Interview: Va$htie Talks Working With Puma, Developing Personal Style, and Building A Brand Through Social Media

The archetype for downtown NYC cool girls everywhere talks about working with companies like Puma and the hustle behind brand-building.

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Complex Original

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If you didn't know already, Vashtie Kola a.k.a Va$htie is one of New York’s multi-talented tastemakers. While earning herself the title as “Downtown’s Sweetheart” from her heavy influence on the city’s nightlife, she’s held onto many roles. Creative director, DJ, model, music video director, and most notably, fashion creative. Her taste and talent have presented her with some impressive opportunities, like being the first female to collaborate with Jordan Brand, creating her own limited edition Air Jordan II.

As of late, Puma has recently launched her collection in collaboration with her brand Violette. We caught up with her to talk about working with PUMA, the effects of social media and pop culture on fashion, and staying true to your sense of style. She also blessed us with her “West Indian Summer” playlist which can be heard on our Apple Music channel.

What’s this year been like for you?
This year has been absolutely amazing. It’s been a fun rollercoaster, there have been moments of fright and excitement. But all in all it’s been an absolute joy ride.

Has your style evolved recently?
Fashion-wise it’s been pretty interesting. I was actually looking at old photos of myself and I was like man, if someone were to meet me based off my Instagram they would think “Oh she’s this very polished, cute girl” but really my background is really tomboy and I still maintain that but I feel like as a person in New York and in this industry I’ve begun to explore my femininity and explore fashion more. I’ve always been interested in fashion since I was  a kid just because I was interested in art so art and fashion go hand-in-hand.


I think I’ve been more exploratory and courageous when it comes to fashion. In the past year I’ve just gotten more into the idea of uniforms. I grew up wearing a school uniform until I was 18. My mom was also a nurse so she wore scrubs, my dad was a car mechanic so he wore coveralls. I was surrounded by uniforms and I think I gravitate to wearing the same thing over and over again. And I think that’s just me getting comfortable in my own skin. I know what I like, I know what silhouettes work so I’m just going to keep it the same all the time.

You recently had a huge collaboration with Puma and your brand Violette, how did this whole thing come about?
That was pretty crazy. I they approached me summer of 2013 and basically presented me doing creative direction and design for a full year with them. Two seasons of full apparel and footwear. They brought it to me and at the time I was speaking to other sneaker brands that wanted me to do projects with them. And a couple of them were brands that I felt really invested in and we shared anything in common. As far as the brand or as far as the brand wanted me to do, then Puma came to me and they were basically like “whatever you want to do, we trust in your vision” and they gave me full creative reign. And actually Puma’s were the first name brand sneakers that I bought myself and I felt like it was coming full circle and it was cool.

When you work with a brand like Puma, what kind of creative responsibility do you have with the collaboration? Is it more of a 50/50 thing or do they give you the ball and let you roll with it?
With them it was really great because they were just like: “Whatever you want to do, we trust the vision.” So that was nice. There were certain silhouettes of footwear that they wanted me to utilize. As far as fabric swatches, a lot of things we couldn’t start fresh and new with, we just basically went with a lot of existing models that I got to choose from, so it wasn’t like: “Here, this is what you need to use and work with that.” But for the most part, they were a dream to work with.

What type of impact comes from these collaborations with tastemakers like yourself and large brands?
For me, it’s showing me that brands are paying attention to what’s happening in the scene and the world at hand. I’m not an athlete, I’m not a major celebrity—you know I’m not a singer and not an actress. So I think that for a brand to come to a person like me, it’s a dream come true, and it’s a sign of the times. 10 years ago they wouldn't have come to me, they would've come to some pop star and been like: “Just be the face of this, and we’ll do all the hard work behind it.”

I think brands like Puma Premium are getting smarter about working with actual artists, influencers, and people who actually have something to say or are doing something in the scene. It’s really amazing because they’re taking a chance—this is uncharted territory. So I think that it’s cool that they’re being a little bit more courageous and taking a chance.

You’ve also worked with Jordan Brand in the past. What was that like?
The Jordan was incredible because it was a Jordan! I know Nicki Minaj came out with a Jordan, but I think that not only was I the first girl to have a Jordan, but I was the first non-athlete to have a Jordan.

Do you think Jordan Brand should make more women-oriented collaborations?
I follow girls who play sports and it’s so cool to see girls doing that. It’s crazy that Jordan hasn’t reached out to a [female professional athlete].

Music and fashion intersect often. Do you ever parlay your DJ profession into the fashion realm?
Yeah actually. Especially with the collaboration with Puma, they just had an event in Atlantic City, and they were like: “We want you to DJ.” Or if something comes to the table as a project, it might start off as design work but then it’s like, “she DJs and she directs.” I do so many things. It’s like having your mom who can throw down in the kitchen but she can also sew you a nice outfit for prom. I have many tricks up my sleeve, for sure. So if I’m working with a brand like Chloé, who wants to seat me front row, they also know they can have me DJ our after party, or whatever. I think it all sort of comes full circle.

