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Kanye West on his design process, sustainability, and the future of Yeezy

At the Fast Company Innovation Festival, West announced his decision to move Yeezy operations stateside.

Kanye West on his design process, sustainability, and the future of Yeezy
[Photo: Daisy Korpics for Fast Company]

Kanye West burst onto the global stage, first, for his rapping and producing talents. But his work as a fashion designer over the past six years has become just as much a part of his legacy. The artist’s multibillion-dollar brand Yeezy, which is wholly owned by West, is known for its eponymous “Yeezy” sneakers and monochromatic tones. On the main stage at Fast Company’s Innovation Festival yesterday, West and his collaborator, Yeezy lead designer Steven Smith, announced that the company’s operations will be moving stateside in the next two years.

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Before the “dad shoe” craze reached its summit about three years ago (aided, in part, by Balenciaga’s release of its now-ubiquitous Triple S Sneakers), West and Smith dropped the Yeezy 700—the duo’s first design together. Smith, who had stints at Nike, New Balance, and Reebok, described the design process as “an amazing experience like nothing I had ever done before,” adding: “When it dropped, the thing sold out in six and a half minutes . . . I mean who wouldn’t want to be part of that magic?”

Left to right: Steven SmithKanye West, and Fast Company‘s Mark Wilson. [Photo: Daisy Korpics for Fast Company]

West, who is somewhat infamous for his rejection of rules, allows the Yeezy team to create products freely, without pressure put on aligning with the fashion world’s seasons or trends. This liberating approach to design has allowed the team to embrace creativity and trust that their instincts will give way to products the market will respond to. “It’s the balance between really being diligent about making the best product because we don’t put a timeline on things, but the idea of competition that’s out there helps present a timeline for people and it makes things better and forces us as creatives to bring things to market,” West said. “It’s the entire experience, from the Steven Smith sketch to someone lining up for the Yeezys.”

But all good design depends on the quality of the constraints, so West and Smith are currently working on creating shoes with no laces (so West doesn’t have to retie his shoes repeatedly during Sunday Service) and no stitching. “It’s relatable problems we’re solving,” Smith notes. Onstage, West announced that Yeezy’s headquarters are now based in the U.S.—an initiative primarily inspired by a desire to create more stateside jobs and to cut down on the company’s ecological impact.

[Photo: Daisy Korpics for Fast Company]

“Our goal in the next two years is to bring the manufacturing back to America: South America and North America,” West said. The polymath owns a 4,000 acre ranch in Cody, Wyoming, which is now the site of the Yeezy HQ and where all manufacturing is slated to happen.

“We’re going to be farming and going seed-to-sow, and have our own cotton hydroponic farm and our own hemp farm and our own wheat farm so we can see every element and get into how we can have less impact with the dyes,” West explained. “Our color is a big signature of the brand, but also dying is one of the main things that’s impacting the planet in the fashion industry . . . so we’re just being responsible from A to Z.”

To illustrate this, Smith and West had a new sneaker prototype with them onstage, made in Atlanta just yesterday as part of a preproduction effort. The eco-friendly Yeezy contains foam partially made from algae.

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When Co.Design senior writer and panel moderator Mark Wilson asked if this infrastructural move to the states would affect the ability to make Yeezy 350s—given that the sneaker design depends on tools and manufacturers in China, primarily)—West said he’d adapt in order to make sure his dream of having an America-based brand can come true. “We’ll change the design to something that has to be [done] here.”

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