He wants to be a modern-day Renaissance man. And his latest quest for a legacy beyond hip-hop is a mysterious consortium named for his mother. Is this the movement that will propel Mr. West to the visionary status he so desperately wants? Or is this just a fantastical ego-filling dream? In a relentless search for answers, VIBE discovered it could very well be both
By Clover Hope
BEFORE HANNA CHRISTIAN started working for Kanye West, she was a waitress at The Mercer Kitchen. The exclusive restaurant serves as the cornerstone of New York City’s Mercer Hotel, where West and Jay Z camped out in early 2011 to record their album, Watch the Throne. When West returned in October of that same year to take a series of meetings, Christian, then a 21-year-old college dropout and aspiring visual artist, struck up a conversation. For a week, West picked her brain about everything from architecture to fashion to art. He invited her to a Watch the Throne tour stop in New Jersey. She came back to work the next day raving about the elaborate stage design. Noted visual artist Es Devlin (a frequent West collaborator who’s also worked with Lady Gaga and Rihanna) projected video of sharks and Rottweilers onto enormous cubes that doubled as podiums for West and Jay Z during the show. After gushing about the design elements, Christian went for broke. “I love The Mercer,” she blurted out to Kanye. “But I want to work with you!”
Christian was hired on the spot as West’s personal assistant. And within 24 hours, she was attending the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show at the Lexington Avenue Armory in NYC. Three months later, he announced his latest venture, DONDA, an experimental design agency named for his late mother. Christian transitioned to office manager, interviewing applicants and helping to build the company’s early infrastructure.
She's bubbly and effusive when she talks about her big break into the entertainment industry. But when asked something seemingly as innocuous as where the DONDA offices are located, Christian shuts down. “I can’t talk about it,” she says firmly. “It’s in my confidentiality agreement.” A confidentiality agreement with a clause about office headquarters? Sounds ludicrous. But no one does private and mysterious like Kanye West. And for a potential entity born out of one of his legendary Twitter rants, it almost makes sense. Almost.
In January 2012, West laid out a series of tweets, highlighting his plan to create a firm with more than 22 departments staffed by a bevy of experts in divergent fields. He name-checked everything from architects, video game developers and nutritionists to doctors, lawyers and what he called “app guys,” plotting to house them under DONDA.
His master plan reads like a stream-of-consciousness riff that becomes an epically ambitious screed (think Jerry Maguire’s infamous manifesto). There will be summer school programs with filmmaker Spike Jonze! An overhaul of the prison system! Nutritional consultation on achieving energy balance! Amusement parks! West tweeted: “We want to create, advertise and produce products driven equally by emotional want and utilitarian need.”
The kicker was that he intends to not just turn a profit or join the billionaire’s club. He wants to change the world through design and fill the void of late Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. A bit extreme, sure. But Kanye’s bombastic statements are expected. And for a man who secretes naked ambition and pretentious overtones from his very pores, it almost makes sense. Almost.
DONDA may sound slightly absurd, but the idea wasn’t completely random. Even before his Twitter proposal, he fantasized about launching a creative clique to those in his inner circle. In 2008, during a New Zealand press conference promoting 808s & Heartbreak he talked about building art installations. Four years later, he aimed even higher. “I want to work on cities [and] amusement parks,” he said while premiering his short film, Cruel Summer, at Cannes Film Festival. “I want to change what entertainment experiences are like.”
Kanye’s fight for creative control is long-standing. Collaborators describe him as a hypercritical presence on photo shoots and film edits. So it’s no surprise that with DONDA, he was looking to circumvent middlemen who might dilute his vision. “They wanted to eliminate the person who has to interpret the idea to the brand,” says Marc Moran, who cofounded the Chicago-based RSVP Gallery with West’s longtime right-hand man Virgil Abloh.
