At Paris Men’s Fashion Week this year, inside an underground shopping mall, Westside Gunn’s raspy voice suddenly faded into the speakers to serenade the models walking in Off-White’s Fall 2020 runway show. If that song, “Perfect Plex,” was a canvas, it would be worthy enough to be exhibited in the Louvre museum, which was just a short walk away. Forget the Mona Lisa, because the kids can just see her smile on a Off-White hoodie anyway. What Paris really needs is an oil painting of the FlyGod in a suede Prada suit, stepping out of a G-Wagon, and pistol whipping an opp with a Mac-11. That’s the type of art Westside Gunn creates.
“That Balenciaga coat, that album cover, it was a statement. That picture is an art piece in itself and that’s why it's still up in Times Square to this day,” Gunn tells me over the phone, when reflecting on some of the garments he’s worn on his most iconic album covers—such as Hitler Wears Hermes 7 and Supreme Blientele. “Let me just order myself a pair of Fendi stockings and put it all over my face, like I'm about to rob some shit. It's just my art man. I like to keep my image going but I want to be different.”
From the very moment Gunn came out spitting about tip-toeing in Nike Air Mags and having his shooters posted in Off-White boots on “Mr. T,” it became crystal clear that Gunn’s style was no throwback. Although Gunn was a product of the ‘90s, he never let the trends of his teenage years weigh his taste down. “I always wanted to just stay 10 steps ahead of everybody. It's just been like that my whole life,” says Gunn, who’s now 37 and remembers rocking Nautica Challenge spring jackets and dyed pairs of Wallabees as a high school student in the late ‘90s.
Nowadays, you’ll catch Gunn rocking Balenciaga sneakers in unreleased colorways or Off-White trench coats that aren’t even out yet. On his latest project, Pray for Paris, Gunn makes it clear that he’s not a rapper subverting the fashion industry. Instead, the industry is coming to him. Whether that’s Virgil Abloh inviting him to sit front row of the Louis Vuitton show; or Charaf Tajer blessing him with a suitcase full of Casablanca and the brand’s first pair of New Balance 327s. Surprisingly, Balenciaga has never hit Gunn up, even when Gunn likely made that coat one of the trendiest winter pieces last season.
“I think a lot of people are rocking with me when it comes to this fashion world right now,” says Gunn. “They love my fashion style. They love the way I think. They love the way I like to be ahead of the curve. I could bring a lot to any brand, even if it's not my own.”
We hopped on the phone with Westside Gunn to talk about how he styles himself, his early dreams of attending fashion school, how he got his first pair of grills, and more.
Pray For Paris is tied to your stellar appearance at Paris Fashion Week earlier this year. What moved you to go to Paris and have you ever ever attended fashion shows?
Virgil had hit me up personally. He just wanted me to be there and I thought that it would be a pleasure. It was an honor. I never even had a passport before that moment, bro. I never left the country or nothing. I'm heavy into fashion, so it was an honor man. When I went out there, it was just crazy to sit in the front row at all these shows and get all this love. I'll never forget it, man. I was so inspired that it just made me want to do this project. That was my first time ever at Fashion Week ever. So it was dope.
No stylist right?
Yeah, I don't do the stylist thing. I've been fly my whole life. A lot of people start getting fly once they get record deals and can start affording to buy it. But honestly, I've been wearing designer for the last 20 years ago. Like that's what I do. Even when people wasn't even wearing designer, I was wearing designer. I had Versace glasses, Gucci, Iceberg, and all that in '98.
How did you pack for that trip? How do you generally put together an outfit and what do you think is the most important part of it overall?
I like to stay with the newest man. If I'm going to go all out and wear something new, y'all just know that it's brand new and it's likely that nobody has even put it out there yet. Or it's going to be something that's real chill and laid back. There's no in-between. You either go all out or just dress kind of chill. A chill outfit for me would be a Palm Angels tracksuit or a dope designer hoodie by a brand like Off-White or Heron Preston. But I can also go with the best of them, man. Throw on them trenches, you know what I’m saying? Anything man. It depends on their occasion, honestly. But literally, for every trip I travel on, I make sure I at least have something fly cause you just never know. I also shop city to city. So it's rare if I go to a city and don't shop. I know different store systems in every city so I just like doing business everywhere I go.
