How Kanye West's Creative Company DONDA Is Making Its Own Brand of Cool

Kanye West's company DONDA continues to win by designing iconic album covers and producing viral marketing campaigns.

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Image via Complex Original
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On January 5, 2012, Kanye West announced a new initiative on his Twitter account: DONDA. Named after his late mother, DONDA would be a 22+ division company with broad, overarching ideas like “products and experiences that people want and can afford” and goals "to marry our wants and needs." Examples included a summer school with Spike Jonze, designing the MTV Awards, and getting schools to hand out free iPhones to kids.

His altruistic announcement was met with a lot of skepticism and ridicule, to the point where creative agency OKFocus created a fake DONDA Twitter handle and website, fooling everyone from The Washington Post to Buzzfeed. OKFocus quickly got a cease and desist letter from Kanye, but only after multiple legitimate news outlets reported on the “ridiculousness” and then falseness of the DONDA project they created. At the time, people treated DONDA like it was a joke.


Since then, DONDA has been credited with Kanye West’s Cruel Summer film, our G.O.O.D. Music Complex cover, West’s concerts at Revel in Atlantic City, the marketing roll-out for West’s Yeezus album, and album and single covers for A$AP Rocky, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Pusha T, Big Sean, and Theophilus London. DONDA’s creative output thus far is almost completely music-related, consisting of hip-hop album covers, concert stages, and music videos, a far cry from the magnanimous vision initially espoused by Kanye West.

Last night, Nicki Minaj revealed the deluxe cover of her highly anticipated Pinkprint album on Instagram, crediting "the Kanye West team” and later tweeting, “Cover art by Joe Perez, Jenna Marsh, Bryan Rivera.” The announcement brings up questions over what DONDA actually is today. Who is “the Kanye West team”? Who is in DONDA? Who did what on this album cover and any of the other DONDA-designed covers?

Most of the credits for DONDA projects are online if you look hard enough, although it’s continually unclear who really does what, per project, with so many credits listed. There are no interviews where DONDA is described in detail by any of these people, even in a piece by VIBE that managed to get quotes from an ex-office manager at DONDA. The secrecy is partly due to confidentiality agreements, but it also speaks to the power of working with West and the fact that getting credit for, or elaborating on projects done for him and DONDA, is probably pointless. When you consider the impact of these widely-seen visuals for the world’s top entertainers, and the projects these designers get hired to do after working with West, it makes sense that they’d let the work speak for itself.

The work DONDA has done for Kanye includes the Cruel Summer seven-screen film experience, the premiere of “New Slaves” via video projections worldwide, and the Yeezus album and tour. West requested a patent titled “Multiple Screens for Immersive Audio/Video Experience” in January 2012, suggesting that DONDA would take the Cruel Summer experience further than Cannes. They did a similar stage set-up for his Revel concerts in Atlantic City, where he announced the pregnancy of his then girlfriend, now wife, Kim Kardashian.

After debuting the deeply political song and video for “New Slaves” on 66+ walls around the world, West caused a social media firestorm with fans ready for the Yeezus chapter of his career. Perhaps if West and DONDA could captivate the walls, streets, and Twitter accounts of the entire world’s youth for “New Slaves,” they could do the same branding and marketing for others, too. It was essentially the perfect case study, and it’s hard to believe that any company wouldn’t want to hire DONDA to execute a project of that scale and impact.

Virgil Abloh, who has been listed as DONDA’s creative director, is the most prominent member of the company, and people joke that DONDA is “Virgil’s laptop.” Designer Joe Perez gets primary credit on many DONDA projects, Matthew Williams has been listed as creative director of G.O.O.D. Music and DONDA, Nathaniel Brown seems to have been highly involved in tour production for Yeezus, Justin Saunders has been listed as a DONDA art director, and there are other names that re-occur in credits: Guido Callarelli, Fabien Montique, Tracey Mills, Jerry Lorenzo, Sam Ross, Elon Rutberg, Es Devlin, Geo, and Jim Joe. There were over 67 credits for the Yeezus album ranging from musical production to consulting and creative direction, and covers like Pusha T’s My Name Is My Name list up to 11 design credits.