Post-rant, West moved quickly. Just a day after the online proclamation, his attorney Brad Rose filed the first trademark papers for DONDA. The list of goods and services sounds more profit-based than the good works and lofty world improvement goals in his mission statement. Expect to see the DONDA name on “toys and playthings, plush toys, teddy bears… home furnishings, bedding and linens…”
He also tweeted an e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org, for like-minded aspiring trailblazers to pledge DONDA. Thousands of applicants poured in, according to Christian, who left the company in May 2012 and now works as a creative assistant for actor Jason Sudeikis. “We moved forward with quite a few people who submitted portfolios,” she says, refusing to reveal who made the cut.
Essentially a future funnel for West’s obsession with his legacy, DONDA is poised to be the ultimate vanity project. And yet, he barely references it by name. Rather than a string of credits on an official Web site, DONDA projects are denoted by album liner notes, cryptic tweets, hashtags and Instagram photos (“NUMBERS ON THE BOARDS. NO ARTWORK. DONDA,” @virgilabloh) from his inner circle. Will this mysticism carry on to a true vision with results? Some experts are doubtful.
“When [Kanye] talks about Apple and those other companies, [he] has a very clear mission or statement in mind,” says Andres Nicholls, a partner in the brand and marketing consultancy Prophet, which lists GM, BMW and Visa as clients. “I tried to find a Web site. I couldn’t find any. He needs to formalize the vision of the company if he wants to expand to a broader consumer.” In addition to no website, DONDA no longer has a brick-and-mortar presence. Christian followed up her interview several weeks later to give an update on the DONDA office in New York: it no longer exists. “When I was there, we were just starting to set up shop, so I'm not surprised that so much has changed since I left.”
Expanding to a broader consumer may prove difficult for West, considering his desire to keep everything he does under tight wraps. During a June listening session for his newest album, Yeezus, at New York’s Milk Studios, a black van was parked outside, projecting a video of Kanye (shot by his go-to director Nick Knight) rapping the lyrics to his single “New Slaves” onto the side of a building. The screenings were part of a larger, international guerilla-marketing scheme— Kanye’s idea—that initially took place in 66 cities. When pressed for info on the installation, a woman operating the video offered a non-committal smirk and riddled responses:
Are you a member of DONDA?
“We don’t have any input in the content. We’re just hired to project it,” she said.
What’s the name of the projection company?
“I’d rather not say.”
Did Def Jam or DONDA hire you?
“I’d rather not say.”
Following West’s lead, the DONDA collective hasn’t done interviews regarding their affiliation. LinkedIn profiles and liner notes help piece together a rough masthead, but there’s no clear consensus on who’s involved. One source suggested finding Virgil Abloh because “he is DONDA.”
Abloh’s credited title has varied from head creative director to art director for DONDA. It’s easy to see why the Chicago native and former architect would be Kanye’s right-hand man when it comes to DONDA. Abloh has the holier-than-thou hipster vibe down cold. He’s a Birkin-bag-carrying dude who owns a clothing boutique that sells $200 T-shirts. He drops obscure style references, like waxing poetic about the genius of German industrial designer Dieter Rams.
The rest of the DONDA stable is virtually anonymous. And West has a tradition of cobbling together a rotating cast of collaborators, which makes it tough to distinguish who’s actually part of the core clique. Liner notes on Yeezus list Joe Perez as DONDA graphic designer and Justin Saunders as art director. Those who are believed to have worked with the company consistently include West’s longtime barber and style consultant Ibn Jasper, art directors Matthew Williams and Guido Callarelli and graphic designers Nathaniel Brown and Alex Milsom. Perez declined to be interviewed, and the others did not respond to requests. Before Abloh could even be contacted, he sent a pre-emptive refusal: “We appreciate the interest, but our staff is not doing interviews at the moment. If our stance changes, we will be in touch.”
Whoever’s pulling the strings, the overall theme seems to be minimalism. And so far, DONDA’s work still falls in the domain of hip-hop: album artwork stage sets (West’s Atlantic City Revel Resort shows); promotional apparel; and visuals for Ye’s G.O.O.D Music compilation, Cruel Summer. With the interactive video for West's “Black Skinheads,” DONDA has been focusing on multimedia projects. They were also hired to re-edit the trailer for The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan.
