In His Mind: The Otherworldly Influence of Pharrell Williams
In His Mind: The Otherworldly Influence of Pharrell Williams
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date January 02, 2018
The annals of fashion and streetwear are lined with some impressive names, from the Coco Chanels and Yves Saint-Laurent of years past, to the James Jebbias and Virgil Ablohs of today. That being said, few individuals have had the same impact on the way people dress as Pharrell Williams. From the early-2000s until today, Pharrell has had a tangible effect not only on the clothes that we wear, but on how we wear them. What makes Pharrell so unique is the fact that he has impacted not only streetwear —something not uncommon for producers and rappers— but also fashion, and, one could argue, design in general.
While Pharrell had been pumping out beats throughout the nineties with Chad Hugo under The Neptunes, he didn’t reach the point of noticeably gracing red carpets until the early 2000s, when he produced “Hot in Herre” (2003), “Drop It Like It’s Hot” (2004), “U Don’t Have To Call” (2002), “Frontin’” (2002) and “Rock Your Body” (2003), to name but a few tracks. Some of Pharrell’s sartorial choices in the early 2000s fit with what fellow rappers and producers were wearing—baggy jeans and tees—his affinity for trucker hats, shearling jackets and skateboard tees made him somewhat of an outlier among his peers.
The seminal moment in Pharrell’s style evolution came thanks to his affinity for bombastic jewelry, and through one of the world’s most well-connected and well-respected jewellers. It’s 2000-2001, and Pharrell is sitting with Jacob Arabo, known to most as Jacob the Jeweller. “Jacob used to tell me there’s this guy from Japan that I have to meet,” Pharrell recalled on his Apple Music show OTHERtone in 2016, “[because] he’s bringing in photos of me and having [Jacob] remake all the pieces I was wearing… but in multiple colours.”
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Within the next year or so, Pharrell found himself in Japan for the first time and was in dire need of a studio. Through their mutual connections, Nigo got wind of this and reached out to the Virginia-born producer to offer up his space. “[Nigo] had this building and every floor had something different,” recalls Pharrell, “he [brought me] downstairs and showed me his showroom and it was literally like a candy shop of his apparel and sneakers.” Awestruck, Pharrell didn’t hesitate when Nigo told him to grab whatever he liked, leaving “a lot of [his] stuff in Tokyo and [stuffing his] suitcase with Ape stuff” to bring back stateside.
During that same trip, Pharrell, Nigo and Toby Feltwell (formerly the chief of staff for A Bathing Ape), shared a supper that would change the future of streetwear and fashion as a whole. Pharrell “already had plans to do Billionaire Boys Club” according to Feltwell, “he just didn’t have the logo.” Over dinner that evening, Pharrell explained his ideas and his vision to Nigo for BBC and its sister brand, Ice Cream. He asked Nigo to be an advisor for the two brands—to be someone that Pharrell could turn to for advice or guidance. Nigo was on board immediately, offering to design the brand. By the time they reached a Tokyo nightclub to cap off the night, one of A Bathing Ape’s leading graphic designers at the time, SK8THING, had already devised the now iconic astronaut logo. SK8THING would later go on to found Cav Empt, but contributed a tremendous amount to BBC and A Bathing Ape.
Pharrell’s impact on fashion in the early 2000s can be seen through the prism of A Bathing Ape, BBC and Ice Cream, as well as his relationship with Nigo. Following his return from Japan, Pharrell not only began to wear more BAPE, but also to tease some graphics from the yet-to-be-announced Billionaire Boys Club collection. BAPE’s bright colors and loud graphics were a perfect fit for Pharrell as he moved into the mainstream, bringing A Bathing Ape to the forefront at the same time, a trend helped along by the likes of Pusha T and Malice, among others. The hit-maker became the brand’s de facto ambassador in the United States, at a time when it was falling out of favour in Japan. It’s no coincidence that Pharrell hosted the opening party for Nigo’s New York flagship in 2005—he had become the face of the brand, using his newfound influence and his eclectic style to win the brand fans.
As Pharrell pushed A Bathing Ape into a new stratosphere with his off-kilter camo beanies and trucker hats, he, Nigo and SK8THING were working on fine-tuning Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream. The goal, according to those involved with starting the brand, was always to make stuff that Pharrell himself “wanted to wear and wanted to see in the marketplace.” His 2003 music video for Frontin’ is what he used to launch Billionaire Boys Club into the mainstream.
