In the summer of 2010, a particularly dapper Yale sophomore, wearing a pair of distinctive, gold-crested Stubbs and Wootton slippers, encountered Kanye West while shopping at Barney’s in New York. As the story goes, West complimented Cassius Clay (no relation to Muhammad Ali—but Clay is, in fact, a descendent of the renowned abolitionist Cassius Marcellus Clay) on said slippers, introductions were made, a conversation ensued and email addresses were exchanged. One thing lead to another, and by the end of the summer Clay had taken a leave of absence from Yale at West’s request and moved to New York to become the rapper’s personal full-time confidant and right-hand man (he eschews the term “stylist” for its unsavory connotations; a more detailed explanation can be found in the interview below). Once the news got out, some were dumbfounded by what they perceived as an abrupt trajectory from diehard academic to celebrity stylist— envy, resentment and incredulity arose with fervor (one has only to peruse the anonymous commentary under any online article published in late 2010 about the Cassius/Kanye partnership to surmise this), yet the always-resourceful young aesthete seized the opportunity to help shape the rapper’s professional and sartorial choices, bringing his unique, quirky perspective to the table and turning the coveted job into an artistic and intellectual experience that furthered his education just as much as his missed year at Yale would have (though in a very different way!). If that’s not enough to convince the aforementioned internet haters of his academic seriousness, Cassius is now back at Yale and currently in the process of completing a simultaneous bachelor’s and master’s degree, both in Art History—a hefty task for any college student, especially one with the unspoken responsibility of remaining impeccably dressed! I hadn’t seen Cassius since we attended Phillips Academy Andover together (I remember quite clearly the feather bowties, pocket watches and other striking accoutrements he sported—I don’t think I spotted him wearing sweatpants once during those three years, not even during finals week—as well as the memorization skills and admirable command of the English language he showcased during the art history class we shared). I spent a beautiful October afternoon walking around New York’s Nolita and Lower East Side with the poised, and drily witty Cassius as he shed some light on “the whole Kanye thing,” his plans for the future, his sources of aesthetic inspiration and his illustrious taste.
ANNABEL GRAHAM: Tell us the story of how you initially met Kanye West and ended up becoming his personal stylist; what was the whole experience like, what kind of responsibilities did you have, what did you find most interesting/take away from it and how did it end?
CASSIUS CLAY: I met Kanye on several occasions during a summer I spent working at Christie’s in New York. We got along very well talking about fashion, art, film and the relationships between each of them. I was already great fan of his music, of course, but was most impressed by his ambition and the assiduousness with which he pursues those objectives. Those qualities alone convinced me I could learn a lot from working with him. He wrote to me that fall, when I had just started my second year at Yale, offering me a position to work with him on a series of projects related to the release of the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album. I’m uncomfortable with the word “stylist.” The word risks either oversimplifying fashion’s broader significance to identity and aesthetics, or somehow glorifying dressing-up as some glamorous veneer du jour. I admire Kanye in that he collaborates with many people in realizing a vision, whether it’s a particular outfit, music video, apartment redecoration, or concert performance. I was a creative consultant responsible for working on many of those projects simultaneously, so seeing and developing the connections between those different endeavors was immensely rewarding.
GRAHAM: I’m sure you learned a lot about both the fashion world and the music business while working with Kanye West—can you talk a bit about that? Did it further or change your interest in either of those realms?
CLAY: In fashion-related projects I enjoyed applying academic approaches – research, analysis, criticism – to the generative processes of creative work. I think works that synthesize those modes are always the most successful. Though I’m a great fan of Kanye’s work and convinced of music’s power to induce and communicate a feeling, I must confess that I’m musically inept. My childhood attempts in learning to play an instrument were abortive, and I sidestepped the music requirement at my high school by taking music history rather than music theory. I found the different ways in which the fashion and music industries treat products or talent particularly interesting. The power figures in fashion are often on the critical or receptive end of production: editors, department store buyers, celebrity style icons, etc. In music, the creative side of star singers and major producers have more direct control on the popular outcome of an album or single. That is, I think that Vogue can have a greater impact on a fashion brand than Rolling Stone could have on a musician.
