The Adidas Yeezy; Or, The Self in Modern Times

The Adidas Yeezy; Or, The Self in Modern Times

A failure on a Yeezy release ends like all existential disappointments: without notice. Is this existential? Sitting in digital waiting rooms, which don’t exist, for interminable amounts of time? Believing in a page of text, written to everyone but also to no one, that tells you to relax, that promises you will enter soon?

The worst of disappointments occurs when the website permits you entry to the item page – so familiar! O, the look of home – and allows you to select your size, even submit your payment and shipping information, then informs you that there has been an error (an error? my error?) and the selected size has been bought out. On yeezysupply.com, the page simply shows a line crossed through your order, as if you have been carelessly crossed out, rejected by the universe. Elsewhere, you get no such notice. In this situation the adrenaline may send you into a frenzy. With nowhere to go, you can only click back to the home page and tread once more to the end of the waiting line, which you accept only out of desperation, with no chance for success.

Once, purchasing through Dick’s Sporting Goods (an unusual vendor for Yeezys), the checkout page informed me that my credit card information had been declined. This credit card, my credit card, the credit card I use every day to purchase yogurt and bread, milk, water, and eggs, had been declined. Well then. What was I now?

Only later the disappointment washes over your illusions. You are like a child who has overslept for the carnival. You glance out the window – the Twitter feed – and realize it’s dark, everyone’s gone. Only later does the website officially inform you of your rejection, your loss.

Of all these rejections, the most simple but the most painful is delivered as a commentary on your mangled human condition, with three words on a blank background: “We are Sorry.”

No, but I would return to the Yeezy hunt. I would not submit to the robots. I would not allow myself to age and die having lost to software and machine.

*

Kanye West began with spare collaborations, then with a five-year Nike partnership. There he designed the Air Yeezy 1 and 2, which sold for two hundred and fifty dollars and have recently been resold for between three and six thousand. The shoes’ prominence generated their popularity: Kanye West, the most influential musician of his time, designed them. Kanye West wore him – he wore the Red Octobers, so bright, so rare – to match an all-red suit as he performed “Runaway” at the 2010 Video Music Awards. Perhaps his vision and influence caused him to abandon Nike, which he said would not allow him royalties or creative control, for Adidas.

In February 2015 Kanye released his first shoe with the new company: the Yeezy Boost 750, a sneaker-like boot with Adidas’s “Boost technology” (a layer of soft, elastic, compressed foam pellets) in the outsole. The shoe reminds one of an elephant’s floppy ears: a strap covers the laces at the front, and the suede upper looks unstructured compared to traditional leather boots. These first released with a light grey upper on an off-white midsole, followed by a darker grey upper and a brown upper on a gum midsole, and in all black. On the exterior, one cannot find any logo. The design is the branding. So is rarity: the model retailed for three hundred and fifty dollars and has resold, in the past three years, for between fifteen hundred and four thousand dollars.

Next, Kanye released the Yeezy Boost 350, which has become the most popular model. In its two versions, it features a tight sock-like upper, shoelaces (they do not need to be tied due to the shoe’s elasticity and fit), a ribbed midsole (the defining feature of the 350), a pull tab at the back of the shoe (to slide on your foot into the tight upper; not included on several models), prominent stitching across the surface of the upper, a translucent or non-translucent stripe (starting with the V2), and a lifted, exaggerated silhouette that curves like a canoe hull at the wearer’s ankle. Cutouts in the outsole reveal the Boost and the only branding on the exterior of the shoe, which presses unseen against the ground. These also come in more limited reflective models, which sell for more than nonreflective versions on the secondary market.

The Yeezy Boost 700 released in 2017, and with it Yeezy helped reintroduce a fashion for the dad shoe, a sneaker with a chunky sole, albeit one in earth tones and with dramatic detailing across the front and midsole. This distinctive detailing causes me to gasp when I see it in the wild, on the street. Later that year he released the Yeezy 500, another low-top sneaker, slimmer than the 700 but still striking with its midsole’s rounded, muscular curves. There are also the miscellaneous Yeezy Season releases, the high-fashion and higher-priced combat boots, crepe-sole boots, duck-like boots, and desert boots. More recent models have begun to look more organic, with striking designs seemingly ripped from our musculature and the recesses of the earth. He has not done all this alone, of course: but in coordinating design teams, just like in coordinating rappers and producers, he has overseen a collaborative team of artists to make clothing and shoes that resemble a new aesthetic, the changing aesthetic of Kanye West.

