DONDA: Decoded

Is DONDA *really* a cultural phenomenon? We unpack the visual signifiers of Kanye West’s 10th studio album (and everything around it).

Key Takeaways

  1. Understanding the references conveyed by West in the staging and fashion choices for his ‘DONDA’ listening events is necessary for young designers. It’s vital for brand creators to remain informed about pop culture trends.
  2. West has begun to champion a post-apocalyptic uniform that will likely continue to propel menswear into a moodier monochromatic direction.
  3. Designer Demna Gvasalia served as creative director on West’s ‘DONDA’ listening parties and collaborated on a series of “engineered by Balenciaga” merchandise for the events.

Kanye West’s 10th studio album DONDA, debuted at no. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart this past week. The tracklist features notable guest appearances by a diverse group of male voices including everyone from Jay-Z, The Weeknd,  Marilyn Manson, Chris Brown, and Da Baby. West’s decision to feature some of these entertainers has already created controversy given the recent abuse allegations put forth against Manson, as well as Da Baby’s history of homophobic comments. Much like the album itself, West’s aesthetic vision for its release has been equally contentious and perplexing. For young independent designers, understanding these references can help give them a leg up in identifying pop culture trends and translating these images into their work.

 West’s personal life and mental health issues have overshadowed his artistry in recent years, but there’s no question that he’s had a major influence on how we dress over the last two decades. Possessing an unbridled zeal for fashion, Kanye immersed himself in learning garment construction, even attempting to gain entry into Central Saint Martins. He would eventually launch his label Yeezy with Adidas in 2015. West’s DONDA listening parties-slash-performances have already been the subject of much discussion across social media channels, inspiring think pieces, and cultural critiques, as well as helping to propel menswear into a decidedly darker direction.

The first listening event held at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, had West performing to a sold-out crowd of 42,000 in a red round puffer jacket from his GAP YZY collection as well as orange Yeezy 1020v boots, and a face mask. This premier event was a raw stage performance with no additional set design. Kanye’s outfit was reportedly a reference to the 1988 Japanese anime film Akira. West positioned himself as the IRL all red-clad protagonist from the film, Shotaro Kaneda, who is the leader of a biker gang in the post-apocalyptic tale. The movie “explores themes of disaffected youth, corruption in government, rampant religious zealotry, nuclear-energy-caused-kinesis, destruction, and rebirth.” Critics and fans have pointed to similar themes related to rebirth and religion within the album and the influence of this film in his previous works.

The succeeding events took place under the creative direction of West’s friend and creative collaborator, Balenciaga designer Demna Gvasalia. During the second listening party, also held at the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, West performed on a sparse stage that recreated his recent living quarters at the stadium: a bed and some barbells taken from the room where he remained for two weeks while putting the final touches on his album. Aside from the music itself, fans were laser-focused on West’s head-to-toe Balenciaga attire: a FW 2020 black spiked Balenciaga jacket inspired by 1800s Siberian bear hunting quilts, paired with black cargo pants, and black motorcycle boots from the label. The piece de resistance for the evening’s ensemble was a black bulletproof vest emblazoned with DONDA across the chest, but more on that later. The stage was circular and evoked an otherworldliness with help from architect and art director Niklas Bildstein Zaar. Zaar is also responsible for creating “the heaven and brimstone” graphics that appeared in Balenciaga’s recent runway show, as well as artist Anne Imhof’s performance art environments. There were street-cast performers donned in their own black attire and barefoot dancers in dark browns that drifted around West. The event ended with a harnessed Kanye lifted hundreds of feet into the air in a beam of light, as if ascending into the heavens. These images all play with the idea of the darker elements found within the Judeo-Christian tradition. The finale is reminiscent of the rapture, a biblical event when believers will be transported from earth to heaven during the Second Coming of Christ.

The penultimate listening party was held at Soldier Field in Chicago, and it’s arguably the most divisive of the bunch. Dressed in an all-black look consisting of a Bottega Veneta bomber jacket, black leather Saint Laurent pants, Chelsea boots, and silver jewelry from John Hardy and Cartier, as well as shield sunglasses from Rick Owens. West’s move towards monochromatic outfits in leather reinforces many of the recent inspirations for menswear designers such as Gvasalia and Owens, who created collections around the idea of cyberpunk, gaming, BDSM culture, and dystopia, respectively. His performance took place against the backdrop of a life-sized rendition of his childhood home in Chicago. The event began with West inviting both Manson and Da Baby dressed in all black up on stage with him, further solidifying his recent affinity for the gothic (and problematic). Later, West set himself on fire while wearing a fireproof suit before having the flames put out with fire extinguishers. The event ended with West being joined by his ex-Kim Kardashian wearing a couture Balenciaga wedding dress recreating their wedding day. West’s use of iconoclastic imagery throughout his performances has been a polarizing but effective creative choice. In recent years, the rapper has reaffirmed his faith and established his Sunday-service like gatherings. Turning those images on their head may be a depiction of how own experiences with grief and loss. West has often referred to his deceased mother, after whom the album is named as one of his greatest inspirations. In recent months he’s had to grapple with the loss of his immediate family unit, as Kardashian filed for divorce six months ago. Much like the set design and fashion choices at these three seminal events, the same attention to detail is evident in the merchandise created in collaboration with Gvasalia for the event.

The apparel which was offered for sale at the initial listening party featured many t-shirts with an image of the Mercedez-Benz logo on the front and a childhood image of Kanye’s mother Donda on the back. This has been speculated to be a reference to the African American tradition for what is known as a homecoming-a celebration of the deceased’s life that is often more celebratory rather than somber. In addition to these images, West teamed up with Gvasalia and offered merchandise that was engineered by Balenciaga for the two subsequent shows: all black apparel with a gray typeface that read: Donda 8/5/2021 Mercedes Benz Stadium Atlanta. The images depicted included a star of David with a cross in the center. There’s no clear reference for this imagery, so like the entirety of his shows—it’s open to interpretation. Another layered long-sleeved black t-shirt had the presential logo at the front and 2024 depicted in the back, cheekily referencing Kanye’s promise to run for the next presidential election. Yet another shirt depicted his childhood home on the front and the image of his mother as a child on the back, complete with Cyrillic letters spelling out her name on either sleeve. Finally, a black gimp mask with zippered eye holes that West wore on stage during some of his shows was also for sale. These items, complete with the Donda bulletproof vest West wore on stage, are a testament to Gvasalia’s talent for reimagining uniforms. In his work for Balenciaga and Vetements, he’s often reconstructed traditional work wear or streetwear out of luxe fabrics. His utilitarian and bondage-inspired creations reference clothing that has been historically used in police brutality (a bulletproof vest) or worn by marginalized subcultures on the fringes of society. Reclaiming these garments as an African American male in 2021 speaks to both having his own agency and yet still being restricted by the expectations of society. Whether this sentiment is shared by his fans (West is a multi-millionaire celebrity with a history of insensitive statements towards the Black community) remains to be seen. 

Kanye West’s impact on culture is indisputable. While all three shows were an amalgamation of influences both personal and historical, the ultimate message presented by West is ambiguous, left to be interpreted by the viewers/listeners of his work. Many on social media have theorized that the trifecta of listening parties is a depiction of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven. What is irrefutable however is that both the listening events and merchandise produced bolster West’s belief, something that he once shared with students at the Havard Graduate School of Design “...everything needs to actually be architected.” For those brand creators who feel impassioned by the work they create, perhaps there’s inspiration to be found from one of the industry’s greatest outliers.