Pop Smoke told Angie Martinez that before touching down in Paris back in January, he had never even left the country before. The 20-year-old Canarsie rapper, born Bashar Jackson, hadn’t traveled internationally, not even to Jamaica, where his mother is from, or Panama, where his father is from. He didn’t have a passport.
But now Pop Smoke was thousands of miles away from Brooklyn, sitting front row at shows for brands like Louis Vuitton and Off-White among people he once idolized, like Virgil Abloh and Quavo. It was another milestone in his rapid ascent to the forefront of the rap world. And it was supposed to be just the beginning before his tragic death this past February.
“He was just so excited to be there. It's somewhere he always wanted to go, and it was his first trip,” says Shivam Pandya, the director of artist management at Victor Victor Worldwide, Pop Smoke’s label. “As soon as we had landed, when we got to the city, the first stop he had the driver make was to go to the Eiffel Tower. He wanted to get out of the car and take pictures.”
In the months leading up to his first trip across the pond, Pop Smoke’s notoriety in the rap game had grown. His breakout single, “Welcome to the Party,” was a summer anthem in 2019 that extended far beyond New York City and introduced the Brooklyn drill sound to the mainstream. Another anthem, “Dior,” followed it. In less than a year, Pop was able to create a stylistic image for himself that resonated with his fans and peers. Style seemed to come naturally to him. If it wasn’t already clear that Pop was intrigued with the fashion world, “Dior” made it obvious, with the deep-voiced rapper shouting about brands like Amiri and, of course, Dior over the chorus. The track will forever link him to the designers he loved in the same way older hip-hop fans might equate Pharrell with Bape or Biggie with Coogi and Versace sunglasses.
As his profile continued to rise, he also caught the attention of multi-hyphenate creator Abloh, who was eager to build with him. Abloh recalls hearing “Welcome to the Party” for the first time on BBC Radio and being intrigued that someone from Brooklyn was rapping over a U.K. drill beat.
“He had the hottest song of the summer brewing, and it was constantly getting played,” Abloh tells Complex. “So I knew of him through the radio, which is pretty crazy. We got to know each other because I DM’ed him like, ‘Yo, your music’s crazy,’ and we sort of built a rapport.”
Abloh would eventually become the rapper’s connector to Paris Fashion Week. He personally invited him to sit front row at the Off-White and Louis Vuitton Men’s shows. It was his way to use his platform to represent rappers the fashion world usually shunned despite their massive influence on the space. Abloh considers it the antithesis to the infamous photo of himself, Kanye West, Don C, Taz Arnold, Fonzworth Bentley, and Chris Julian taken by Tommy Ton during Paris Fashion Week in 2009 outside of the Comme des Garçons Homme show. At the time, these brands didn’t welcome the rap world with open arms. They could buy their products, but weren’t invited to sit at the shows. Still, this group loved fashion and felt they deserved to be there, so they showed up anyway.
“I was listening to Pop Smoke. I was listening to Westside Gunn and listening to the whole Griselda back catalog at the end of 2019 when I was designing that collection for the Off-White show,” says Abloh. “I got in touch with [Pop Smoke and Westside Gunn] myself because I wanted them to come to Paris for the first time and not have to deal with the scrutiny, or that feeling of ‘you don't belong here’ that we did when we were there 10 years before. It was literally the idea that I’m paying homage to them because I was listening to their music when I made these collections. I want you to sit front row and feel like you belong here too because you were my inspiration.”
“This kid was on his path to being a fashion icon.” - Virgil Abloh
Attending Paris Fashion Week proved Pop Smoke’s influence was growing beyond Canarsie and Brooklyn drill music. Like his songs suggested, he was already being looked to for his personal style choices. He wasn’t just name-dropping designers like Mike Amiri or Christian Dior because it was the cool thing to do. This was his everyday wardrobe. On any given day, you could expect to see him in head-to-toe Dior, Rick Owens, Palm Angels tracksuits, or rocking distressed Amiri denim. Designer fashion was his uniform. Pandya, who was by his side throughout the trip, recalls Pop being eager to fly out to Paris and be part of the festivities.