Aside from the Off-White show and the Louis Vuitton show, what were your favorite shows to see at Paris Fashion Week?
I mean honestly, Casablanca. Charaf's whole collection was amazing. It was actually my favorite collection out of everything. Also, my guy KidSuper. I actually wore the one-of-one KidSuper jacket on Jimmy Fallon. It was like a pristine act and so I just had to have it. I hit up KidSuper like 2:30 in the morning and he met me over at the showroom. He wasn't even supposed to be there but I just had the idea. I just saw that jacket and I had to have it—not even knowing I was going on Jimmy Fallon at that time. It's just the fact that I had to have that jacket. It was a one-of-one piece and that's what I ended up wearing for Jimmy Fallon.
I was surprised to read that you were on Pyrex when it first came out. Especially in a city like Buffalo, New York. I know Buffalo doesn't have stores like Dover Street Market or KITH. How'd you become so in tune with fashion growing up there?
That's what I'm saying. I can't speak for nobody else because I was always a trend setter. I always just studied fashion and what people wore. What was the newest thing and what was the newest thing coming out? I always wanted to just stay 10 steps ahead of everybody. It's just been like that my whole life. Once I got old enough to start making my own bread for real, hustling and doing everything I was doing, I was coming to Atlanta for spring and summer breaks. Atlanta had Lenox Mall, Phipps Plaza, and boutiques. So I would just take my money and get all the flyest things out there that nobody in Buffalo had ever seen. I would just take it back and everybody would be like, "Yo, what's that? What's that? Oh we heard, Jay Z talking about it." It would be brands like Iceberg. In Buffalo, we never had a designer store. We've got Macy's. So it was just through traveling at an early age. A lot of people didn't leave Buffalo until their mid-20s or until they were 30 years old. It's one of those types of cities, man. But I was fortunate to be traveling already at 14, by myself, going down to Atlanta.
Did you go to New York a lot, too? To SoHo or something like that?
Never. The first time I ever went to New York City was my senior year of high school. That summer I went down there to get my teeth done. I had my teeth done already in Atlanta. I was 17 years old, with platinum in my mouth. Nobody was even thinking about platinum, honestly. Jay Z was the only person that was talking about it. This was during the Hard Knock Life days and all of that. This was like '98, '99, around that era. I got pictures with Versace glasses, platinum in my mouth, chains all over—back when you could wear the chain all the way down to your belly button. That's how I was looking then, bro. You know what I mean? 22 years ago. So it's just like I said, man. I was always ahead of the game, ahead of the curve.
So, when I went back to Buffalo, I needed another grill because I ended up losing it. I had got mine from the world famous Eddie's. Everybody talked about it in Atlanta. Like if you had a grill, you had to get it from Eddie. So that's where I got mine when I was 17 years old. But I ended up losing that platinum one and I wanted another one because I was just so used to having something in my mouth. People didn't even know what my regular teeth looked like anymore. So I needed to get something quick. The closest place was New York City. I had my grandmother drive me to New York. I acted like I was trying to go shopping and I'm like, "Yo grandma, I need to go shopping. I need to go shopping. I need to go shopping." She drove me all the way to New York City and I only went for the grill. She was tight, too.
I think many Griselda fans know that this movement started as a clothing label, Griselda by Fashion Rebels. I read that you were screen printing T-shirts when you were 13, making rhinestone denim suits as a teenager, and you were even accepted into fashion schools back then before rap took off. Can you tell me about your experience designing clothing as a kid?
All true, that's why I say fashion is my passion, man. I've been doing that for a long time. It's like right now people hear me for the music, or the art, and just hear me speak about fashion. But honestly, when I was in fifth grade, I would come up with stories and I was always a dope storyteller. My best friend, Victor, was like the dopest artist and still works for me to this day. He could really draw a real comic book at 10 years old. So I would come up with the stories and he would draw the characters to bring it all to life. We were making comic books at 10 years old.
