Living in a Post-Yeezy World
Living in a Post-Yeezy World
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date November 8, 2018
In the last five years or so, has anybody moved the cultural needle more than Kanye West? There is certainly no denying his tremendous influence. In recent weeks, however, it has become increasingly apparent that Kanye’s influence is not necessarily assured—in fact, it appears to be rather precarious at the moment. That begs the question: What would a post-Yeezy world look like?
For starters, a post-Yeezy world doesn’t necessarily mean one in which Kanye ceases to exist, nor one where he removes himself from fashion altogether. Instead, it’s a world where Kanye is no longer the most influential force in style. A decade ago, that was very much the reality. In 2007, the producer-turned-rapper-turned-designer had already signed a number of hits and was well-known, but when he announced he would lead a walk during World Water Day—ostensibly to promote his father’s newly opened water store in Maryland—a mere 50 people showed up. Samples of Pastelle pieces started popping up around the same time, but the line never came to fruition. In 2007, he was Kanye West, with a thousand-and-one ideas, but he wasn’t Kanye, cultural titan. Then suddenly in 2009, he became one of the most influential people in sneakers through collaborations with both Louis Vuitton and Nike. By 2012, he had a blockbuster follow-up with Nike and spurred the success of Riccardo Tisci-helmed Givenchy, among other brands. His personal style was lauded and everything he wore was worth mention. The Kanye co-sign emerged.
A falling out with Nike pushed Kanye to link up with adidas, where he was given creative freedom he felt was sorely lacking at Nike. At adidas, Kanye received a platform to to make widely available signature sneakers and after desperately trying for years finally launched a clothing line, Yeezy. In other words: adidas allowed Kanye to amplify his influence over the last few years. Not only have his sneakers been among the best-selling, but the aesthetic he has pushed with Yeezy and with his own wardrobe have influenced industry-wide trends, while his protégés and associates have left their mark on dozens of brands worldwide.
It’s no stretch then, to claim that over the last five years, Kanye has been the standard-bearer. Yeezys were the gold standard against which other sneaker “drops” were measured. While by no means the first to use drops, Yeezy mania certainly played an integral role in convincing luxury retailers and brands to emulate the sneaker industry’s drop strategy. Ironically though, it is Kanye who is exposing the faults within that paradigm. Yeezy supply has steadily increased from drop to drop, in an effort to make the sneakers available to everyone—something Kanye promised in 2016, but also an effort to maximize profits for adidas. That, coupled with very vocal support for President Donald Trump and a slew of other deeply controversial remarks, has led to something unfathomable a year ago: adidas Yeezy Boosts sitting on shelves and websites days after release.
Some—mainly those in Kanye’s circle—have claimed that the last two releases’ failure to sell out had nothing to do with the increased politicization of Yeezy and point squarely to the fact that there are more Yeezys on the market, which, in their eyes, is a good thing. But, regardless of the underlying cause, two things are readily apparent about a post-Yeezy world.
First, the politicization of Yeezy is particularly interesting, given that “influencers”—be they musicians, models, artists—have supplanted athletes as de-facto brand ambassadors. With sporting exploits seemingly less important, how these ambassadors act in public is increasingly tied to the products they’re hawking rather than athletic accomplishment on the field. Kanye’s pro-Trump rants and dubious comments on other fronts place adidas at odds with Nike, which enlisted Colin Kaepernick to shape its anniversary "Just Do It" campaign in the image of a socio-political movement. It perfectly illustrates the risk of tying products to individuals. There will always be individuals attached to sportswear marketing, but what this latest chapter has shown is that brands will have to be increasingly diligent in selecting the right ambassadors. They will also have to be careful about how much importance they place on the individual, rather than on the brand or the product in question. Kanye West is Yeezy, whereas Kylie Jenner is simply the face of the adidas Falcon and, in retrospect, the latter seems like the more sound approach, insulating brands from risk.
Second, Kanye has undermined the “drop,” not just for himself and adidas, but for the industry as a whole. As sneaker market analyst Matt Powell has repeatedly pointed out, Yeezys worked because of the hype, which was amplified with each subsequent sellout. In a drop-based model, anything that doesn’t immediately sell out is deemed a failure or “uncool,” which inevitably hurts the next release. “Drops” were propped up by the resale market, as scarcity drove resale prices up, further increasing initial demand—a vicious circle of hype. With Yeezys for all, however, the resale market is virtually non-existent and those who want them can get them at retail with little trouble. Suddenly, a Yeezy release is no longer the “event” it was in 2017.
