Kanye West and the Development of ‘Offensive Fashion’

By Meg Burgess

Kanye West – one of the most decorated hip-hop artists in history, with 21 Grammy wins and 68 nominations to his name, as well as the fashion entrepreneur behind the “Yeezy” brand. “Yeezy” is estimated to bring in $1.5 billion (£1.16 billion) in revenue in 2019, so the question is, amongst so much controversy, how is he able to sell out a footwear line in 10 minutes? He has recently been criticized over the integrity of his 9th studio album “Jesus is King”, which draws influences from the Bible. Even the track “Every Hour” features the gospel choir “Sunday Service Choir”. However, because of his recent (and very public) conversion to the Christian religion, many Christians now worry he is commercialising their religion for his own benefit.

The “Yeezy” brand was first founded in 2007, with West collaborating with Nike to release the first “Nike Air Yeezy”. This was a chunky, high-top style shoe drawing inspiration from basketball, retailing for $215 (£167) and sold out instantly. This was a huge shift in the fashion industry, marking the first permanent collaboration between Nike and a non-athlete.

Since then, West has managed to create a multi-billion dollar brand, working alongside names like Louis Vitton, Adidas and Off White, creating lines that manage to sell out completely within hours. By having huge success with his brand, West has created a new “norm” for artists, encouraging them to expand out into various different markets. In doing so, he helps develop a positive relationship between artists and designers. It came as a shock to many consumers of Nike to release a shoe with “holy water” in the sole, as well as featuring a crucifix on the tongue of the shoe, especially considering West’s recent conversion to Christianity.

The shoe itself is dubbed the “Jesus Shoes”, is a simple design patented by Nike, featuring the familiar Air Max 97 body, with “holy water from the Jordan river” placed in the air bubbles in the sole of the shoe. Many Catholics are offended by the design of the shoe, with one individual stating:

 “Mass producing holy water is nothing new, the Vatican produces thousands of “holy water” bottles sold throughout Rome, but because the consumer is walking on it, it tries to make everyone Jesus, and the image of Jesus being crucified on the shoe itself is very disrespectful.”

 The shoe retailed for £2400, and sold out instantly. The developer “MSCHF” behind the drop said:

The Vatican has mad style if you really look at it—dope engravings, crazy hats, everything blinged out with gold—so we wanted these shoes to allude to that.

The soles are filled with Holy Water (the water was originally sourced from the river Jordan, and then blessed). The custom red insoles reference the traditional red shoes that the Pope wears, and the insoles are even scented with Frankincense, one of the gifts brought by the three wise men who traveled to greet Jesus after his birth.

The seal on the box is modified from the official Papal Seal, and the angel on the box is excerpted from Albrecht Durer’s 1514 engraving Melencolia I.”

Personally, I believe that religion shouldn’t be commercialised for the benefit of fashion, out of respect for those whose lives are dedicated to their faith. For it to then be exploited and monetised is something very insensitive. However, some have argued that Kanye’s influence on the fashion industry alongside his recent conversion is his own method of showing his faith, and that everyone has the right to express their faith in their own way.

AW19 Gucci –

The fashion industry as a whole is no stranger to controversy, with many designers choosing to feature collections that can be considered “too close to the wire” for some. But many consumers are wondering; is this innovation or grasping for ideas in places that are steeped in cultural identity? For example, the Gucci Autumn/Winter 2018 collection featured a black polo neck jumper with a balaclava over the face, and red lips cut out over the mouth. This was slammed for its negative portrayal of people of colour, especially since it was released during Black History Month.

Burberry also came under fire for including a hoodie with a noose around the neck in their Autumn/Winter 2019 collection. When criticised, Burberry responded by saying:

 “Though the design was inspired by the marine theme that ran throughout the collection, it was insensitive and we made a mistake.”

The backlash comes after the increasing desensitisation of mental health issues, with some worrying that fashion could be stepping back rather than being more progressive and inclusive. Fashion houses have always trodden on the edge of culturally insensitive design for the sake of innovation, but is it a deliberate media ploy to gain more traction for their brand?

But Kanye West isn’t the only celebrity to be criticised for having ties to “offensive fashion”. West’s wife, Kim Kardashian-West released a new shapewear line named “Kimono” in June 2019, which unsurprisingly provoked a rather negative response from the public. It comes after the cultural appropriation of the word “kimono”, referencing a highly respected form of Japanese traditional dress. Yuka Ohishi told the BBC:

“We wear kimonos to celebrate health, growth of children, engagements, marriages, graduations, at funerals. It’s celebratory wear and passed on in families through the generations. This shapewear doesn’t even resemble a kimono – she just chose a word that has Kim in it – there’s no respect to what the garment actually means in our culture.”

For Kardashian-West to appropriate a culture where the kimono has such rich history, offended many Japanese people.

Burberry AW19 –

In Kanye’s words, “Jesus walks”, but would he walk in the “Jesus shoes”? Especially amongst the recent development of “cancel culture” and “cultural appropriation”. Should fashion houses take more care when designing? Or should we be more understanding about other cultures, in order to avoid situations that cause offence?