This past winter, I was in Chelsea’s Comme des Garçons store when I saw Marina Abramović helping a friend shop. Her friend stood in the dressing room, and the curtain raised and dropped with a dramatic flourish as Abramovic swept in and out to offer her opinions, stalking through the aisles with wide eyes on Rei Kawakubo’s rather challenging Fall 2020 Orlando collection. Her friend emerged at last with a few pieces, and she shephereded him to the cash register, his face bearing the glazed stupor of someone who believes a new outfit is going to change their life. I thought of the famed intensity of Abramović’s gaze, and what it might mean for someone to consider your outfit—and your taste, and your body, and your budget—with that level of elaborate care. I wondered if shopping itself could be a kind of performance art.
Perhaps only Kanye West could make that daydream a reality. Last week, the rapper and newly-minted Gap collaborator announced plans for a new website for Yeezy Supply, which will debut in just over 10 days, according to the site’s countdown clock, and was designed with fashion photographer and SHOWstudio founder Nick Knight. The aim: to treat e-commerce as an artistic medium.
“Humans have created art in every medium we have encountered, but we have yet to see an art form emerge from the internet,” Knight told Fast Company last week. “Why shouldn’t the great art of the internet emerge from an e-commerce website?”
E-commerce has always been a tricky proposition in fashion—too fancy and it’s unnavigable; too simple, like Amazon, and it seems like a suspicious place to buy an $800 jacket. Only about 9% of luxury transactions happen online, a 2017 Bain study reported. (Pandemic-driven store closures have presumably shifted that number upwards, though luxury sales are down overall.) What sets apart the highest-end shopping websites, like Mr. Porter and Moda Operandi, are features that emphasize their point-of-view, or the sensibility that drives the products they carry, plus white-glove perks like personal shopping and quick shipping. Attempts to make e-commerce more immersive, interactive, or visually dynamic are largely avoided because technological innovation over the past decade has emphasized efficiency as luxury’s primary proposition: the highest luxury, e-commerce has long promoted, might just be getting anything really quickly.
But West is a populist at heart, and he seems eager to use his fashion projects, from Yeezy sneakers to his new partnership with the Gap, to challenge assumptions about whether “luxury” should really be the most desirable tier of consumer culture. The new website, Knight explains in a video West released last Friday, takes its inspiration from the most lo-fi, functional e-commerce sites—those for medical supply companies, for example, or commercial paint businesses. “The experience of going to the site will hopefully be very simple, very beautiful, very playful,” Knight says in the video. But it won’t look quite like a medical-supply site: instead, the clothes are displayed in a floating, simplistic galaxy that allows users to buy with just a few clicks, but there is also an option to select an avatar who will try on the pieces, and a “waiting room” that will appear when a new shoe drops. It makes shopping online at once simpler and more personal—eliminating what are considered the two major roadblocks for e-commerce dominance.
West seems to have taken a truly playful approach to developing the site, driven by a visual artist’s mischievous curiosity. Taste has been a major component of his work and public persona since the beginning of his career—in his music, interviews, and other projects, he’s made much of his affection for figures from Le Corbusier to Kerry James Marshall, and has enlisted artists like James Turrell, Arthur Jafa, and Axel Vervoordt to collaborate on nearly every aspect of his life. But for this project, he took a contrarian approach, Knight explains, by researching things that weren’t considered “good taste,” like rudimentary digital avatars; an early feature of the site, since scrapped, had a bikini-clad blonde walk out from the back of the screen and wipe it down with a sponge if you weren’t shopping fast enough. West also wanted to use the color blue, which he has said in multiple interviews he dislikes. “Kanye likes lo-fi because it’s more direct,” Knight says, “and there’s less room for artistic interpretation, if you will.”
What impact might West’s shopping site have? Or, more to the point: what ambitions does West have for it? He has often talked about his desire to be the next Steve Jobs, and what Jobs did with the iPhone—democratizing a high-end piece of technology—made the average consumer hyper-aware of design and functionality, and made minimalism the defining aesthetic of the past decade, and perhaps of the entire millennial generation. It changed the way you looked at everything. That level of aesthetic influence seems to be driving West more than ever.
Will it make shopping art? Largely through its associations with hip-hop and men’s fashion, art is intersecting more and more with popular culture, the way fashion began moving out of its snobby niche a decade and a half ago—and West was there pushing that merger, too. Good art shifts your perspective. But it isn’t merely how you look at clothes that West wants to change. He’s after bigger, thornier game: how and why you buy things at all.