Usually the term “celebrity collaboration” is a euphemism for “cash grab.” It’s a point Kanye West will try to hammer into our heads while Adam Levine announces the next iteration of his K-Mart line and Diddy (or is it Puff Daddy again?) prattles on about how Proactiv moisturizes his situation and preserves his sexy. But while Kanye is quick to explain how he wants to redesign water bottles to be more ergonomic and aesthetically pleasing, Pharrell is out here affecting change, literally making yarn from discarded plastic bottles.
A good collaboration occurs when both parties stand to gain from the other. The end product should have recognizable traits of everyone involved, and clearly be something that would have otherwise been impossible had those two minds not melded. Pharrell has a long history of making everything from smash songs to sneakers (Ice Cream), clothing (Billionaire Boys Club), and art objects (tank chairs)—so much so that there’s a coffee table book dedicated to his collaborative exploits. What he’s mastered is how to be an enabler of culture, as opposed to Kanye West, who sees himself as a nucleus drawing power from his mitochondrial inner circle.
In an age where one of hip-hop’s loudest voices and agents of change is as polarizing as he is influential, Pharrell has taken the path of least cultural resistance, and it’s proven wildly successful for him. Recently, Pharrell cemented his place in mainstream America by taking a seat as a judge on The Voice, a show that reached about 14.57 million viewers last season. If that doesn’t make him a bona fide household name, consider the fact that “Happy” has become a global phenomenon, so much so that Iranians have been criminalized in their own country simply for enjoying it. There’s influence, and then there’s influence.
Pharrell has fashioned himself as a walking symbol of good vibes and positivity. What brand wouldn’t want to tap into that? He’s quick to praise his many collaborators, from blue-chip artists like Takashi Murakami to veteran menswear designers like Mark McNairy. Even when his infamous Grammys hat became a self-aware meme, he gave accolades to its progenitors, Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren, eventually selling it to Arby’s for a cool $44,100, all of which went to charity.
The beauty of Pharrell’s approach is that he already knows he’ll be perceived as an outsider, because that’s always how he’s carried himself. Pharrell’s rise is built on a platform of accepting people who are confident in their weirdness. He knows he’s different but knows we all have common ground as human beings. Think of his early days, the 2003 N.E.R.D.-era Pharrell. The skinny kid from Norfolk who wore trucker hats, colorblocked polos, and skate brand T-shirts in the “Lapdance” video. From that point on, he has always readily acknowledged his cultural otherness, to the point that he named his creative collective and record label I am OTHER.
His Uniqlo collab readily points out “the same is lame” on a variety of tees, hoodies, and accessories. Only Pharrell could champion this statement in a partnership with a giant corporation with more than 1,300 stores around the world providing more or less the same goods and not be immediately viewed as hypocritical. His interactions with retailers like G-Star and mainstream entities like Arby's and NBC aren't viewed as selling out, because he's maintained his own brand of creative, aloof, authenticity.
He’s established a visual language that is childlike in its playfulness, tasteful in its execution, and accessible to everyone. Who can’t vibe with a cartoon octopus that wants to save the oceans? (That would be Otto the Octopus, the de facto mascot of his G-Star collaboration with Bionic Yarn, who appears on every piece in the collection.) His most recently announced collaboration, a capsule range of leather goods with French purveyor Moynat, relies heavily on images of cartoon-like trains. He even customized a pair of his just-dropped adidas Stan Smith collaborative sneakers to send a flowery political message urging Hillary Clinton to visit Ferguson. The juxtaposition of whimsy and gravitas in the medium and sentiment perfectly lines up with Pharrell’s body of work.
As tenured hip-hop publications like XXL and Vibe shutter, what’s becoming more evident is how mainstream the culture has become. Pharrell has always been a pioneer musically and culturally, which has given his brand and career a reach and longevity that’s superseded nearly every other contemporary. He’s the ideal ambassador with a foot placed firmly in the world of mainstream and outsider culture, fully aware of his place in both, and how each can benefit with the other. Kanye West may strive to be the nucleus—letting his avant-garde ideas ripple outward, but Pharrell knows he can do much more as a conduit—empowering everyone to think and be different.