if its runway shows should become fully consumer-facing.

“When we look at the world, we see fashion, sports, movies, TV, books: They are all just different aspects of global entertainment consumption,” Ariel Emanuel, an executive at WME/IMG, an entertainment giant that has a hand in 13 major fashion events around the world, told the New York Times in September. Nobody makes that case better than West.

Athleisure, streetwear, and gender-neutral dressing

Yeezy’s clothes are basically a cornucopia of the biggest trends in fashion. Athleisure, the gym-ready style so prominent that it’s now in the dictionary, is one of the pillars of West’s work. A lot of his clothes are high-end sweats, including sweatpants and sweatshirts, and the sneakers he makes with Adidas remain one of his most popular items.

The huge influence that fashion labels have increasingly found in streetwear brands, such as Supreme and A Bathing Ape, also shows up in his camouflage pieces, bomber jackets, and big sweatshirts. By no coincidence, Virgil Abloh, West’s creative director, is also the founder of streetwear-inspired label Off-White.

Gender-neutral clothing has turned up more and more on fashion’s biggest runways. So naturally, from his first Yeezy collection, West has presented men and women together, dressed in clothes that don’t vary much by gender.

At the same time that references to designer Martin Margiela have increased in hip-hop, West has been referencing Margiela in his own clothing line. And even West’s own style evolution, from wearing American classic Ralph Lauren to more fashion-forward labels like Rick Owens, reflects a broader growing interest in designer clothing among men.

The cult of celebrity

Linked to all of these changes is celebrity’s growing importance in fashion. Social media has become a critical driver of sales, but traditional influencers, such as magazines, wield less clout than they used to. In their place, individual personalities with lots of followers are gaining ground.

It’s no coincidence that two of 2015’s top female models, Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, have immense social followings. Both appeared in last year’s campaign for H&M’s collaboration with Balmain, the luxury label headed by Olivier Rousteing, France’s most-followed designer. West is friendly with Rousteing himself, and all that celebrity credibility helped fuel the insane frenzy around the Balmain x H&M launch.

West, of course, is married of course to Kim Kardashian, one of the most-followed people on Instagram and sister to Kendall Jenner. He’s frequently used these family connections and famous friends to help build excitement around his clothes and footwear on social media.

Of course, none of this actually speaks to whether he’s a good designer. Critics have been happy to weigh in on that, separately. But as far as the fashion business goes, Kanye West is right on trend.