“When we got the call for him to go to Paris [Fashion Week], it was super exciting because it was validation that he was on [people’s] radar and worthy of that front-row seat and the celebrity and stuff that comes with it,” Pandya tells Complex. “He was starting to become that famous rapper that people recognize and people wanted to take pictures with, and he could kind of go around wherever he wanted. So having that experience outside of New York and seeing it in Paris was reaffirming for him and exciting.”
The first big event of his week was the Off-White show on January 15. His outfit that day would become one of his most memorable looks—a simple white graphic T-shirt and light-wash denim with a royal blue Off-White fur coat covered in black logos. Pandya says he was initially hesitant about whether or not he could pull off the statement piece. Pop Smoke texted photos to his manager Steven Victor and Quavo seeking their opinion. Quavo, someone Pop trusted a great deal, ultimately gave it the co-sign.
“At fashion week, he didn’t really know what to wear, so he was just sending me all his wardrobe picks,” says Quavo. “He was like, ‘Am I supposed to put this shit on? Are you serious, bro? Don't lie to me.’ So I was helping him dress for fashion week.”
A couple days later, Pop wore a pastel T-shirt, button-up, and shorts set covered in LV’s iconic monogram print to attend the Menswear’s Fall/Winter 2020-2021 show for Louis Vuitton. Ugandan model Eva Apio, who also attended the show and first met Pop through mutual friends a few months prior at Tape, a popular London nightclub, took pictures with him wearing matching sky blue outfits. She says the looks were coincidental and she was going along with the “Heaven on Earth” theme for LV’s runway show held at the Jardin des Tuileries. The venue was covered in white clouds and featured a diagonal staircase inspired by cult classic film The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. Apio was by his side throughout the day’s festivities and was surprised by how calm he was when tossed into unfamiliar territory.
“He carried himself like he knew what to do. Even though it was his first time, he carried himself like, ‘Yeah, I know what's going on here,’” Apio tells Complex. “He kept talking about how he was just a guy from New York like, ‘I’m at LV front row, this doesn't happen to me. I’m here with most of my idols. I used to spend loads of money on LV, and now I’m getting it for free. I’m living a different life now.’”
Following the show, Pop and company, among them Places+Faces co-founder Imran Ciesay, grabbed lunch at trendy Parisian restaurant Hôtel Costes. Ciesay says Pop took the opportunity to experience traditional French cuisine like escargot—he asked the waitress to teach him how to eat it properly—and ordered five different types of pasta. This is where Ciesay was also able to capture a candid shot of the 20-year-old rapper. Ciesay recalled being struck by how genuine Pop was. He had previously sent him a red P+F tracksuit he wore while touring with Skepta in London earlier that year, but their first true encounter came earlier that day at the LV show.
“He kept talking about the fabric. He was like, ‘Yo, bro, the tracksuit is crazy. What fabric did you use for it?’ Blue was his favorite color, so he was asking for me to make him a blue one,” says Ciesay. “He was very mature. Speaking to him, I would have thought he was older than me. A lot of new, hot artists tend to have some sort of ego, but when I was with him I didn’t feel like he had that sort of attitude.”
Later that night, Pop Smoke and Quavo would link up to shoot the official video for “Shake the Room,” a standout song from Meet the Woo 2. Quavo would act as Pop Smoke’s mentor of sorts and helped him navigate the busy fashion week scene from shows to late night studio sessions.
“He made sure I had a spot for him to sit beside me [at the Off-White show]. We sat and watched the show right beside each other, and it threw me off at first,” Quavo tells Complex. “I'm like, ‘Man, this young kid just wants me around him.’ But I loved it. I wanted to be around him, too.”
The video shoot happened on the evening of January 16 in the streets of Paris, something that would become a symbol of Pop’s monumental week in Europe. Abloh started the Off-White International Rap Video Production Studio specifically for this shoot. He directed the video, which was shot by Kamera Kombat, a team that has worked with the designer on various film projects over the past four years.
“I distinctly remember being like, ‘Yo, if you want to shoot a video, I'm down.’ People need to see you in Paris. People need to see young, Black, successful kids traveling. It’s going to inspire somebody the same way as when I used to see Pharrell in London or something,” says Abloh. “This wasn’t to make Pop Smoke look like he went to Paris and got refined, or something like that. His personality and his energy was in the video so people could see it.”