PORTFOLIO: The Work Of DONDA
The DONDA-designed cover for I Am Not a Human Being 2 spotlights a lone butterfly on a black background. And instead of a cliché mean-mug close-up, 2 Chainz’s Based on a T.R.U. Story features two chains draped over a black backdrop. Some say the DONDA design style currently on display is a brilliant respite from hip-hop’s often-aggressive literalism. Some say it’s basic. “Because hip-hop has been so literal, esoteric things excite people. But it doesn’t mean that it’s good,” says Joseph Buckingham, aka Joe Buck, a graphic designer whose album artwork includes the classic De La Soul Is Dead cover. “That seems to be the trend now, to just be beyond hip-hop. Kanye plays that game well.”
The abstract approach can be vexing for the executives who write the checks. “The label wants to go with what’s obvious and marketable,” says Courtney Walter, a creative director who’s designed packaging for Chris Brown (Fortune) and Miguel (Kaleidoscope Dream). “If it’s conceptual, sometimes you’re pushing boundaries that make more of a statement than you need to.”
West is already barreling full steam ahead with his own music. Yeezus is the musical equivalent of a splash painting. From the anti-packaging to the loony American Psycho–inspired commercial starring two Kardashian family affiliates. He does what he wants (and more importantly, corporate bigwigs allow him to do what he wants) because it’s profitable. Kanye’s audience is built-in and primed to respond to whatever he’s pumping out, even if it’s a pair of $245 Nike Air Yeezy’s, which once sold for $90,000 on eBay.
“Marketing is usually so much about ‘reach,’” says Patrick Ehrlund, creative director of B-Reel, the company that produced West’s 2012 commercial for the Cruel Summer album. “Because Kanye West is such a strong brand, you don’t necessarily have to worry about reach, because it will always reach people. So it’s about how you affect people. Visuals have become a much more permanent and visible part of hip-hop. I think it’s amazing that artists are exposing people that might not be exposed to these kinds of artistic things.”
It may be unrealistic to expect DONDA to run like a traditional business and actually attempt to attract media attention. Especially since Kanye has become more paranoid about his message being misinterpreted. The true test will be marrying his laissez-faire approach with the eventual need to gain investors if he’s serious about turning DONDA into a conglomerate.
“From a funding point of view, it can be a challenge when you have people who aren’t used to thinking outside the box,” says Jessica Irish, director of academic affairs at Parsons’ School of Art, Media and Technology.
West’s ambition to succeed Apple is clearly a stretch. But he may have the ultimate business consultant in Steve Wozniak, who cofounded the iconic tech brand with Jobs. They met this year and discussed Kanye’s top-secret plans. When contacted for comment on DONDA, Wozniak stated via e-mail: “I have opinions about it, but they would be personal between myself and Mr. West.”
West isn’t alone in his determination to push the margins of the entertainment industry. From Nicki Minaj and Drake to Jay Z and Pharrell, rappers are expanding their résumés beyond endorsements and fragrances. Ten years ago, vanity labels and clothing lines were compulsory. Now, it’s about creative direction for major brands. West can certainly transform DONDA into a lucrative movement. He’s defied odds before.
In February 2012, four months after the lukewarm reception to his women’s collection, West started work on the first official DONDA endeavor—the Cruel Summer short. He commissioned three design firms and a post-production company and scored funding from the Doha Film Institute in the Gulf state of Qatar, where the film was shot. The team spent four months constructing an unprecedented seven-screen display and a white tented pyramid to contain it.
That May, his 30-minute movie about a car thief and an Arabian princess (He even consulted with a local Arab woman on wardrobe) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The verdict from most media outlets: flawed, but ambitious. The movie has yet to be released on DVD or screened anywhere outside of Cannes. It hardly matters. Kanye pulled it off, and his first step to achieving what he wants with DONDA was complete.
Whether DONDA becomes another told-you-so moment or a pipe dream remains to be seen. Limitations exist in the corporate world, but from the looks of it (the ambiguous anti-business business plan), West wants to see just how much he can break the rules. As DONDA progresses, he’ll have disciples and cynics, either blindly following or silently skeptical, but never counting him out.