2008 was a very interesting year. A massive recession hit mid-summer, a writer’s strike paralyzed Hollywood, Barack Obama was elected, and the 2018 CFDA [Fashion] Influencer honoree Kim Kardashian looked like this:
(Fun fact: It was also the year yours truly released her first album).
2008 was also the year Kardashian’s future husband, Kanye West, released his seminal 808s & Heartbreak, which, while not generally lauded as his best album, is often considered one of his most influential. Like his samples, Kanye’s image at the time was increasingly based on retro references, which included shutter shades by celebrity favorite Alain Mikli (made famous in the video for his 2007 fashion name-dropping hit “Stronger”) and a still-questionable afro-mullet.
But West was feeling ambitious about fashion that year, as evidenced by his first foray into the field, a pre-Fendi internship streetwear line called Pastelle.
Longtime Ye stans will likely remember teases of the line, which was heavy on color and varsity and pop culture references (peep that Spike Lee-inspired font and color story above)—but in spite of a heavy rotation of samples by the man himself, nothing ever materialized.
But pop culture (and Kanye) specialists Complex, who first dissected the demise of the brand in 2011, recently revisited the now decade-old story in an over-6,000-word article that takes a deep dive into what they call “The Untold Story of Pastelle, Kanye West’s First Clothing Line.”
As one might guess from the length of the article, there’s a lot to unpack, and while West declined to be interviewed, Complex leaves no details out. But since most of us don’t have time to digest over 6,000 words in one sitting, we’ve broken it down into digestible chunks for you — “Glow Notes,” if you will.
- As Daniel Beckerman of sunglass brand Retrosuperfuture told Complex, he was contacted by the William Morris agency in 2007 to discuss a collaboration with their client Kanye West. Retrosuperfuture would eventually produce samples based on what Beckerman called “out of this world” conversations with West. As it turned out, they were one of approximately 30 designers and consultants personally chosen by West to collaborate on his first fashion line, Pastelle.
- Pastelle had actually been in the works for several years (during which West tragically lost his mother, Donda West, in 2007), with a team that included friend-turned-fashion phenom Virgil Abloh, streetwear designer Don C, former Yeezy president and CEO Matt George, and in-demand creative director Willo Perron. In creating Pastelle, current Louis Vuitton creative director Kim Jones and a variety of indie designers and established streetwear brands were recruited as consultants, collaborators and distributors; some of whom never had direct contact with West.
“It was X-Men coming together,” designer Taz Arnold told Complex. “[West] had some colorful individuals and creative people working to his benefit.”
- For inspiration, West relied on “vintage street archivists” Edgar Sosa and Touch Su to source references for Pastelle, including a vintage Detroit Pistons shirt that was reinterpreted as a “Premium Pastelle” tee. The duo also provided inspiration for the blue and yellow logo Pastelle varsity jacket Kanye wore to the 2008 American Music Awards (pictured above).
“We used to have this leather troupe jacket that [Kanye] used to bug out on like, ‘Yo. We should make jackets like this,’” said Su. “And that’s how the varsity jacket came about.”Added Sosa, “So we did that, and I remember the letters. I was like, ‘Let’s do some Do The Right Thing with Jungle Fever font.’”
- Despite being touted as West’s first fashion line, Pastelle was actually Kanye West’s second attempt, as Mascotte by K West was teased as early as 2004. But West chose to stay focused on music until after winning his first Grammy. “Now that I have a Grammy under my belt and Late Registration is finished, I am ready to launch my clothing line next spring,” he told British magazine Stuff in 2005, when they named him the year’s style icon. He reportedly began to assemble the Pastelle team the following year, even referencing it in song lyrics.
- After sitting front row at Dior’s 2008 Fall-Winter fashion show in Paris, France, West stoked excitement by telling followers of the now-defunct kanyeuniversity.com: “I swear to you guys all I do is work on design when I get off the stage. I want to and will be the real thing. I will not just be a ‘celebrity designer.’ Shit has to be good!!!”