So once, I really wanted to start doing fashion in eighth grade, whatever came to my mind, I had Victor draw it. It was literally something I wanted to do even at that age. I used to call up all the screenprinting places and ask, 'How much is it for one color? Okay, how long is it going to take? How much is each piece?' While looking at all these different brands. I was doing all of that at 13 and 14 years old. So once I got to high school, we got our Wallabee Clarks dyed and all that. We did that so much, that we learned how to dye them ourselves. That became a challenge. Who can make the illest Wallabees? So we had like Wallabee wars. I'd come to school one day in just red and gold Wallabees, my man would come with some aqua-blue yellow ones, and we would just go crazy. From there started making jean suits and sweatsuits. I really wanted to do it.
My guy Ron, who is still working with me today and makes all my Griselda patches. Me and him were applying for fashion schools and all of that. He ended up going to Bauder College for fashion while I ended up in the streets. I had two kids already when I was 19 so I had to start making money. I didn't have time to go to college. That wasn't even on my brain no more. So unfortunately that ended up catching up with me as he went to fashion school. But to this day, we still work together. Everybody around me has been there since the beginning.
As a youth, especially growing up in like the ’90s, what kind of designers or brands were looking up to at that time? What were you inspired by?
Honestly man, jerseys were big. Like I was the jersey team. You know how Fab was the throwback jersey king? I was Fabulous, but with the OG jerseys for every sport that you could think of. Whoever was dope during those seasons, I had their jersey. I used to just flip that with the kicks. But I used to also be heavy on Tommy Hill polos and Nautica Challenge jackets. The spring jacket was that thing. A Tommy Hill spring jacket with a bucket hat. A Nautica Challenge spring jacket with Tommy Hill hockey jersey or polo. Corduroys or khakis were cool with the rugby, with either a pair of Wallabees or Eastlands. You could come in that style, or you can come in with the hockey Jersey and some new Air Jordans. Some new Air Forces with a hoodie on. It was a different time, man. You came with your pager on and you were the man.
I saw you rocked that San Jose Sharks jersey at the LV Show.
People were like, "Yo, whoa, who got you in man?" Man, I wore a hockey Jersey to the Louis Vuitton show, bro. It was legendary. The colors matched with everything. That was just one of those moments. It's like I said before, I'm either going all out or just relaxing. I wanted to chill and relax that day. I'm going to come in with the hoodie and hockey jersey on because everybody else is going to be rocking Louis. Everybody. So I'm going to do the exact opposite. I'm going to wear sweatpants and a jersey, but with some Balenciagas on. At that time nobody had that colorway for real. So I wanted to break those Balenciagas out because I knew people didn't have that color. I got the "WWCD" (What Would Chinegun Do) sticked on the back of that jersey to make it custom and just went out there. People love that jersey. I bet you somebody is going to wear a hockey jersey next year.
I've always been a fan of pieces you designed early on. That bomber you're wearing in that video for "Mr. T" is just so ill. That's one of the first images I remember of you. What's the story behind your scorpion and 187 graphics on a lot of your merch?
187 is just fashion killers and just murdering all fashion. Just like Griselda by Fashion Rebels. The head of fashion, the fashion killers, what I'm saying? We just do what we want man and come with the rawness. Everywhere we go, we are going to shut it down. The scorpion just comes from cartel bricks. I'm just saying that this is the best dope. The best dope had the scorpion stamped on it. It's like everything I do is like the best dope. It don't get any purer than this. This is just pure art and pure fashion.
You've featured brands like Balenciaga prominently on your album covers. Have any of these brands, like Chanel or Fendi, ever sent you stuff or hit you up after they've seen you wear it.
Nah man. It's crazy because I wore that coat before everybody wore that coat. It actually became annoying. I've seen every basketball player going to the game with it on. I've seen people in the NFL wearing it. I’ve seen rappers, R&B singers, and fashion bloggers wear it. I was so ahead of the curve and that's why I purposely put that coat on the cover. Like I said, I like to set trends. Like on the other covers, where I'm putting a Fendi stocking or Gucci ski mask over my face. Okay, let me just order me a pair of Fendi stockings and put it all over my face, like I'm about to rob some shit. It's just my art man. I like to keep my image going but I want to be different. That Balenciaga coat, that cover, it was a statement. That picture is an art piece in itself. That's why it's still in Times Square to this day.
