ON THE GROUND FOR THE LAUNCH OF JAY Z'S CONTROVERSIAL HOLIDAY COLLECTION
In September, Jay Z announced he'd work with Barneys New York to create a special, 30-piece holiday collection. It would feature fashion forward designers like Rick Owens, Proenza Schouler and Balmain; 25% of its proceeds would benefit Jay Z's Shawn Carter Foundation. After news broke in October that Barneys and the NYPD had improperly detained two black shoppers, petitioners called for Jay Z to pull out of the collaboration. Jay Z addressed the controversy in an open letter, and eventually decided to go forward with the collection, renegotiating its terms so 100% of profits would benefit his charity. This Monday, just days before the collection's debut, Barneys announced it would cancel a launch party scheduled for Wednesday night. As the collection hit stores this morning, I went to Barneys to see who was shopping.
At 9:35AM, it was quiet outside Barneys' flagship at Madison and 60th Street. The store's holiday-themed windows were not yet finished. A visual merchandising team bustled in and out of a gold, sculptural room built onto the front of the store, testing graphics to be shown on monitors inside it. There were no wrap-around-the-block lines, as there had been for Lady Gaga and Isabel Marant's look-for-less collections with H&M, just two young shoppers: 29-year-old Ila, who was visiting from Japan, and Marcus, a 25-year old designer from Brooklyn. "There's a lot of positivity in this," Marcus said. "Jay Z is a black dude from Brooklyn and he got his line in Barneys. [The collection] is top of the line, Lanvin and Balenciaga—if he could do it, I could do it." Allowed in from the cold a couple minutes before opening by a security guard, Marcus pointed out an En Noir leather windbreaker from the collection, on display in a window, that he wanted to buy eventually. This morning, he said, his sights were set on the Just Don python brim cap. An older white woman waiting with Marcus said she hadn't come to shop the Jay Z collection. She thought the collaboration had been called off, after receiving an email announcing the cancellation of today's launch party. When she suggested that the line is too expensive, Marcus interjected that sales will benefit a good cause. She said she'd rather give to charity on her own.
At 10, merchandisers were putting finishing touches on the collection's third-floor pop-up. One affixed Jay Z's trademark gold star on a wall. A crew of polite Barneys’ employees congratulated us on being the first there, and one introduced himself. The space was dark, with spotlights hitting mannequins and display tables. Projections of twinkling snowflakes, tractor trucks and subway trains looped on the wall as DJ Mustard beats bumped through the speakers. Chelsea, a shopgirl, commented that the space didn't feel like Barneys, but like a train on its way from Brooklyn to Manhattan. She sprayed a sample of Jay Z's new cologne Gold, which makes it debut today, then forecasted that the collection's luxe baseball caps from Just Don, sunglasses from Cutler and Gross and other accessories with entry-level prices will sell well.
"The issue is bigger than Jay Z." —Andrew Davey
Heading back downstairs in the elevator, I bumped into celebrity stylist June Ambrose and Mike Battle and Tashiem Campbell, two young black guys that came to browse the collection. "The collection was very nice—rich, fancy, expensive—but nice,” said Battle, adding that a $58,000 Rick Owens jacket rushed him out of the store. Campbell said he shops at Barneys once in a while and always feels comfortable there. “I try to present myself in a decent manner, cause when you're an African American in NYC, you already get double looks. I make sure my demeanor is up to par, because unfortunately we get judged,” he said. Still, he thought the collection was prohibitively priced. "It's geared toward the rich and famous. The people that are dying for Jay Z's clothes aren't' buying a $58,000 jacket or a $1000 shirt.”
Outside I found a lone protestor on the sidewalk, Brother Tazar from Bedford Stuyvesant, set up on a soapbox near the store's main entrance. He called the collection classist. “It's supposed to be for his Shawn Carter Foundation, allegedly for the socioeconomically deprived youth. You give 100% of the profits and Barney's kicks in some, but your name is on the foundation. So when you go to speak to these children, do you know what they hear? Nigga. Nigga. Nigga. You done sold ‘nigga’ around the world. Jay Z made more money off 'nigga' than he ever will off of this collection. You can't give me 100% of the profits if you don't correct that."
Andrew Davey, a 21-year old NYU student who grew up in Brooklyn, joined Brother Tazar on the sidewalk. He'd purchased several items and was already wearing a just-bought cashmere ski mask designed by The Elder Statesman. "I got a shirt for $70 and a Moncler jacket with leather sleeves for $2295, at other stores it would’ve have been way more expensive,” Davey said. “I shop at Barney's twice a month. I care about the profiling incident, but it's not going to stop me from shopping. The issue is bigger than Jay Z. Even if he dropped the collection, that’s not going to stop profiling from happening. It's more of an NYPD thing than a Barney's thing.” Barneys' attorney agrees; in Women's Wear Daily, he declared that the luxury retailer did not “request, require, nor initiate,” any police action against the two shoppers.
Later, Darryl “Curtains” Jackson, brand manager of En Noir, the upscale streetwear label recently profiled by FADER, arrived. He checked out the brand's leather basketball shorts in a side-street window display and said he was pleased by Jay Z's decision to move forward with the collection. “To even have our line carried in Barneys is an accomplishment, but to see it alongside Rick Owen and Balmain in this special capsule collection, and Jay Z is my favorite artist—it’s amazing.” Meanwhile, Brother Tazar worked to get his protest chants off the ground. A pair of security guards working at a Calvin Klein boutique next door peeked out, looking for an eyeful of the drama. The white guard said, “Doesn’t that look just like him?” His black co-worker responded, “No, that’s not the ‘The Rent is Too Damn High’ guy.”