Brands need to be both supremely disciplined, but also incredibly tapped in to their clientele to properly gauge the demand for each product and not oversaturate the market. While the Supremes and Palaces of this world will continue to make fortunes each drop, the recent Yeezy debacle should force others brands that have shifted towards drops to reconsider their position, as it bears an unnecessary risk for designer labels, like Burberry, to take in the long term.
On a macro level, a post-Yeezy fashion world is one where “drops” are less important, giving brands room for error and time to sell-through their products without them being deemed “failures,” and where individual ambassadors are less important to a brand’s overall prosperity. But, on a more granular level, Kanye’s decreasing influence means Yeezy, as a brand, losing market share—market share that someone will undoubtedly capture.
The biggest beneficiary in the footwear category is, without a doubt, Nike. The brand looked foolish when Kanye joined adidas, in part because of the success of the Yeezy Boost series, but also because of the derivative impact that saw models like the Ultra Boost and NMD become behemoths for a few years at Nike’s expense. Nike appears to be much more careful in handling its collaborations with the likes of Virgil Abloh, Acronym, Tom Sachs and A-Cold-Wall, and the brand took steps to revamp its collaborative roster in the wake of adidas’ blockbuster 2016. Nike will surely recapture some—if not, most—of what it lost to adidas, but the brands that stand to gain the most are those that do business in a very different way than Kanye does.
Sneakerheads have long loved smaller brands that produced sneakers in actually limited quantities or used more refined production techniques. Le Coq Sportif, Hi-Tec, Saucony, Asics and New Balance could all benefit from a return to a more traditional sneaker culture, one that is centered less around “hyped” releases from only adidas and Nike, and more around storytelling and quality. Granted, these brands tend to produce things in much smaller quantities than adidas or Nike, which has always given them cachet.
Yeezy clothing has, for the most part, existed on Kanye’s coattails, lacking any defining characteristics (are there any truly iconic pieces?) and sitting at a relatively expensive price point. It sold because it was Yeezy—though the aesthetic was oft-imitated. With Kanye’s influence waning and barring a major aesthetic shift, it is possible that Yeezy will cease to be a truly influential force in fashion. Clothing brands like A-Cold-Wall, which champion elements of Yeezy’s colder dystopian aesthetic, however lack the Kanye West controversy and feature unique attributes stand to make inroads. Yet, it’s also possible that customers will look at the current Yeezy situation, reason that Kanye is no longer tapped into the zeitgeist and completely change their buying patterns, ultimately moving away entirely from the Yeezy aesthetic. That shift is already somewhat apparent; Yeezy has been dominated by earth tones and dusty palettes, but, gradually, neon colors and even tie-dye have supplanted the “Yeezy palette.”.
Younger contemporary brands such as Aimé Leon Dore, Marine Serre and Aries, which offer garments at a similar price point to Yeezy, but rather than paired down and drab aesthetic primarily work in brighter color palettes and tend to avoid massively oversize fits, represent a viable alternative. One need only look at the hype generated by The Row’s menswear debut to understand that, yes, there is a shift going on. That a luxury minimalist womenswear brand which sells $300-plus T-shirts and thousand-dollar sweaters can generate so much buzz is a testament to the changing landscape within the industry. It is not just that Kanye has lost his magic touch; tastes have evolved and swung back to something resembling the pre-Yeezy era. In other words: a post-Yeezy world would look an awful lot like a pre-Yeezy world.
Perhaps that’s it—maybe the rise of Yeezy and Kanye West’s influence was symptomatic of fashion’s gradual co-opting of streetwear. Perhaps Yeezys sitting on shelves is a sign that we have passed “peak sneaker”. Perhaps we are due to return to a fashion climate not unlike that which dominated from 2010 to 2012; cool sneakers weren’t defined by their drop dates and sell out rates. "Cool" sneakers sold out because they were "cool," and not necessarily on the day they dropped. Then again, maybe Yeezy really is a multi-billion dollar company and the last two drops are just blips on the radar before the next dozen releases sell out instantaneously. It's that... or maybe everybody getting their Yeezys coincided with Kanye overplaying his political hand; after a few years, it might just be that everybody is now ready to move on from this streetwear fashion moment.
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