All names considered, DONDA is really just a lot of people with a lot of creative expertise, working together on widely seen tours and campaigns in a way that supersedes the need for individual credit. When DONDA wins, everybody wins. Many of its creatives have been commissioned for impressive projects outside of DONDA’s purview. Virgil Abloh has helped Drake with stage design and designs his own clothing line, OFF-WHITE, while Nathaniel Brown worked on Beyoncé’s On the Run tour videos and visuals, as well as overseeing the launch of a new publication by cult menswear designer John Elliott.

The overall DONDA message seems to be one of unity and strength in numbers. DONDA unites West and his creative cohorts with the likes of A$AP Mob, Young Money, Theophilus London/LVRS, and all the G.O.O.D. Music artists in a meaningful, art-driven way that inevitably elevates all parties involved.

Despite the success of “New Slaves” and the Yeezus tour, West has discussed the ways that he’s still boxed in to hip-hop culture and the trappings of “celebrity” at length—with Zane Lowe, Jimmy Kimmel, Seth Meyers, and in nation-wide radio promo. In speaking with Seth Meyers, West said, “I have a friend Yves Béhar, [who] designed the Jawbone wristband and the Jambox and everything. As a designer, he's not in a box to only design a speaker. He can design whatever he wants. That's the type of creative expression and freedom any creative wants.” Even though West’s aspirations extend into fashion design, product design, architecture, and more, he and DONDA haven’t necessarily shown what they can do beyond music yet.

But it looks like they will. In March 2014, Roc Nation announced a partnership with DONDA "to manage all DONDA Music" before describing DONDA as a “multi-discipline design and content company” and listing its accomplishments in the past two years for West and other artists. It also mentioned West’s imminent line with adidas, from a highly publicized deal completed last December after West severed ties with Nike, that will expectedly expand DONDA’s portfolio and influence.

In speaking with someone who has done work for members of DONDA about the meaning of credit (who has asked to remain anonymous), he says, “The credit is based on two things. How can you make a name for yourself with and without being associated with Kanye? And how can you make something people really wanna fuck with, no matter what the brand is?” The co-founder of Virgil’s RSVP gallery in Chicago, Marc Moran, told VIBE the following about DONDA—“They wanted to eliminate the person who has to interpret the idea to the brand”—which relates to how traditional advertising agencies and consultancies outsource their ideas to third parties for completion. With DONDA, the ideas go straight from West, to his trusted team, to the public.

At the Frieze London art fair last month, attended by Jay Z and Beyonce, a subversive art collective was commissioned to “brand” the art fair. Shanzhai Biennial, who are a similar company to OKFocus and K-HOLE (who famously coined the term “normcore”), execute projects like fake art biennials and collaborations with clothing brands like TELFAR. Their name is based on the term for Chinese knock-off culture, “shanzhai.” In talking about the new role of project-based art collectives, Shanzhai Biennial says, “The tendency among artistic/creative producers is changing toward things that are harder to defend. We definitely have the feeling that it's new ground, because we have a lot of pushback from institutions.”

It’s a “highbrow bootleg” approach that’s also associated with #BEEN #TRILL, an offshoot collective featuring DONDA’s Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams, and Justin Saunders, consisting of music and clothing—including an affordably priced PacSun collaboration that can readily be consumed at local malls and online. In doing this, #BEEN #TRILL effectively knocked off its own line of $100 T-shirts and $50 hats, but did it in a self-aware (and undoubtedly profitable) way to make its own brand of youth rebellion more accessible. It’s not a coincidence that Virgil Abloh hired Ryder Ripps of OKFocus to design #BEEN #TRILL’s website and app, and Ryder recently confirmed that he is also working on a project with Kanye, hinting at future DONDA work that will likely go beyond music. In collaborating with the agency who mocked DONDA's existence initially, it's clear that Kanye is the one having the last laugh.

On Yeezus’ first song “On Sight,” a sample from the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family says, “He'll give us what we need / It may not be what we want.” West and his camp understand the way needs and wants are determined by art and design. We may just be seeing a glimpse of DONDA in the form of album covers and stage design, amplified by projects like the “New Slaves” projections, but with the Roc Nation partnership and forthcoming adidas line, there will undoubtedly be more DONDA soon, and you won’t be able to ignore it.


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