“Yeah, that was calculated,” Pharrell would later admit to Complex in an Oral History of BBC. That music video laid the groundwork for BBC’s almost immediate popularity, with requests pouring in for the gear that Pharrell was wearing in the video. When the BBC team launched their website, they had already sold some goods through a showroom to other retailers and figured they had a good read on what the demand would be for the product. That wasn’t the case, though because, “as soon as [it was] set live, like a thousand orders [came in],” explained Philip Leeds, brand manager for Billionaire Boys Club, to Complex, “[Pharrell and I] didn't have any experience in what we were about to endeavour. It was a little overwhelming just the two of us.”
Billionaire Boys Club was never intended to be a skateboard brand—rather, it was geared towards the fashion forward youth in the United States and Japan. That being said, Pharrell had shown an affinity for skate culture over the years and BBC’s sister brand, Ice Cream, was really where skateboarding came into play. Nino Scalia, who worked with Pharrell at Zoo York previously and would become Ice Cream’s skate team manager, described the brand’s customer as “the skate kid that pays attention to fashion.” Ice Cream’s signature, really, became the all-over print; it not only came to define the brand, but Pharrell used it to define his own style in the mid-aughts.
Ice Cream’s links with skateboarding were solidified in 2004. For starters, the Pharrell-produced “Drop It Like It’s Hot” was released, with Pharrell referring to himself as “Skateboard P”. It was a moniker he had earned in high school, but it hadn’t followed him into the mainstream prior to that point. In the video for “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, Pharrell teased the still unreleased Reebok x Ice Cream “Beeper Flavor”, which would be a staple among Ice Cream affiliated skaters. In order to help promote Ice Cream, Pharrell partnered with the aforementioned Scalia to create a skate team. While Pharrell saw it as an opportunity to give back to a community that had inspired him, it had a huge impact on skateboarding and streetwear at large.
The team was composed of Terry Kennedy, Jacob Wilder, Kevin Booker, Cato Williams, and Jimmy Gorecki—it was a mix of young but well-respected skaters who had featured on other professional teams before. Under Pharrell’s guidance (and laced with Ice Cream gear) the Ice Cream Team helped redefine the relationship between skateboarding, hip-hop and fashion. Not only did Pharrell bring skateboarders on-board for music videos like “Drop It Like It’s Hot”, “Can I Have It Like That” or “That Girl”, pushing them and their effortless cool to the forefront, he did it while dressing them in bright colorrs, all-over print hoodies, and slimmer clothes than ever before. In a testament to Pharrell’s ability to parlay a skate team into a cultural revolution of sorts, what surprised those on Team Ice Cream the most, according to Jimmy Gorecki, was “how much people wanted to see the personality or lifestyle aspect,” when they put out Team Ice Cream Vol. 1, rather than the actual skating.
By 2006-2007, Pharrell’s impact on fashion was palpable thanks to A Bathing Ape, BBC and Ice Cream. The loud, all-over prints he popularized with the three brands became staples of young East Coasters’ wardrobes, while brands like Supreme also started incorporating ostentatious prints into their offerings. Bright, quasi-neon colors were mainstays in graphics, but Pharrell’s influence was probably most felt in terms of footwear. Popularized by the patent leather Bapestas he wore during public appearances, and later the collaborative Reebok Beeper and the standalone Ice Cream “Board Flip”, garish colour blocking became the standard in the footwear industry. While officially a skate shoe, those on Team Ice Cream had no illusions about the shoe’s true impact: it was a statement shoe more than a skate shoe and “[they] had to look past certain things for the greater good.” Besides colors and prints, Pharrell’s influence in the 2000s extended to the way streetwear thought about proportions and fits. Take the above-mentioned Reebok x Ice Cream Beeper. For a generation of skaters and hip-hop heads accustomed to chunky, clumsy sneakers, the shoe was streamlined and set the tone for how footwear would evolve over the next decade or so. In fact, the footwear that Pharrell was putting out in 2004-2006 is quite similar to what most brands are putting on the market today.
Perhaps nothing better exemplifies how Pharrell changed how fashion and style was perceived in the mid-’00s than his 2006 album In My Mind. In 2005, Pharrell had partnered with Nigo to create the BAPE Character Generator, which allowed fans to customize an 8-bit-esque caricature of Pharrell. The cover of In My Mind featured one such caricature, with Pharrell wearing a BBC tee and Bapestas. By the end of 2006, thousands of Pharrell fans and streetwear-heads turned to the Character Generator to create their profile avatars for the then-nascent MySpace network. Pharrell not only changed how people dressed, but he made those following hip-hop, streetwear and skateboarding realize that how they dressed could be an expression of who they were—it allowed outsiders to glimpse inside their mind.
