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The fashion world embraced Ye. After his 'White Lives Matter' shirts, that may change

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we're going to talk about Kanye West again, or Ye, as he prefers to be called now. The legendary rapper, producer, Trump admirer and once and possibly future presidential candidate has focused much of his recent career on provocations of various kinds. And he's done so again, this time at Paris Fashion Week, when he staged a surprise runway show. The real surprise was when models wearing oversized T-shirts with the words White Lives Matter on the back walked down the runway, and Ye and a conservative pundit also wore them. The slogan, which is considered hate speech by the Anti-Defamation League and has been attributed to white supremacist groups, led some in the audience to get up and leave. And it's prompted a rare wave of criticism from the fashion industry, which has, until now, largely embraced Ye as an inspiring fashion leader.

We wondered how all this was landing in the fashion world and with consumers, so we called Robin Givhan. She is an award-winning senior critic-at-large at The Washington Post, and she's covered the fashion industry for decades. And we do want to let you know that we had this conversation before we learned about the anti-Semitic tweets that got him temporarily kicked off of Twitter and Instagram last night. So I started our conversation with Robin by asking her to describe Ye's relationship to the fashion industry and how it has evolved over the years.

ROBIN GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, I would say that it has, in large part, been transactional. The success that he had with Adidas and the Yeezy sneaker, you know, demonstrated that it was possible for lightning to strike and for there to be an enormous success - financial success within the fashion industry. For his part, you know, I still recall one of the earliest Yeezy shows, and he began it with a monologue. And in that monologue, he essentially said that he had arrived to introduce creativity to an industry that was lacking in creativity. And, you know, that's not exactly the most collegial thing to say when you're stepping into an industry. And I think that sort of established the kind of relationship that he had.

MARTIN: So at this point, Kanye West, Ye, saying shocking things, rude things, directing sort of vitriol at various people is not something new. Just earlier this year, there's this relentless public trolling of his former wife, Kim Kardashian, racist comments directed toward the late-night talk show host Trevor Noah when he objected to that public trolling. And yet, you know, when other public figures have engaged in - I don't know - what we would call antisocial conduct, sometimes they pay a price for it. Like, they pay a price for it with consumers. They pay a price for it with their corporate partners. That does not seem to have occurred here, and I'm just wondering why you think that might be.

GIVHAN: Well, I'm not sure. You know, I, to some degree, might argue that it really does feel like it is the rare person of that degree of celebrity who really does pay a significant price for abhorrent behavior. I think there is often a pause on, you know, their sort of ability to move without criticism through the culture, but it typically seems like, within a certain period of time, they're back at it.

MARTIN: Well, let's talk about the T-shirt, though - the T-shirt itself, the garment itself. Obviously, some people had a very visceral reaction to it and walked out of the show. Other people have published some thoughtful critiques explaining why they don't think that it is a tool for dialogue in the way that other sort of provocative pieces have been. So there - I guess there are two parts of the story. One is the T-shirt itself, and then the second is his response to it after people published thoughtful critiques. What do you make of the garment itself? And then what is your take on the response to it?

GIVHAN: Well, you know, I think the garment itself, if you're to be, you know, generous in the consideration of it, I think it attempted or could raise the question of, you know, what does a phrase like that mean when it is taken out of its - out of context, when it's placed into a different context? What does it mean when it's, you know, connected to religion? I mean, on the front there was the image of Pope John Paul II. You know, how does all of that wrap into a conversation about humanity and the differences in humanity and our thoughts about being connected in ways that transcend skin color and the body? And I mean, you could spin this into a multitude of different notions.

But I think in order to be able to get to that place, you really need to have some kind of undergirding in the presentation itself that takes you there. I mean, it's - you have to be guided there. You have to have some sense that this is the intent of the designer. I think part of the problem here is that this was a very sort of facile attempt to address something that is deeply complicated, very sensitive, and also to do it, you know, sort of in the moment. We don't have distance from that phrase so that - to look at it as a piece of history. I mean, it is very much alive and thriving in this moment. And so to try and put it into some distant context, I think, is a near impossibility at this moment.

MARTIN: What do you think should happen now? I mean, there was an article - one of - the editor of Teen Vogue wrote a piece saying that the industry should stop giving him so much attention. What do you think?

GIVHAN: I mean, I certainly understand the - you know, those who say just stop talking about him, to ignore him. I tend to think that when someone, you know, makes a good-faith announcement that they want to present a collection, that they want to have a fashion line and they want to present it to the public for critique, then I think you take them at their word. I think the big missing link is when you then don't critique them honestly. And to a large degree, it seems to me that there has not been the robust, honest critique of his work and his messaging that there perhaps should have been all along.

MARTIN: That was Robin Givhan. She's The Washington Post's senior critic-at-large. She writes about politics, race and the arts and, of course, fashion. Robin Givhan, thanks so much for sharing these insights with us.

GIVHAN: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
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