In every product Kanye West has challenged divisions between high fashion and street style. In an era that most worships the aural and the visual, he has risen above most, if not all, artists. We carry his ideas on our bodies – on our shoulders and feet. We carry his music, like so many others’, in our pockets and memories and ears. How many headphones one can see in the city when walking to work, sitting on a bench, taking the bus? Headphones now scarcely visible, wireless, playing his dreamed-of sounds, incorporated almost invisibly into the self.

*

I arrived late – years late. I began to seek Yeezys so late that one would think that I labored alone.

Kanye West launched the Yeezy brand with Adidas in 2015, and I struggled to buy a pair for the first time in 2019 on Yeezy Day. This mass restock of popular models happened on August 2, the result of a rumored warehouse closing (though who can trust rumors, especially on Twitter?). Experienced sneakerheads, armed with their quick order-placing robots, could purchase pairs that resold for hundreds of dollars more than their resale price. I, an inexperienced shoe buyer, one who wore shoes only to cover his feet, one who never actively copped nor dropped on a pair of sneakers, simply wanted to own a pair of Yeezys.

The releases alternated between adidas.com/yeezy and yeezysupply.com – one model at a time, for thirteen hours. I failed all thirteen hours. I failed with the 350 V2 Butters and the 350 V2 Semi-Frozen Yellows, I failed with the 350 V2 Belugas and the 350 V2 Sesames, I failed with all the 700s, I failed with the 350 V2 Clays, I failed with the 350 V2 Blue Tints, I failed with the 750 Light Browns, I failed with the two pairs of 500s, and I failed with the 350 V2 Pirate Blacks. I failed so much that, sometime in the sixth or seventh hour of online queuing, I thought I would never hold the shoes.

Sometimes our ideas of the shoes – of their beauty, worth, and perfection – destroy our experience with them. Search online and you will find several of these sneaker obsessives who buy rare shoes, patter about in their bedrooms occasionally and at a family party only once, then return them to their dust covers, to their boxes, to their cool dark corners, away from the threat of destruction, of no longer being new. I know more than one person who has told me how they purchased a pair of Yeezy Boost 350 V2 Triple Whites, so clean and simple in their design, and who shook their heads, sighed, groaned that they messed up, the sneakers got dirty, and they are ruined. These are shoes designed for the ideal – for the clean minimalist halls of the West and Kardashian palaces – and not for our cluttered homes, our bars where drinks drip and spill, our dirty sidewalks and trails.

My first pair of Yeezys was the 350 V2 Triple White, which I purchased at the end of Yeezy Day in fatigue and disbelief. This model, in this particular color, is not rare. It is the least rare and the first mass-produced Yeezy (Kanye had famously declared “everybody who wants to get Yeezys will get Yeezys”). I eventually sold them for a small profit because of their sizing. I had not worn Adidas sneakers in years, and the shoe constrained my ten-and-a-half athletic foot, and its sloping aesthetic disrupted my balance, making me feel that I would fall over with any step.

These sneakers produce a philosophical conundrum: I no longer understand an objectivity of measurements and metrics; I no longer understand my feet. What is true to size? What is true?

*

An item’s price on the aftermarket correlates to its rarity and design. Without an appealing design, nobody would want it. Without its rarity, nobody would pay so much for it.

I have already listed several resale prices for sneakers designed by the Yeezy team. The rarity of each product also relates to the rarity of celebrity. We want to feel close to celebrities, and we want to steal some of their attention. So we follow them – literally, we stalk them through paparazzi lenses and online posts. And this all in the time of “stans,” of celebrity apostles, of followers of the icons of Beyoncé, of Taylor Swift, of Ariana Grande and Kanye West.

True identity, celebrity, adverting, and the manufactured self – these have become indistinguishable in the past century and especially the past ten years. On Instagram, for example, one struggles to see what is real or false: why someone poses in a particular way and place, and whether they do so because they want to collect admiration and likes, or represent an advertiser, or show who they think they are, or show who they want to be. Advertising by stealth has allowed social media to become the most important advertising platform. When it comes to beauty and so-called wellness, Instagram has been the most effective.

So we buy Yeezys, not New Balances or Reeboks, for the aesthetic. We buy Kylie lip kits for particular shades, and to look beautiful – beautiful like Kylie Jenner. We also buy Yeezys and lip kits because we want to be unique, unique like everybody else, and because we want to fill some empty, unscrolled space within ourselves.

We buy all these things to achieve a vision – of the personal aesthetic, of our more perfect selves. In the masses of new trends and same-looking styles, daily decisions about color and form persist, and in each outfit we can locate secret cues of the visual artist. We buy to achieve that vision. And we wear new sneakers to be cool. We wear them because we imitate by nature and we believe that if we wear the chunky silhouette of the Yeezy 700s, we will be as talented as Kanye West; that if we will smear whatever powder or gloss or color by Kylie Jenner, we will be as adored as the Kardashians, and we will possess their beauty, however financed or engineered.