GRAHAM: As you told me during the shoot, you are in the process of finishing a simultaneous bachelor’s and master’s degree (both in art history) at Yale. What intrigues you about art history in particular, and do you plan to do anything specific with those degrees?
CLAY: Many animals have means of communicating with each other – but creative representation is unique to humans, which makes art history very important. I like the idea of art being one of the only pure and universal forms of expression, mathematics being the other one. Artistic production continues to have meaning across centuries and cultures, irrespective of how unfamiliar its context of production is to the time or people that examine it.At the same time, art history is an instrument of social and political history by manifesting the questions, achievements, and fears of a culture. In that sense I think art history has plenty of applications to fields that are not strictly academic, advertising being just one example.
GRAHAM: What intrigues you about fashion? How would you describe your own personal style? Who are your favorite designers, and why?
CLAY:I’m curious about the way that fashion has evolved from something purely functional – Neanderthal necessity for warmth – to its more sophisticated uses today. It can indicate mood and personality, sexuality and sexual availability, wealth, class, or social alignment. Fashion condenses a lot of human civilization into a few bolts of cloth. I respect formality because it requires some effort, but also demand because that requires some thought. Collections by Antonio Azzuolo, Lanvin, Bottega Veneta, Burberry Prorsum, and Alexander McQueen usually achieve that balance. I’m not terribly interested in trends, and I don’t care much about comfort. I’ll be very disappointed if I don’t still wear most of the clothes I have now in ten or twenty years.
GRAHAM: We talked briefly during the shoot about your Halloween costume… I believe you said you were thinking about dressing as the Greek mythological character of Daedalus… did that end up working out? Explain…
CLAY: I ended up using things I already had in my closet, which probably suggests an unsettlingly close relationship between costume and daily wear. I went for pathetic and conscientious this Halloween: a bird in an oil spill. I wore black jeans, black button down, a crinkled Jil Sander blazer with a metallic petrol sheen, an inky coq feather Martin Margiela cape, gold leaf on my nose for a beak and drips of black face paint for the oil.
GRAHAM: Do you have any plans yet for what you’d like to pursue in the future? Or rather, what field intrigues you?
CLAY: Broadly speaking, my decision to do undergraduate work at Yale rather than Oxford was driven by a desire to study both the visual arts while taking courses in departments that are more explicitly political, like history and political science. I have competing interests in aesthetics, analysis, and ethics, I suppose. Still, I’d like to be able to reconcile all of them in some complementary capacity. I’m very keen on the economics of fashion and the art market – particularly in moments of downturn and recession. I’m interested in the dual nature of curation: literally “caring for” by definition, but also meaning critical assessment in practice. I’m sure I’ll be considering applications to law schools.
GRAHAM: What do you find most inspiring?
CLAY: I’m constantly assessing, planning, and thinking of contingencies, so surprises – rain, kindness, a mixed-up seating arrangement – are the most inspiring in that they force you to generate new ideas, reactions, and solutions. Travel involves all of these surprises.
GRAHAM: Do you have a favorite artist or work of art at the moment?
CLAY:My favorite young artist is Winston Chmielinski, based in New York, for his incisive use of color and ability to define and obscure forms in portraiture. The academic art of the 19th century and kitsch art of Soviet Socialist Realism in the 20th century need to be reassessed in most museums. I want to collect Albrecht Durer prints and drawings, sculptures by Lorenzo Bartolini, and paintings by John Everett Millais; I would have wanted Giovanni Boldini to have painted my portrait and William Morris to decorate my house.
Text and photography by Annabel Graham for Pas Un Autre
(Annabel Graham is a photographer and writer who travels regularly between Los Angeles, New York, and Paris – she has worked for Interview Magazine as well as the Paris Review, and she is a regular contributor to Pas Un Autre and Autre Quarterly. Read all here articles for Pas Un Autre here)