Following the release of In My Mind, and with BBC and Ice Cream seemingly well-rooted for continued success, Pharrell underwent a stylistic evolution of sorts. By 2008, Pharrell brought forth what The Cut qualifies as the “rap hipster” look. All-over print full-zip hoodies gave way to plaid shirts and knit cardigans. The patent leather, color-blocked Bapestas and Ice Cream kicks became Vans Authentics and the jeans got even skinnier—something most hip-hop heads and streetwear aficionados thought impossible. These are all trends that would reach the mainstream in 2010-2011, but it shows that Pharrell was ahead of his time, already experimenting with these styles in 2008.
One of the most striking developments in Pharrell’s evolution in 2008 and 2009, was his shift towards designer pieces. While the hip-hop world had always held high-end designers close to their heart (think Biggie and Versace) Pharrell’s shift was drastic because he wasn’t moving towards the traditional designer pieces worn by rappers and producers before him. There were no garish pieces or ostentatious displays of wealth on the red carpet; rather, one of Pharrell’s most iconic looks from the late-’00s featured a piece from Maison Martin Margiela, known for their low-key branding and not necessarily considered a household name in hip-hop and streetwear in 2008. At the 2008 BET Hip-Hop Awards, Pharrell pulled up on the red carpet wearing lightly distressed denim, a red gingham button down, a red fitted, and a nylon motorcycle jacket from Maison Martin Margiela, embellished with a red “M” across the chest and sleeves—inspired by the iconic jacket worn by Michael Jackson in his Thriller days. Comparing Pharrell’s red carpet outfit (and even his nerdy plaid-shirt-and-glasses combo when he took the stage with Common) to what the rest of the crowd showed up with proves that Pharrell was always the trendsetter and pacemaker. While everyone else was showing up in the baggy denim, brightly-coloured graphics and garish chains that Pharrell had popularized in the early and mid-aughts, Skateboard P was fine-tuning the “rapper-meets-hipster” style that would be embraced circa 2010-2011. By the time the 2010 BET Hip-Hop Awards rolled around, everybody else had caught up to Pharrell’s preppy swagger.
Pharrell’s partnership with Louis Vuitton in the spring of 2008 established his status as a burgeoning force in fashion, and exemplified his new-found style. His affinity for jewelry was well-known, but the extravagant chains designed for him by Jacob the Jeweller no longer fit with how he dressed. Blason, the French word for coat of arms, was the byproduct of a collaboration between Pharrell and Louis Vuitton’s jewelry designer Camille Micelli. In an interview with WWD, Pharrell explained that jewellery was “a costly habit of [his]” and that “doing it on Louis Vuitton’s dime [made it] fun for once.” The result was a collection that was certifiably blinged out, but done in a tasteful manner.
Further solidifying his move to into the high-end fashion realm, Pharrell partnered with Moncler to create an outerwear collaboration in 2010. The collection is best remembered for the reversible down vest that resembled a bullet-proof vest, and the print commissioned from Japanese artist Keita Sugiura. It was exactly what one would come to expect from Pharrell: a delicate balance between fashion and streetwear that merged his hip-hop and skateboard influences with the clout that comes naturally from an institution of European fashion. As we look back in hindsight, it’s worth noting that this Moncler collaboration was constructed using a fabric from Bionic Yarn, a company that develops fabric from recycled waste. Pharrell would later go on to become creative director of Bionic Yarn and be instrumental in the brand’s partnership with G-STAR, resulting in a line of denim made from recycled ocean plastic. Amazingly, seven years later, it’s still considered noteworthy when a brand announces that they are using recycled plastics or making moves to reduce waste.
Pharrell’s work at the end of the aughts was instrumental in the rapprochement between streetwear and fashion. He gave the two fields a common thread. With that in mind, it’s also important to consider his parallel ventures in the late-’00s, namely his work with Takashi Murakami and his efforts in furniture design in partnership with renowned French gallery-owner Emmanuel Perrotin. His cross-disciplinary collaborations—whether that was the Louis Vuitton Blason collection, his Simple Things work with Murakami or his Perspective chair with Perrotin and Domeau & Peres—helped open the door for the collaboration-centric approach we have seen over the last few years. While Kanye West may have worked with Louis Vuitton regardless of Blason, and Ronnie Fieg’s KITH may still have worked with Coca-Cola and Samsung, It’s worth stopping to note that Pharrell was on the front lines of what was possible in the now-ubiquitous merging culture, fashion, and lifestyle design.
