Last week, the news broke that Trayon Christian, a 19-year-old New York college student, had filed suit against Barneys, claiming he was detained by loss prevention officers and taken to a local police station after employees at the store claimed he couldn’t possibly have legitimately purchased a Salvatore Ferragamo belt. Other shoppers have emerged with similar stories. And while the litigation against Barneys is ongoing, the emergence of these reports has lead to a call for Jay-Z, who has a planned holiday partnership with Barneys in the works, to pull out of the project. This weekend, he declined, and his sometime-albummate Kanye West weighed in on the controversy as well. Taken together, their remarks are a revealing portrait of how fraught the relationship between the fashion and retail industries and black consumers and celebrities can be–and how difficult it can be for artists to balance their interests in building business empires and appearing to serve as community leaders.
Corporate partnerships can provide an important opportunity not merely for celebrities to enrich themselves personally, but for them to bolster their charitable and philanthropic efforts. In his statement in response to calls for him to drop out of his partnership with Barneys, Jay-Z was quick to insist that he wasn’t personally profiting from the collaboration. “The Shawn Carter Foundation is the beneficiary and the foundation is receiving 25% of all sales from the collaboration, 10% of all sales generated in the store on November 20th and an additional donation from Barneys,” he wrote. “This money is going to help individuals facing socio-economic hardships to help further their education at institutions of higher learning.”
And Jay-Z suggested that he was attempting to show deference to political leaders instead of leading on his own by ending the project unilaterally. “I haven’t made any comments because I am waiting on facts and the outcome of a meeting between community leaders and Barneys,” he wrote. It’s easy to think of Jay-Z and Beyonce as political leaders in their own right, given their rapport with the Obamas and Jay-Z’s sharp, challenging performances on the campaign trail. But it’s one thing to want to be responsible for setting the agenda, or for pronouncing judgement on behalf of your constituents, and quite another to want to be useful where you can, once other people have figured out what that place might be.
For Jay-Z, waiting is a sensible business decision, and to a certain extent, a respectful political decision, one that lets him show respect to more established political leaders. But it’s also a choice that, on a broader level, benefits him personally in both of those areas. By not ditching the partnership with Barneys, using the relatively standard excuse that “if I make snap judgements, no matter who it’s towards, aren’t I committing the same sin as someone who profiles?” Jay-Z sets himself up as a reliable corporate collaborator who won’t withdraw his cachet from business associates simply because there’s public pressure to do so. And if he does end up withdrawing, Jay-Z can site some sort of more definitive finding of fact that won’t burn him with the corporate world too much, but that will still allow him to show deference to a dialogue process that gives political leaders an opportunity to have their say. He could even end up being the person who gives legitimacy to Barneys as it announces new customer relations policies and employee training standards. It’s possible for him to be both philanthropic and self-interested in this situation, but the balance he’s attempting to maintain throughout the process is a reminder of how precarious aligning all of his different interests can be.
And Kanye West, in remarks Friday night at a Las Vegas stop on his Yeezus tour, is also correct to identify a much more complicated dynamic at work in the particular relationship between wealthy black consumers and the fashion industry, painting that particular area of business as an unusually fraught partner for African-American artists:
In what West referred to as “that rich nigger racism,” he described a dynamic in which luxury retailers try to keep black men with whom they’re not familiar from touching, much less purchasing merchandise, but aggressively pursue African-American consumers who they’ve identified as in new possession of significant wealth. Mimicking a salesperson offering up furs and boats, West said the pitch to visibly wealthy black shoppers was: “Please buy them. I know you just got some money, I know you can’t wait to spend it, nigger.” In other words, for a fashion retailer to want your business if you’re African-American, it’s not good enough for you to have the receipt for a single belt that you saved up to pay for: you have to be pedigreed by exceptional wealth or cultural capital, a factor that overwhelms the fact of your blackness to make you a worthwhile customer.
That approach is obviously racist and classist, and it’s based in the erroneous idea that you can tell a customer who can actually pay for your merchandise just by looking at your clientele. And as a strategy for loss prevention and customer cultivation, this sort of calculus doesn’t take into account that one category of customers can become another–and that the dynamic can go in both directions. A kid you kick out of your store or have arrested one day may become a designer whose label you’d like to carry. A musician whose interest in fashion you discredit may be someone you later hope will appear at your fashion week party. A client you fly to Milan because of his prodigious shopping habit one year may run out of money in the next, or a financial collapse or a government investigation may demote a shopper from Barneys to Banana Republic. And none of these questions even get at the absence of black designers taking their bow at the end of fashion shows, or black models walking the runways before them.
Taken together, Jay-Z and West’s reactions to the Barneys fiasco are an illustration of the historical and personal complexity of the relationships between people and companies who have a great deal to gain from their associations with each other. Jay-Z’s request that he be allowed to wait to make a decision about Barneys suggests that he has a great deal to gain from his association with the retailer. West’s vow to keep speaking out, even if he isn’t the richest customer on retailers’ client lists, comes from the position that the fashion world has something to gain from his participation in and his good favor, even if he feels that his attempts to break in as a designer have been treated dismissively. They’re both absolutely right. The question is whether that mutual need can move fashion and retail away from a decidedly regressive racial past, and towards a more creative and equitable future.