- “I’m not saying that I think I’m the best designer in the world, but what I’m saying is that I think I can become that,” West told Complex in 2009. Notably, much of the two-year hiatus between 808s & Heartbreaks and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was spent on design and strengthening the Pastelle team. Samples were even produced. So, what happened?
- Taz Arnold told Complex Pastelle was “more like a conversation” than a “supreme vision,” referring to the myriad contributors, most of whom never met. “There may have been people he hired who I don’t know.”
That said, the Pastelle had studios in New York City, Paris, and Los Angeles, Ca., and according to insiders who spoke with Complex, West was “very hands-on with every aspect of the operation” with “ahead of his time” ideas.
“[Pastelle was} definitely all Kanye,” a former business associate told the magazine, adding, “We still see stuff that he was working on that just came out. Prada had came out with these beautiful shearling jackets and [West] sent an image and said, ‘This was 2008. We did this already.’”
- “We had a full collection done. We could’ve gone to market a couple of times, for sure,” the same associate told Complex. But despite leaked photos of the collection (which were mistaken for a lookbook), promises of release dates and frequent sightings of pieces on West himself, after three years, Pastelle was still just a “conversation.”
- After the “lookbook” was leaked, so were rumors Pastelle would never happen, as reported by lifestyle sites The Cut and High Snobiety. And then, there was that infamous “I’ma let you finish” episode at the 2009 MTV VMAs, which West would later call “the beginning of the end of my life.”
Once again, West took a hiatus, and instead of a Pastelle launch, only a homepage remained ... along with several unpaid (and uncontracted) collaborators, who didn’t even get exposure out of the deal, according to Complex. As one unidentified designer explained: “I was a little disappointed that this guy wasn’t going to be able to achieve his dream. But at the same time, I was also trying to get paid for my services.”
- Designer Giorgio di Salvo, who worked with Pastelle, said: “you can feel this kind of maniac approach” in all of West’s projects, which, while ambitious, several involved felt contributed to a general sense of disorganization—and lack of business plan. Another designer told Complex:
His clothing was more about an outlet of expression and not necessarily a revenue stream ... It wasn’t structured like a business that practiced proficiency and scalability. It was a complete experiment from the beginning. ... I think at that point, he still needed to define what his point of view was. ... I don’t think that, in design, he found his voice yet.
- West also had other collaborations in process, like the launch of his line with Nike and a failed partnership with Gap. And his focus had shifted to high-end womenswear—which was not then in his assembled team’s skill set (save perhaps Abloh and Jones). An unidentified member of West’s inner circle told Complex:
We basically came to a position where Kanye and I had a conversation about whether or not we were actually going to put product out ... So, we kind of disbanded that and, you know, obviously two years later we had a small crew working on his [women’s] clothing line, which he put on the runway. ... He didn’t want to do a very commercial business, which [Pastelle] would’ve been. He wanted to have an elevated conversation in fashion. That’s why he wanted to do women’s, this price point. It was him growing into the designer that he is and being creative and all that. Pastelle was his university for fashion.
- Obviously, West, who debuted his womenswear line in 2011 as Kanye West before relaunching as Yeezy in 2015 (with Abloh onboard as co-designer), has since found success in fashion, though not without hiccups, like the loss of a partnership with Adidas Original and proposed backing from fashion conglomerate LVMH. His collections regularly sell out and resell at massive markups online as collectors’ items. But what of Pastelle?
- In March 2016, model, stylist and former Yeezy muse (and alleged rapist) Ian Connor took to social media to announce that he’d be reviving the brand as its creative director, a claim corroborated by at least one insider, who says “he went to New Orleans and talked to Ye and was like, ‘I’m about to bring Pastelle back.’ Then one day they got a hold of the archives, and when Ian and I linked up again in L.A. he was wearing the [blue] letterman jacket.”
However, when asked about Connor’s involvement, West’s camp said: “We have no plans for Pastelle to announce at this time.”
So, for stans who covet a piece of this unrealized piece of history, is there any chance of is ever making it to market? Doubtful, but the dream remains. As Taz Arnold told Complex, “It was incredible what he was up to.”
The Glow Up Tip: You can read “The Untold Story of Pastelle, Kanye West’s First Clothing Line” in its entirety on Complex.