If Enfants Riches Déprimés had been around in 2011 and 2012, it’s quite possible that Pharrell would’ve been their biggest client. Besides a partnership with KarmaloopTV (a content-based off-shoot of the ill-fated online purveyor of discounted streetwear), it was a quiet two years by Pharrell’s standards. That being said, it was a period that was punctuated by his move towards a military-inspired punk-chic aesthetic. In an interview with GQ’s Brad Wete in 2012, Pharrell admitted to “having a '90s grunge moment,” slouched beanie and all.
It was during this grungy, post-punk phase that Pharrell began truly experimenting with #menswear. While he had stepped out in a tuxedo before (a Moncler Game Bleu camouflage tuxedo with shorts instead of pants, no less) signalled a new era Pharrell and for menswear in general. At the same time, Pharrell was hard at work on two collaborations with New York-based designer Mark McNairy for Billionaire Boys Club. The result of their labor are collections that represent the intersection between streetwear and #menswear: chinos, down vests, button downs, and varsity jackets galore for the inaugural Bee Line collection, and a monochromatic BBC Black collection— which drew more heavily on streetwear—as a follow up.
Over the next two years, Pharrell continued to effortlessly blend streetwear and menswear together to help birth #menswear. Denim shorts, paired with tunic-style shirts and casual blazers, were often worn with camouflage baseball caps designed by McNairy. Looking back on 2012 and 2013, Pharrell was laying the groundwork for what would explode on Tumblr and across the Internet in the coming months while offering a crash-course in layering and proportions. During this era we also get an early glimpse at his affinity for Rei Kawakubo’s Comme des Garçons pieces in his wardrobe. The styles he was pushing would become the bread and butter for brands like Engineered Garments over the next few years, with men seemingly no longer afraid of the tunic.
Somehow, Pharrell managed to outdo everything we’ve discussed above by 2014. It was January 26th, 2014, and the music industry’s elite were gathering in Los Angeles for the 56th edition of the Grammys. Everything seemed to be going according to plan—Twitter was abuzz with hot takes and Jay-Z and Beyoncé were set to open the show—until Pharrell showed up wearing a Vivienne Westwood Mountain Hat and a red leather adidas track jacket. It was a showcase of how Pharrell stands in a unique sartorial class of his own (albeit one that Kanye West might also fall into) when it comes to fashion. Sure, there are others who could have worn the same outfit and gotten away with it, but nobody actually did. And, more importantly, nobody would be able to ignite the firestorm that Pharrell did. It became a thing. Arby’s literally paid $44,100 for the hat after he wore it. The hat had been available at Westwood’s World’s End store on an almost continual basis for three decades, but became almost impossible to come by once Pharrell sported it.
While the Vivienne Westwood hat was receiving most of the attention, Pharrell was laying the groundwork for his upcoming collaboration with German sportswear giant adidas. The partnership between the two parties was officially announced in March, but the three-striped track top had become a staple of Pharrell’s wardrobe in the months leading up to the announcement. It seemed natural, then, when it was revealed that the Virginia-born producer would be releasing unique, premium takes on the brand’s classic pieces, ranging from the Stan Smith to the Superstar Track Top. It may be reductive to claim that Pharrell was the one responsible for pushing adidas to the top of the crowded sportswear and sneaker world, but it may not be far from the truth.
Pharrell’s choice of the Stan Smith and Superstar for much of 2014 and 2015 definitely helped push the silhouettes back to relevance, using a recipe that was tried and tested from previous endeavours. Much of Pharrell’s work with adidas in the first year-and-a-half focused on pushing individuals to express themselves through their sneakers. All-over prints and bright colors took over the two iconic silhouettes. Pharrell himself customized his kicks—as he was known to do previously—attaching a big name to a trend that was soon seized upon by artists of all stripes (pun not intended) worldwide. By 2015, adidas heritage styles, the aforementioned Stan Smith and Superstar, had seen a 29 percent increase in sales, something which even adidas’ CEO at the time, Herbert Hainer, attributed to Pharrell’s collaboration on the shell-toe sneaker. During a conference call, summarized by Refinery29, Hainer explained that Pharrell's fifty (yes, you read that correctly) new colourways had pushed “the franchise to new levels,” and that derivative “sales and sell-through spiked around the globe, creating halo effects far beyond the [Superstar] itself.” By 2016, adidas had the data to back up Hainer’s claims, with the Superstar outselling every other sneaker in adidas’ portfolio and pushing the brand’s Originals line to 46 percent growth in the last quarter of 2015. Pharrell was proving once again how much power and influence he wielded over what people chose to wear and how they wore it.
