Stephen Manderson – AKA Professor Green – has a few words of advice for his fellow celebrities: “Know what you’re good at.”
The drug dealer-turned-rapper and reality-show star has many strings to his bow it seems, one of which is working with the sports brand Puma on his own apparel line.
Manderson’s second collection has just arrived in stores and encapsulates the street-cum-sportswear that goes hand in hand with so much urban music. “I don’t like anything too rigid,” Manderson says of his chosen aesthetic. But he could very well be referring to the labels that come with modern celebrity. “Designer” is increasingly a tag that musicians and actors wear proudly, as it seems everyone from Rihanna to John Malkovich (the former lending her name to River Island, the latter has his own label Technobohemian) is ready to sketch out a vision for their adoring fans.
So how do these projects come about? Does a brand approach a celebrity with a loyal fan base and hear the sound of tills ringing? Not always, it seems. “Over two years ago, a visitor to the APC studio was announced to me as ‘Kenny’,” says Jean Touitou, the founder of the French ready-to-wear brand, in what will no doubt be a tale that becomes fashion folklore. “He wanted my advice on the fashion industry; although I found the request quite vague, as a mutual friend introduced us I met with the guy. The guy talks and talks and I was having a good time listening. He had nice manners and spoke about… how difficult doing the right thing in fashion was.
“After a while, I was curious to know what this gentleman was currently doing in his life. I simply asked him: ‘May I know what your trade is, sir?’ He took his shades down, so that finally I could see his eyes, and answered me: ‘I am a hip-hop artist.’ At some point my crew informed me that his name was West, Kanye West.”
West’s collaboration with APC consists of eight pieces which sold out online on the day it went on sale. This is in stark contrast to West’s previous fashion venture a ready-to-wear collection that showed for two seasons as part of Paris Fashion Week and was largely lambasted despite West’s supposed fashion credentials. Before his debut, the former editor of Vogue Paris Carine Roitfeld said: “I know very well Kanye and I know he’s very good in fashion. He knows everything about fashion. He could teach fashion.”
In Manderson’s case, the approach came from the brand: “Puma got in touch and I was like: ‘Well sportswear, I’m not very athletic how is this going to work?’ Back then the catch line was ‘the after-hours athlete’, which I can endorse fully. I approach [the design process] like I approach my music. It’s selfish. I pick what I like. Me and the designer sit down and he’s got mood boards and I’ve got references, things that I like from now and from the past and we just start putting our heads together and thrash things out.”
The success of celebrity lines has long depended on the strength of their own style – will it stand up to the distillation process? And will the result essentially be a tangible way for fans to get that bit closer to their idol? Rihanna’s collections for River Island are a case in point; Women’s Wear Daily encapsulated her latest collection thus: “The looks were all variations on things from her wardrobe.” The singer took legal action against a Topshop supplier after an image of her taken from a music video was used on a T-shirt, so it’s fair to say that she, or somebody in her camp, understands the value of her endorsement.
“You can’t endorse every little thing,” Manderson says. “We say no to a lot more than we say yes to. One of the first branding opportunities I ever had was with Kappa – I said no to that one. If I put my name to something then that’s representative of my entire brand; if I do something I want to do it properly.”