*

My parents fled for this country, like many others, seeking a better life. They sought money and comfort, perhaps even the illusion of freedom and dreams – things all scarce in Communist-controlled Poland. When I was a child, they dressed me with respect for the institution of the American school, with respect for the opportunity of education. They dressed me in vests, button-down shirts, dress pants, leather shoes, and blazers. Eventually I relented, wanting to be like the others. I wore t-shirts, sneakers, and shorts. Formal clothes remained for holidays and church.

I walked this earth for a decade in mis-sized clothing, in shoes too long for my feet, unaware of how I looked. The so-called social media had just begun; few boys like me cared to style themselves in adult fashions. We had hoodies with large logos; we had outfits that mattered only for their cleanliness (a faint odor was okay, so long as they did not stink).

In college I saw Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, and I marveled at the protagonist’s clothing. It showed his character; it showed Italian class, artistry, and decadence. Watching Jep Gambardella walking beside the Tiber and swinging in a hammock overlooking the Colosseum and discussing art at cocktailed tables and sitting on smoothed marble and velvet couches in colorful blazers, I joined the centuries’-old human obsession with fashion as aesthetic and as self-characterization. I marveled at the contrasted colors, the tailored clothing, and those brogued shoes, in tan and brown, polished and shining.

I purchased a pair of two-toned brogues later that summer. I wanted to return to my self in the past, to the childhood photos – dressed in vests and suits, no longer to praise the opportunity to live and learn in America but to manipulate my image, to see if I could dress myself in beautiful clothes, to make myself beautiful by beautiful things. Now I wear button-down shirts and blazers because I am a grown man, because I am comfortable in them, and because of what they silently say to passersby. I have also learned a lesson my parents’ generation did not yet know, which is that to dress well one does not need to dress formally, and that to dress casually, but deliberately, can tell as much or even more about aesthetics, taste, influence, power, convention, and feeling.

*

A decade ago, the Yeezy Boost 700 silhouette would not have been popular. If the shoe released then, it would have been called unfashionable, for it looks like a better-designed version of the thick shoes old people wear, those fat white sneakers old men keep on after morning doubles and wear for comfort around their neighborhoods, their doctors’ offices and Walmarts.

But could it have been popular? Yeezy designed and released it. Now our culture revisits styles from the ’90s, long out of fashion, to represent innovation and coolness. How much did the dad shoe come back because of our era’s desperation for nostalgia? How much did it come back because of one team’s creative vision? What would the world look like without Kanye West?

*

Now do not confuse my voice on the page with reality. I am neither a “sneakerhead” nor a reselling fanatic. I do not display a sharp clean line dividing the top of my hair with its parted side; in fact, my barber shaves only a faint fade into my hair, and the part is natural. I am not one of those seventeen-year-old boys you read of online, those boys who sold enough Yeezys and Jordans to buy themselves a Tesla at the age of seventeen, nor one of those glasses and clean-beards you meet on the plane who say they create software to purchase mass quantities of shoes, nor one of those YouTube reviewers who display their collection on shelves and who sit before a clean countertop (the beat drops during the slow-motion, the close-up, the on-foot spectacle), nor one of those twenty-somethings who flick at their phones on the bus and who walk the street in joggers and bomber jackets that swish. I use the verb cop sporadically, and then only ironically. I do not Tweet about what is fire or brick; I do not Tweet about taking an L. I do not post Instagram photos with stacks of cardboard boxes, or photos in which I have piled heaps upon heaps of sneakers around myself. Until recently, I did not even have an Instagram. I am none of these men.

Rather, filled with interest and bemusement, I like to observe. Disappointed by each bot-made devastation, I turn to Twitter, where I do not have an account, and I wade through the toilet bowl of the world. Here, though, I find less of the ego-petting and speaking to the self that characterizes social media today and encounter posts more reminiscent of the early social media, where one shared only the most trivial observations and thoughts. Here I find people desperate to buy a pair, people desperate to sell a pair, people frustrated and elated with electronic success – all in that glorious language of sneaker buyers and sneaker sellers, that language of drip, drop, sick.

*

In the digital era, there are people who follow life and there are people who live life. Kanye West works all day. He writes music, designs clothing and shoes, builds dome prototypes, collaborates with artists, sketches new fonts, arranges his choir, meets with his business partners, travels, eats lunch and dinner, reads the Gospel, prays to God, speaks to his wife, calls his friends, takes photos with his kids. When he steps into public view, where the paparazzi wait, he is advertising the Yeezy brand. Similarly, the Kardashians often do not post online to escape into a non-reality, but they advertise their products in subtle comments and pictures.