Abloh says the shoot began mere hours after he wrapped his Louis Vuitton runway show. The run-and-gun, organic quality is obvious, with shaky footage that looks like it was shot on a home camcorder. Yellow text even pops up at the beginning of the video saying, “This is barely a ‘video shoot.’” Trippy shots of buildings in the streets of Paris are peppered in to break up footage of Pop dancing on tables with a glass of wine in an Off-White letterman jacket and matching pants, or rapping beside Quavo in the kitchen of a restaurant around the corner from Abloh’s hotel. Other scenes show Pop and Quavo in the streets dodging a red Ferrari doing donuts. Another memorable shot depicts Victor, who flew to Paris specifically for the shoot, speeding down the street in a Ferrari 488 Pista, a literal nod to Pop’s lyrics in the song, “Steven Victor in the Pista.”
“We shot it four hours after the Louis show. We didn’t have the song chosen for the video until maybe, like, two days before, and I’m doing fittings and the other shit, too,” says Abloh. “Pop Smoke was important. People would think that after I just finished a show, I’d be out at dinner with the team, chilling on a balcony, or relaxing. We were in the middle of the street, worried if the cops were going to come because we were about to do like three donuts in a row in Arthur Kar’s Pista.”
Pop kept busy overseas. Aside from Abloh, he also connected with other designers, like Who Decides War’s Ev Bravado, a fellow New York native. Bravado had Pop perform at his afterparty in Paris that week and even produced limited-edition merch to help celebrate the recent release of Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon that dropped earlier this week.
“We believed in Pop and his story and wanted to make sure his impact was as big as possible his first time going out [to Paris],” says Bravado. “He was an authentic dude. He just wanted to learn as much as he could from anyone who was willing to impart knowledge on him. That was the difference—he listened.”
He performed his hit records like “Gatti” and “Welcome to the Party” at nightclub appearances. He connected with DJ Mustard during a late night session in the studio, which led to the creation of “West Coast Shit,” SFTSAFTM’s 11th track (he even nods to Abloh in his verse rapping, ‘Shoutout to Virgil got me drippin’). Abloh recalls how open Pop was to all of the new experiences in Paris. Following the “Shake the Room” shoot, he, Pop, and Quavo went to a Prada afterparty that was taking place the same night in hopes of getting some B-roll footage for the video. Abloh thought he wouldn’t like the techno music the DJ was playing, but says they ended up staying there for a few hours, which, to him, “spoke volumes that he’s curious.” Rhude’s Rhuigi Villaseñor, who he co-signed a few weeks later on Angie Martinez’s radio show, was someone else Pop connected with on his trip. He attended the brand’s “Spirit of Ecstasy” presentation and took a particular liking to an all-blue look that featured a cropped leather jacket, button-up, and pleated trousers with large side pockets from the collection. Villaseñor was yet another designer who saw Pop’s potential.
“It was like a LeBron moment. You knew [Pop Smoke] was going to become that guy. And when I met the kid, he was the kindest dude and he was genuinely just a big fan of what we made,” says Villaseñor. “I do feel like he was a messiah in his own right. I felt like we were the two people that would grow together.”
While the fast-paced world of Paris Fashion Week was a new experience for Pop Smoke, his personal style was ingrained in him years prior from growing up in “The Flossy.” Even before the fame, he was rocking designer items like Burberry button-ups, Gucci belts, and Balenciaga sneakers.
“We call it the Floss because everybody from Canarsie is fresh. We always floss, no matter what. Whenever you saw Pop in the Floss, he was always in the Wraith. Anybody in the Floss, they got the newest drip, the newest jewelry,” says Apex Visions, Pop Smoke’s personal photographer and a fellow Canarsie native. “He should have been the brand ambassador of Dior right now. He really brought Dior to a whole new audience. Nobody was paying attention to Dior [in Canarsie] until Pop introduced it. But Louis Vuitton, Amiri, Balmain—everybody wore designer in Canarsie.”