Your music video resume is filled with industry titans like Kendrick Lamar, Justin Bieber, and Kanye West. How do you approach directing? Does the stylist in you come out, too?
I wouldn't say a control freak, but I like to have as much influence over the vision as possible. I believe in collaboration, but for me, if I have say over wardrobe and style for sure I’m going to put that out there. And it was funny because when we did the Justin Bieber video, I remember I walked into the fitting and he was with the stylist getting fitted—and you know every artist goes through a point in their career to figure out what look they’re going for, and what their style and branding is going to be. I hadn’t met him yet, and remember when I walked in, he was dressed like a regular kid. And that point kids in his age group were wearing polos and plaid shorts. I talked to him a little bit as he was getting dressed and the stylist was like: “What do you think?”

I was like: “Well, he legit skates and is a b-boy, he should dress like a skater.” He was gravitating towards these silhouettes on his own, but I thought it should look as pared down as possible. No logos, nothing. Black T-shirt, jeans, and a grey hoodie—like a skater kid. That’s what made it in the video and that was a huge, huge moment. That would solidified his style for the first few videos of his career, and that vision kind of helped. With Kendrick, he was open to whatever. I think that it’s funny because I think he’s wearing an “I (Heart) New York” T-shirt. And I was like: “Totally wear that, because we’re in New York and you represent California.” I like to inject my vision as much as possible but I’m always open to having the artist be comfortable,  because at the end of the day they have to be the one in front of the camera.

Before you broke into the fashion game, you were the Director of Creative Services at Def Jam. Do you think that the music industry led you to your career in fashion?
No. [Laughs]. Absolutely not. Working at a label was an interesting time in my life. It taught me so much about business, just basic things—how to work with artists and how to work with many different departments at once. Like, most people just don’t know how to respond to an email. It didn’t necessarily alter my creativity or creative process. What I learned is that most people in the music industry aren’t artists.

A label will be like: “You can hit this octave, we’ll bring in a stylist, we’ll bring in a choreographer, we’ll bring in a songwriter and all these people are creating a vision for a person who can sing.” So maybe you’re an entertainer, or you’re a vocalist but you aren’t necessarily an “artist.” I was very much an “artist.” If I don’t believe in you, I’m not listening to your music. I learned more about product and branding than I did about fashion or art, which is really important. I learned that social media can be a tool for work that can  project me to the next level.

With social media and the Internet acting as the front lines of fashion, how do you think someone can get noticed for original style?
It’s so hard because I just see so many people wearing things and I’m like: “Why are you wearing that?” No one knows why they're wearing anything anymore, and I guess that’s the way the mainstream has always been. You literally put on a costume and you’re living someone else’s style. Now there’s a community of people who are wearing that outfit and they don’t know why.

The originators found the T-shirts, went to to thrift stores themselves, and had this whole look for years. Now it’s just exploited—and it’s fine, it’s making the world dress better, but I don’t see personality in a lot of the looks. For me, that’s the biggest part in anything you wear: You have to make it your own. Put a feather in your fedora or something. [Laughs].

That’s a great hashtag! #PutAFeatherInYourFedora.
Punctuate it with yourself. I think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten obsessed with the idea of mummies—people who were buried with their belongings. Think about what we know about a mummy that was discovered that was buried thousands of years ago, their jewelry would let you know, or their tattoos would let you know, this was a highly exalted priestess. These are things right? Your tattoos say something about you. And I think that’s really beautiful that there are things that no matter, I’m wearing an American Apparel T-shirt and pants. My jewelry is different than however a girl might wear it. I think that it’s important.

What thoughtful words can you pass on to tomorrow’s tastemakers?
I think that the up-and-coming generation has a huge advantage. I already get the sense that this is their moment. They’re extremely explorative, extremely curious, and I think that’s really powerful. And they have the internet; they have social media. I think it’s just about sticking to a vision. There’s this misleading thing that social media makes it seem like other people are always having the time of their lives and always on top of the world, and that’s not true.

There are going to be moments when you’re going to question: “Is this what I really want to do?” and you have you work through the pain, work through the hard times, and work through the moments when people aren’t calling you or you don’t have work.  It’s important to have a dream but it’s important to have a plan. Anyone can say they want to be on top of the world but how do you get there? You have to follow through with a vision. There was time when I didn’t really have work and I was just working on projects that had no money attached to it, no budget—but I was passionate. I know this sounds cliché, but stay true to your heart, your vision, your voice, and whatever it is that you’re passionate about. Keep working, because you’ll eventually get there. I’m still paying off student loans! I still have moments when I’m not sure about what I’m doing, or I wonder what’s the next step.

Va$htie's West Indian Summer Playlist (Listen on Complex's Apple Music Channel):

1. Chaka Demus & Pliers - "Murder She Wrote"
2. Patra - "Romantic Call"
3. Shabba Ranks - "Ting-A-Ling"
4. Mad Lion - "Take It Easy"
5. Nadine Sutherland - "Action"
6. Buju Banton - "Batty Rider"
7. Super Cat - "Ghetto Red Hot"
8. Barrington Levy - "Broader Than Broadway"
9. Mr. Vegas - "Heads High"
10. Lady Saw - "Sycamore Tree"
11. Tony Rebel - "Fresh Vegetable"
12. Yellow Man - "Nobody Move, Nobody Get Hurt"
13. Sister Nancy - "Bam Bam"
14. Cutty Ranks - "Limb By Limb"
15. Collin Lucas - "Dollar Wine"
16. Allison Hinds - "In The Meantime"
17.Byron Lee - "Tiney Winey"
18. Kevin Lyttle - "Turn Me On"
19. Rupee - "Tempted To Touch"
20. Chris Garcia - "Chutney Bacchanal"

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