That leaves the first group, the people who live through social media, a copy of a copy of a copy of reality. In streams of unchronological, undistinguished “content,” intentions become invisible. These people cannot see out the papapparazzo’s frame: they cannot see the conception of the shoe, the construction of the shoe, the laborers and the marketers and the creatives, or the business plan, or the life of an artist who makes beautiful things and leaves the frontiers of social media to create. These people only see what they are meant to see. The influencer is their friend; they will get that perfect body; content is life; Kim Kardashian is beautiful, her sister’s lips are beautiful, her other sister’s face is beautiful, her sister’s sister’s clothes are beautiful, and shoes, Kanye’s shoes! Kanye’s shoes, I need to buy them, they look good, they look fire, they look sick.

*

Have you seen that video circulating the internet last fall? In the photos preceding the video, Kanye West speaks to DJ Khaled on a runway between each man’s private plane. Kanye stands with his arms crossed and his feet planted wide, and he wears a plain white shirt and gray sweatpants – all which emphasizes his shoes, black on cream and white, a silhouette from the future, the then-unreleased Yeezy 700 V3. DJ Khaled is wearing a pair of Jordans, the famed sneaker brand of the past.

The video documents the end of the encounter. Kanye, now barefoot, hugs DJ Khaled goodbye. DJ Khaled is holding Kanye’s shoes – the very shoes that Kanye was wearing – and walks away, inspecting them, grinning and turning them over in his hands. Kanye, who at this moment has removed himself from political diatribe, who has overseen choral performances each Sunday for most of the year and has spoken about giving, who has spoken about becoming a Christian again, who has shared he will release a new album entitled Jesus is King, walks in the background away to his jet in his socks.

*

Kanye West’s creative vision overpowers every element of his shoes. You cannot look at a Yeezy without seeing him and his distinctive artistic personality. This makes wearing the Yeezy both alluring – you have somehow joined Kanye West, become one of the few – and impossible. You cannot easily style a pair of Yeezys as a simple part of an ensemble, as you would style a pair of white or black leather sneakers, or dress shoes, or boots, or slippers, or any gym shoe. The Yeezy shouts with his vision; it blinds with his voice. This quality ultimately marks Kanye as a successful artist and distinguishes him from so many others. As with writing, we use clothing each day for its utility and depend on its reliable near-invisibility. But sometimes a great new writing confronts us, sometimes we see a new sneaker, a new Yeezy, that speaks in new voices, that looks from new vantages, that rejects the reliable, the invisible, the expected, and before we can rationalize what has occurred, we can only respond with attention, admiration, and awe.

*

Last fall, many believed the Yeezy Boost 350 V2, most popular of models, would soon end. With rumors of an updated version, people thought the brand released a few of the last. One of these is the Cloud White, which looks like a cloud blue and which displays differing patterns and knittings across the shoe’s upper, giving the impression that it was stitched together from various fabrics cut and shred across the shoemaker’s workfloor, or that it was stitched together from different pieces of clouds and sky, ripped down to us by bare hands.

On the release date, I procured three pairs, one of which I retained for myself. I wear it occasionally, and I am content. The sneakers are comfortable, like all expensive sneakers should be, and sometimes when my eyes fall to my feet I admire their design. When I wear them I am wearing something other than shoe. Rather, I am wearing the Adidas Yeezy Boost 350 V2, a shoe with a creator who has made himself an icon and with a market and legacy that has overswelled its original intents. The shoe means too much. When people see me they do not see me, but they see a man wearing Yeezys. A man wearing the Yeezy Boost 350 V2 in the Cloud White colorway.

Eventually, last November, the V2 continued to be produced and Kanye released the newest iteration of the Yeezy, the Yeezy Boost 380. The first model was called Alien. The shoe’s upper is gray, covered in cream-yellow splotches and waves, creating an estrangement and a shock on first glance, for they are unexpected and otherworldly. The midsole appears to be smoother, more rounded and pronounced. Clear and sizeable holes punctuate the side where the previous model displayed a translucent stripe. At first I did not like the design, but after observing the shoes for long I have started to admire them. They contain the allure of the shape of an alien – something we have only seen askew, in dark and fog, in prototype, paparazzi blur, and sketch. In other words, this latest version looks both old and new, like the version before that and the version to come. Old and new – like all our human neuroses, desires, and fears.

Marek Makowski

Marek Makowski

Marek Makowski is a writer who teaches at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently seeking representation for a novel and a book-length essay on Shakespeare. To see more of his writing, you can follow him on Instagram, @RealMarekM.

Marek Makowski is a writer who teaches at The University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is currently seeking representation for a novel and a book-length essay on Shakespeare. To see more of his writing, you can follow him on Instagram, @RealMarekM.

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