Months prior to his Paris visit, and with newfound fame and cash flow, Pop Smoke started shopping more in New York. Patron of the New founder Jonathan Pak says almost all of the Amiri and Dior he owned, he bought from the Tribeca boutique. He says he was a very curious shopper, always asking questions to learn about brands like Mastermind Japan or Enfants Riches Deprimes. Apex Visions said they would shop there three times a week, and she never saw him in the same outfit twice.
“Whenever you saw Pop wear a fit, you knew nobody else put it together like that. Nobody else did it like him, and he really took pride in that,” Apex says. “No stylist. Never. Nope. That was all him.”
Pak recalls the last items he bought from him were a pair of red plaid pants from Mastermind Japan and a Moncler x 1017 ALYX 9SM jacket.
“It was like his second home, basically. He would just stop by whenever he had a chance, literally,” says Pak. “I’m actually going to always remember the last time I saw him before he went to L.A., his smile and his face when he came out of the fitting room because he was so excited for the outfit he was about to buy.”
“Whenever you saw Pop wear a fit, you knew nobody else put it together like that. Nobody else did it like him and he really took pride in that.” - Apex Visions
His jewelry game was just as impressive. His “Woo” logo pendant crafted by New York jeweler Sam Diamonds featured 41 carats of VS clarity diamonds and it quickly became one of his signatures. And muck like Pak, Sam Diamonds also recalls Pop Smoke being an inquisitive shopper.
“He used to always call me up and just ask me 20 random questions about jewelry. He always wanted to know what was going on. He really wanted to know how I'm doing it, how many grams I'm doing it, how thick the piece is going to be, what kind of size pointers, just quality,” says Sam Diamonds. “He always wanted to make sure everything was precise. He was a very detailed individual even from the first day when I met him.”
But the piece that is probably most associated with Pop Smoke’s image are his vintage Cartier rimless sunglasses with brown-tinted lenses. Pop bought them from Vintage Julz, a shop located on South Street in Philadelphia. Both the chain and glasses are prominently featured on the Meet the Woo 2 cover. Vintage Cartier frames initially gained popularity in Detroit as a status symbol among locals, but they’ve since become a go-to for stars nationwide, and Pop Smoke made them even more popular. Julian Emami, owner of Vintage Julz, says selling Pop Smoke those sunglasses was one of the most important transactions he’s ever made and people would reach out asking about the “Pop Smoke glasses.”
“Anybody who has ever sold Cartiers will tell you, there was never a time where people wanted Cartiers more than when Pop Smoke wore them, and this was even before he died,” Emami told Complex. “Everybody wanted the ‘Big Cs’ with the Hennessy tint the same way that Pop Smoke had them. From Detroit, to New York, to China, everybody wanted the Pop Smoke glasses. It was just crazy. In my opinion, and in other Cartier collector's opinions, that was the biggest sale of all time. That raised the demand more than any other sale in history.”
Only a month after he returned from Paris, on February 19 at 4:30 a.m, Pop Smoke was tragically shot and killed in a rental home in the Hollywood Hills. (The murder remains unsolved.) The release of his posthumous debut album, Shoot for the Stars Aim for the Moon, on July 3 is a celebration of his legacy and the culmination of the work the 20-year-old was putting in during his ascent to superstardom. It was also yet another stride for Brooklyn drill into the mainstream.
There’s footage online of Pop on the day of his high school graduation, a few years before he would be known around the world for his high-energy anthems. Along with his green cap and gown, he was already accessorizing with designer items—Cartier-esque wood frames on his face, a Burberry shirt underneath his gown, and designer sneakers on his feet. It wasn’t nearly as flashy as his outfits would become, but the effortless swag was already there. It’s the same swag that allowed him to pull off a blue fur Off-White coat or the Louis Vuitton pastel ensemble he wore while walking around the streets of Paris. It is something Abloh acknowledges over the phone as he reminisces about their time together. He remembers being impressed by how Pop pieced together certain items in a way he hadn’t seen before, but still remained authentic to New York.
“This kid was on his path to being a fashion icon,” says Abloh.
But considering the influence he had in such a short time, it’s clear he already was one.