The Most Important Lesson Pharrell Taught Us About Style

There would be no Kanye West and no A$AP Rocky without Pharrell. Here's why.

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Complex Original

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“There would be no me, no A$AP, without Pharrell,” said Kanye West last night as he introduced the 42-year-old Pharrell Williams and presented him with the Fashion Icon award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA). West is absolutely right. But that also wasn’t the only watershed moment of the night. Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air also took home the Swarovski Award for Menswear, which is ironic in the sense that HBA’s genre-bending clothes have pushed the envelope further and further past the heteronormative “comfort zone” for menswear.

That is: It’s weird. In the beginning, HBA hoodies and T-shirts helped usher in an era of huge logos and luxury designer gear that aped common streetwear tropes, instead of the other way around. Instead of Stüssy flipping a Chanel logo, now it was the big fashion houses that were doing the cultural sampling. As HBA and Shayne Oliver evolved, the designer moved beyond the large logos and Frankenstein Timberlands towards an overall aesthetic that blurs the line between tailored menswear, couture womenswear, and club-inspired gear that wouldn't look out of place at a fetish party.

Oliver's designs have garnered his label equal parts praise, criticism (cue one particular A$AP Rocky lyric), and "WTF?!" reactions from the average person​. At last night's CFDA awards, HBA designer Shayne Oliver and CEO Leilah Weinraub rolled up with "cool girl/model" Binx Walton in these outfits:

So fine, HBA is weird. Very weird. But it’s wonderfully weird. ​Just like Pharrell.

From the jump, Pharrell was an anomaly. He was a Virginia Beach kid with a Filipino best friend he literally met at band camp. He was into skateboarding, wore tight T-shirts, trucker hats, pastel polos, and made trends out of bright sneakers inspired by cartoon characters like Spongebob Squarepants and full-zip hoodies in whimsical prints featuring pagers, spent cigarettes, and buttered waffles.


That which makes us different is what makes us special, and that’s okay. — Pharrell Williams


Pharrell’s lasting impact on hip-hop style, streetwear, and how we dress ourselves today is that he reminded us how amazing it is to be individuals. And individuals sometimes like the same things, the same brands, or the same sneakers, but the important thing is we wear them in a way that makes them our own.

“That which makes us different is what makes us special, and that’s okay,” he said last night upon accepting his award. Sure, Kanye West is more of a Fashion-with-a-capital-F guy and has a wardrobe worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, but the dividing line between him and Pharrell is that while he trades in the currency of taste, Pharrell has always traded in the currency of vibes. It wasn’t about how a song or a sneaker or a hoodie made you look, it was how it made you feel.

While Kanye West was on his Yeezus tour literally moving mountains and clamoring for the fashion industry to take him seriously, Pharrell dropped a smash song that showed the world happiness is merely a room without a roof.

Kanye West and guys like A$AP Rocky wouldn't be the designer-draped fashion killas in Haider Ackermann and Rick Owens if Pharrell hadn't paved the way for self-expression and self-awareness. Rocky references Pharrell frequently, most recently in "Excuse Me," where he raps: "Wealth is in the mind, not the pocket," saying he learned it from a very wise man. It's a paraphrase of the motto of Pharrell's line: Billionaire Boys Club

“I’m not a style icon," said Pharrell last night. Throughout his career he's always shared the spotlight with his collaborators, using his available platforms to give shine where he feels it's deserved. But he remains fully aware of his left-of-center stance, and what that provenance in the canon of hip-hop style affords him. “I am other. And I’m okay with that. Somebody’s gotta do it.”

Above all, Pharrell has been a conduit for the outcast. An “it gets better” beacon for every forward-thinking fashion nerd or square peg that gets hated on today only to see their critics adopt the very same tastes, trends, and viewpoints much later down the line. And for those people most of all, Pharrell has this truly sage advice: 

“Listen to your instincts, and the people who see the quality in your differences, because you too might just make a difference.”

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