You had to hunt for that Fendi stocking on eBay, right?
Yep, because I couldn't find it nowhere. I bought a red one too and I haven't even used it yet. If I ever do Supreme Blientele Part Two, I'll have the cover again with the red mask. I already bought the stocking. The red one is still never worn and it's just waiting to become another cover.
For as long as I can remember, your merch and your records have been extremely coveted by hardcore Griselda collectors. Do you have a favorite piece of merch that you designed personally?
Honestly, I love them all because they all have a special meaning. Every design I ever released, there's multiple people around the world with a tattoo of it on their body. Every last one of them. They like collecting these designs as tattoos now, too. I get DM or tagged on Instagram about tattoos every day. The FlyGod image, the Chanel mask image, the Don't Get Scared Now image. Somebody was just in my comments asking if they could already get this Pray for Paris tattooed on them. They just wanted my blessings. The art is just speaking to the world. It's a beautiful thing because that was my intention from the jump. So to see everything coming how it's coming. It's just a blessing. I don't really have any specific piece in mind, but I honestly love the FlyGod piece because that symbolizes me personally. But I do love this Pray for Paris merch right here. It's already gone now. People can't even buy it no more. It's already over. So there's like, if you've got it, you got it. But people are already crying today. "Yo, I'm just trying to buy the hoodie. Where?" It's too late. I told people once it’s gone, it’s gone. So if you don’t have it, I don't know how you're going to find one.
So since you began talking to Virgil and Kanye, have you been learning anything from them regarding fashion?
I mean we've discussed ideas and things like that, but I just like showing them things that I'm working on just to hear them say, “That shit’s fire.” I might send something to Ye, Hov, Just Don, and other people I respect because their feedback is just golden for me. It means something. We are just talking about working in the future. This is just the beginning of what me and Virgil got going on together, which is making a huge impact already. But this is literally the beginning. We said that even in Paris. This is nothing. We are about to take over the world type shit. So let's get to cooking. And that's the same way everybody feels. Same way with Ye. We are the culture man. Let's push this man. Ye got the new Yeezy season coming, I'm designing like crazy, there's a few collabs I got coming up that are pretty huge. So I'm excited man.
I read that you want to intern at a major fashion house too at some point. What would it be your dream place to go if you have one?
I love Vuitton just because Virgil is over there. I really do. I've been wearing Vuitton for a long time so that'd be crazy. But I also love other brands. Like when I went to New York Fashion Week after Paris, I went to the Palm Angles show and I talking to them about coming out to Milan. There’re in the same building as Vuitton, so I just really need to get to Milan. Go out there for a month and rent myself a place that's fly to just create and explore. To start building with the builders. I think a lot of people are rocking with me when it comes to this fashion world right now. Like all the people like I've reached out to, they've hit me right back or even reached out to me first. It's just all been genuine love and people really want to see me win. They love my fashion style. They love the way I think, they love the way I like to be ahead of the curve. I could bring a lot to any brand, even if it's not my own. But of course, the goal is to even take mine to another level. So ever since I went to these fashion shows, and began meeting all these head designers who I love and respect, I'm just thinking of taking my skills to another level.
I've read that you wanted to open your own store in Fairfax last year. Is that something you still foresee? And do you want to scale this brand to something like Sean John or Yeezy or do you want to keep it kind of small?
I want to expand, but I don't want to expand it too much. I definitely want to produce more styles, more products, and not have everything be so limited. I would like to design some things that are more evergreen that you can buy anytime. I I want to keep selling a $50 T-shirt but also be able to sell a $400 T-shirt as well. I want to start switching materials up and to just start studying fashion more. That's the thing that I would have learned if I went to school. I would still go to fashion school. But I really don't have to now because so many of my peers are already the head guys. I just really need to start hanging out with them more and begin learning from them, which is what I plan to do. I'm going to start visiting Japan, Paris, Milan, to just start creating. Tapping in with all my favorite designers.