Pharrell Williams interview

Real fashion talent or just frontin'? Becky Lucas considers the case

Pharrell Williams interview
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‘Style is about who you are, where you’re going, what’s comfortable. It’s your attitude that makes it hot.’ So says Pharrell Williams, the 37-year-old multi-million-selling producer-musician-designer, who has never used a personal stylist and who, by anyone’s measure, knows quite a bit about hotness.

His attitude, however, has changed over the years. In fact, it’s fair to say he’s spun a total 180°. In the early noughties, this son of a handyman and teacher from Virginia was best-known for working on explicit hip-hop tracks ‘Shake Ya Ass’, ‘Can I Have It Like That’, and ‘Rump Shaker’ with both Grammy-winning production outfit The Neptunes and rock-hip-hoppers N*E*R*D. He draped his videos with semi-clad models, adorned his body in tattoos and famously bought a $14-million Miami bachelor pad. Subtle he was not.

But meet Pharrell Williams today and you’ll find a different man. He no longer boasts about his latest bling purchase (‘The possession I’m most proud of? Family. Always’). He’s a peer among the fashion-forward set, even donning a ‘distinctly un-hip hop’ fur trapper hat last winter – and being stylish enough to carry it off. Tellingly, he was selected as one of the judges for the Wallpaper* Design Awards 2011. His nominees range from the iPad as life-enhancer of the year to Hong Kong as city of the year (‘its buildings have the most consideration for the human element’) and Louis Vuitton as best new men’s fashion collection (‘Vuitton has always been like family to me’ – perhaps explaining his previous comment about ‘family’…).

But more interesting than his Wallpaper* choices is the online cacophony of comments about his presence on the panel. It seems that many of the public are still finding it difficult to shake Pharrell’s former playboy image: ‘Wallpaper* – thank you for feeding egos,’ one non-fan rants. ‘Clout stemming from fame and finances does not equate to expertise – or even a respected opinion.’ A conspiracy theorist randomly declares that Pharrell is the real Banksy. Others accept and admire his fashionable forays: ‘He’s designed those crazy chairs [with Domeau & Pérès], collaborated with [Japanese contemporary artist] Takashi Murakami, launched fashion lines, designed for Pepsi, even created a bike. He has done way more than people think he has.’

The debate makes clear at least one challenge facing the coolest man on iTunes: can someone so fantastically successful in one business ever really be taken seriously in another? Can one man alone carve out so much kudos?

He’s certainly making a go of it. Pharrell has a natural interest in fashion, as is clear from his clothing lines: Billionaire Boys Club (named after a 1980s Californian investment and social club) and Ice Cream, co-founded with Nigo, of A Bathing Ape [BAPE], in 2005. The brand’s upscale collections include T-shirts, suits and shirts, hats, sneakers, underwear and accessories, and there are now dozens of stores around the world, including in New York, Tokyo, Hong Kong and London. He was also invited by Marc Jacobs to design a jewellery line, Blason, with Louis Vuitton, has created BAPE G-Shock watches – and has allegedly bought into small textile company Bionic Yarn, a producer of fabrics made from recycled plastic bottles. He is even – fashion trump of all fashion trumps – a friend of US Vogue editor Anna Wintour. ‘She doesn’t give two f**** about what nobody thinks – even when she does controversial s***, it always goes to her benefit,’ he says. ‘She’s a genius chess player.’

Such an impressive fashion CV resulted in Esquire US crowning Pharrell the most stylish man in the world in 2005 (ahead of Brad Pitt and George Clooney), and GQ US included him in its annual ‘25 best-dressed men’ selection in 2010. He’s also been named one of the sexiest men alive in other media. All certainly not credits that he might have garnered at the beginning of his career. Does this focus on his image make him uncomfortable, or is he confident that he fits the big bill? ‘I consider myself lucky,’ he says. ‘I feel proud, very proud, thankful, you know; these are super-cool things to be honoured with.’

His thirst for fash-pack collaborations isn’t wavering yet: ‘I love the major brands – some of them have been very good to me over the years,’ he tells us. ‘I love Lanvin [with which he is rumoured to have had meetings] and Comme des Garçons – and we recently did the collaboration with Moncler. We’re going to do some more pieces with them. I’m just thankful for the relationships because I’m a fan of the stuff anyway,’ he continues, with the humbleness of an intern around idols. ‘We’re able to come into the creative process of how these things happen with big brands. It’s a beautiful experience. I’m just thankful for being involved.’

His fashion idols are suitably suave: Brad Pitt, Robert Redford and Steve McQueen. ‘Those guys are super-classic; they’ve got very interesting looks,’ he muses. ‘I think there’s a bunch of guys who’ve just got amazing style and are very consistent with it – and I think those are probably the top three.’ Three men who have no doubt never shot music videos surrounded by oiled-up honeys, and who (bar Brad) have slightly less ink on their skin than Pharrell – until lately, that is. ‘I had tattoo removal and they just used lasers,’ he winces. ‘I thought it was going to be all cool and futuristic, but it’s totally not; it actually kills.’ Was this to make way for fresh work? ‘No, no more tattoos!’

We wouldn’t be surprised to see a slight reduction in body art across the hip-hop fraternity; Pharrell and his style choices act as such a weather vane for that business. After all, he was, arguably, preppy pre-Kanye West. ‘A lot of those [hip-hop] guys were about wearing blingy objects,’ says jeweller Lorraine Schwartz, who also happens to be Pharrell’s personal diamond merchant. ‘They had no idea about quality. It was just about the look. Pharrell doesn’t buy something because it’s fashionable. Pharrell makes fashion.’

No doubt you’ll remember the walking trendometer’s appearance in Dubai in February, putting in a tight performance with N*E*R*D. Could he be ready to set down his style permanently in the Middle East? Judging by the crowd’s ecstatic reaction, we’re ready for him. ‘I would love to open Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream clothing stores in Dubai,’ he exclusively reveals. ‘We’re having those conversations at the moment.’

But, for all his effortless charm, his adept kookiness and front-row fashion clout – Pharrell still carries a slight hangover from his chest-beating beginnings: a rather po-faced reputation among journalists as unfriendly, tetchy and an altogether tough interviewee. But he protests: ‘You know, that rumour may have come from a time when we were just over-inundated with interviews, back in the days when we had eight-hour press days and stuff. There are some times when you’re human – and you just get tired. You just feel like you’ve fallen off the deep end because you’re answering the same question over and over again. But I don’t know, I don’t think that [reputation] is correct. Do you think that’s correct?’

Well, yes, Pharrell Williams: you do have an attitude. But it’s all part of your genre-defying style.
Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream are available from Boutique 1, The Walk (04 395 12000) and Harvey Nichols, Mall of the Emirates (04 409 8888)

Material man

Pharrell’s fashion folio

The clothes
BBC is casual, kooky cool: with everything from stripes and chinos to army wear and ponchos, while Ice Cream includes many T-shirts with ice cream motifs (and many without), as well as checked shirts and neon green trousers.

The jewellery and accessories
Pharrell designed the Millionaire sunglasses for Louis Vuitton sported by Jay-Z on the cover of XXL magazine (despite the name, they only cost from Dhs5,510). His jewellery includes gold rings with plenty of diamanté and even a cupid. So bling they’re blinding.

The chairs
Domeau & Pérès were his cohorts for this furniture project: one chair with wheels named Tank, reflecting the theme of war, and one with four human feet called Perspective, which represents the love between a woman and man. Priced at around Dhs11,019 each.

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