On June 1st, 2015, Kanye West took the stage in front of the Council of Fashion Designers of America to present Pharrell with the Fashion Icon Award. During a surprisingly brief introduction, he proclaimed that “Pharrell [had] always been [his] fashion idol” and that, “without Pharrell, there would be no Kanye, no A$AP.” It was fitting given that Pharrell had always been a step or two ahead of his fellow fashionable producer. BBC and Ice Cream pre-dated Pastelle; Blason predated West’s footwear collaboration with Louis Vuitton; Yeezy Boosts may have sold out faster than any Pharrell-designed adidas, but it was the latter who had had a bigger impact on the brand’s dramatic revival in the United States. In his own speech, Pharrell referenced “[living] in his own head,” and using “Vans and Chuck Taylors [as the] perfect canvas [for] DIY” fashion that got him through high school—a poignant moment of introspection that helped explain the roots of his philosophy towards fashion as a form of self-expression. With his teenage self in mind, Pharrell reminisced about his early exposure to fashion coming through hip-hop, when “Notorious B.I.G. rhymes about Chanel.” In all, it sheds light on his drive to democratize fashion: if a kid from Virginia can learn about Chanel from a rapper in New York, why can’t Pharrell help spawn a new generation of forward-thinking fashionphiles?
The speech was quasi-prescient, as 2016 was marked not only with a rapprochement between Pharrell and the above-mentioned Chanel, but also with what seemed like a conscious effort to do away with societal boundaries in fashion. Pharrell’s 2016 work with Chanel was set on showing that men could wear pieces that were previously seen as overly feminine While Kanye West had worn a Spring/Summer 2011 Céline silk blouse to perform at Coachella years earlier, Pharrell’s appearances in the brand’s iconic tweed were important because they were part of a campaign with Karl Lagerfeld to reframe fashion as genderless, in a sense. In February of 2016, Pharrell sported a Chanel jacket at the Grammys (with “clout goggles” no less). In September of the same year, he wore a multicolour tweed Chanel jacket and silk scarf around the neck. The crowning moment of his Chanel-covered 2016 coming in December, when he walked the runway at Chanel’s Collection des Metiers d'Art 2016/17: Paris Cosmopolite show.
A few months later, in April 2017, Pharrell would become the first man to ever appear in a handbag campaign for Chanel. When discussing the achievement with WWD he reflected that, when it comes to fashion, “there’s mostly the perception that it’s for women, [but he] just started to see, OK, as a man [you] can wear some of this […] sunglasses here, or a jacket there.” But don’t think that Pharrell’s longstanding relationship with Chanel ends there. He tapped the prestige fashion house to lend its name to a hyper-exclusive pair of Hu NMDs, sold during Colette’s final year in business.
When looking back at Pharrell’s forays into fashion over the past decade and half there is a common thread: he is not only an influencer, he has been fashion’s great democratizer. He has seen barriers to inclusion and taken aim. Following his first trip to Japan, he realized how different “style” was in Tokyo compared to the United States—so he brought some of that back with him. With BBC and Ice Cream, he brought skate rats into the streetwear realm, making them ambassadors for his brand and making boisterous, colorful, all-over prints acceptable. With Louis Vuitton, Moncler, and Perrotin he showed that a beat maker from Virginia could also design, whether that was outerwear, jewelry or furniture. With Chanel he pushed the message that clothes could be worn regardless of gender. With adidas—and throughout his entire career—really, he encouraged individuals to express themselves with how they dressed; don’t forget, even Kanye cops to the fact that Pharrell helped blaze trails in fashion before he did. Even his most recent work with adidas on the range of Hu NMDs (originally released in 2016 and steadily re-released in a variety of new colorways) seeks to showcase different elements of the human existence—according to adidas—and to "explore humanity and celebrate diversity around the world.” For all of his notable outfits and collaborations and for all of the trends that he has helped kickstart, the essence boils down to style as a form of self-expression for Pharrell. He is someone that understands being on the outside looking in—being a nerdy skater from Virginia who has always had a desire to dress a little differently than his peers. Armed with that experience, Pharrell has been on a quest, intentional or not, to reframe how we conceive of fashion and its relationship to the masses. We’ve all been been influenced by what’s “in [his] mind.”