Abloh’s credited title has varied from head creative director to art director for DONDA. It’s easy to see why the Chicago native and former architect would be Kanye’s right-hand man when it comes to DONDA. Abloh has the holier-than-thou hipster vibe down cold. He’s a Birkin-bag-carrying dude who owns a clothing boutique that sells $200 T-shirts. He drops obscure style references, like waxing poetic about the genius of German industrial designer Dieter Rams.
The rest of the DONDA stable is virtually anonymous. And West has a tradition of cobbling together a rotating cast of collaborators, which makes it tough to distinguish who’s actually part of the core clique. Liner notes on Yeezus list Joe Perez as DONDA graphic designer and Justin Saunders as art director. Those who are believed to have worked with the company consistently include West’s longtime barber and style consultant Ibn Jasper, art directors Matthew Williams and Guido Callarelli and graphic designers Nathaniel Brown and Alex Milsom. Perez declined to be interviewed, and the others did not respond to requests. Before Abloh could even be contacted, he sent a pre-emptive refusal: “We appreciate the interest, but our staff is not doing interviews at the moment. If our stance changes, we will be in touch.”
Whoever’s pulling the strings, the overall theme seems to be minimalism. And so far, DONDA’s work still falls in the domain of hip-hop: album artwork stage sets (West’s Atlantic City Revel Resort shows); promotional apparel; and visuals for Ye’s G.O.O.D Music compilation, Cruel Summer. With the interactive video for West's “Black Skinheads,” DONDA has been focusing on multimedia projects. They were also hired to re-edit the trailer for The Canyons, starring Lindsay Lohan.
The DONDA-designed cover for I Am Not a Human Being 2 spotlights a lone butterfly on a black background. And instead of a cliché mean-mug close-up, 2 Chainz’s Based on a T.R.U. Story features two chains draped over a black backdrop. Some say the DONDA design style currently on display is a brilliant respite from hip-hop’s often-aggressive literalism. Some say it’s basic. “Because hip-hop has been so literal, esoteric things excite people. But it doesn’t mean that it’s good,” says Joseph Buckingham, aka Joe Buck, a graphic designer whose album artwork includes the classic De La Soul Is Dead cover. “That seems to be the trend now, to just be beyond hip-hop. Kanye plays that game well.”
The abstract approach can be vexing for the executives who write the checks. “The label wants to go with what’s obvious and marketable,” says Courtney Walter, a creative director who’s designed packaging for Chris Brown (Fortune) and Miguel (Kaleidoscope Dream). “If it’s conceptual, sometimes you’re pushing boundaries that make more of a statement than you need to.”
West is already barreling full steam ahead with his own music. Yeezus is the musical equivalent of a splash painting. From the anti-packaging to the loony American Psycho–inspired commercial starring two Kardashian family affiliates. He does what he wants (and more importantly, corporate bigwigs allow him to do what he wants) because it’s profitable. Kanye’s audience is built-in and primed to respond to whatever he’s pumping out, even if it’s a pair of $245 Nike Air Yeezy’s, which once sold for $90,000 on eBay.
“Marketing is usually so much about ‘reach,’” says Patrick Ehrlund, creative director of B-Reel, the company that produced West’s 2012 commercial for the Cruel Summer album. “Because Kanye West is such a strong brand, you don’t necessarily have to worry about reach, because it will always reach people. So it’s about how you affect people. Visuals have become a much more permanent and visible part of hip-hop. I think it’s amazing that artists are exposing people that might not be exposed to these kinds of artistic things.”
It may be unrealistic to expect DONDA to run like a traditional business and actually attempt to attract media attention. Especially since Kanye has become more paranoid about his message being misinterpreted. The true test will be marrying his laissez-faire approach with the eventual need to gain investors if he’s serious about turning DONDA into a conglomerate.
“From a funding point of view, it can be a challenge when you have people who aren’t used to thinking outside the box,” says Jessica Irish, director of academic affairs at Parsons’ School of Art, Media and Technology.
West’s ambition to succeed Apple is clearly a stretch. But he may have the ultimate business consultant in Steve Wozniak, who cofounded the iconic tech brand with Jobs. They met this year and discussed Kanye’s top-secret plans. When contacted for comment on DONDA, Wozniak stated via e-mail: “I have opinions about it, but they would be personal between myself and Mr. West.”
West isn’t alone in his determination to push the margins of the entertainment industry. From Nicki Minaj and Drake to Jay Z and Pharrell, rappers are expanding their résumés beyond endorsements and fragrances. Ten years ago, vanity labels and clothing lines were compulsory. Now, it’s about creative direction for major brands. West can certainly transform DONDA into a lucrative movement. He’s defied odds before.
In February 2012, four months after the lukewarm reception to his women’s collection, West started work on the first official DONDA endeavor—the Cruel Summer short. He commissioned three design firms and a post-production company and scored funding from the Doha Film Institute in the Gulf state of Qatar, where the film was shot. The team spent four months constructing an unprecedented seven-screen display and a white tented pyramid to contain it.
That May, his 30-minute movie about a car thief and an Arabian princess (He even consulted with a local Arab woman on wardrobe) screened at the Cannes Film Festival. The verdict from most media outlets: flawed, but ambitious. The movie has yet to be released on DVD or screened anywhere outside of Cannes. It hardly matters. Kanye pulled it off, and his first step to achieving what he wants with DONDA was complete.
Whether DONDA becomes another told-you-so moment or a pipe dream remains to be seen. Limitations exist in the corporate world, but from the looks of it (the ambiguous anti-business business plan), West wants to see just how much he can break the rules. As DONDA progresses, he’ll have disciples and cynics, either blindly following or silently skeptical, but never counting him out.