Everything must go — Pharrell Williams is selling off his legacy
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In a whitewashed loft apartment somewhere in lower Manhattan, Pharrell Williams is moving his hands through the air as if solving a giant floating jigsaw puzzle. “The pieces appear to you above your head,” he says, gesturing to the imaginary items that he’s using to describe his creative process. “And you go, OK, maybe this goes here, maybe that goes there.”
He shepherds these floating pieces into a contiguous formation, into which more and more suddenly flow. “It’s kind of like Tetris.” He lets his arms, adorned with several gleaming gold bracelets and an impressively complicated-looking watch, fall back down. “You’re literally just sculpting ideas.”
For one of the greatest innovators in contemporary popular culture, sculpting ideas has become a trademark. Over more than three decades of prolific output, Williams has helped to alter the course of both music and fashion, and in doing so has helped bring about the latter-day fusion of the two. But we are meeting today precisely because he has been so prolific. While Williams’s musical contributions – which have earned 13 Grammys, two Oscar nominations and four Billboard number-one hits – can be contained within the infinite capacity of the streaming ether, his 20 years’ worth of fashion collaborations and creations are rather more cumbersome.
As such, Williams and I are sitting on a couch on a sweltering August morning discussing his plan to get rid of them all. “My business manager was like, ‘Hey, at this point, you have 11 different storage units,’” he says, gesturing around the room, where dozens of his designs – from a leather jacket emblazoned with “Women’s rights” to a gold-plated BlackBerry – are arrayed on every available surface following a photoshoot for this magazine.
But rather than sell the fruits of his journey through the fashion world on an existing auction platform, he has assembled a team to create a new one, Joopiter. His cast-offs, most of which have had some creative input from him, will launch the site when it goes live this month; later, it will expand to selling other curators’ collections as part of what Williams refers to as a “high-touch, white-glove” operation. (It will also have a philanthropic side to it “in the future”, I’m told.)
“There’s not really one size fits all,” he says, referring to what he sees as the fragmented current landscape of high-end auction platforms, which range from prestige heritage brands such as Christie’s to newcomers like Reluxe and Depop – a problem that Joopiter aims to solve. “I’m not going to sell furniture on StockX. You know what I’m saying,” he adds, referring to the platform that specialises in sneakers and streetwear. “I’m not going to sell, you know, 20-plus-carat diamond rings on [The] RealReal.”
“Spiritually it’s a very rich experience, an enlightening experience, to let… stories go,” he says of the mental benefits of having a massive clear out – one of several nods to a higher realm over the course of our conversation. He later refers to himself as “a spiritual unit of awareness”, and urges me to look up the astrological connotations of the planet Jupiter. I do: good fortune and “higher learning”.
Observing him leaning serenely back on the couch, encircled by his creations – yellow Stan Smith sneakers embossed with 1,600 Swarovski crystals; an enormous Louis Vuitton trunk bearing the logo of his streetwear brand Billionaire Boys Club – the effect is of a king surrounded by long-accumulated treasures. “I am, you know, literally the son of a pharaoh,” he says quite seriously, in a reference to his father’s first name, as two diamond necklaces glitter magnificently around his neck. I ask what first drew him to the world of fashion, despite the fact that he already had a substantial and celebrated musical career. “Fashion and music is like time and space, you can’t have one without the other,” says Williams with a shrug. “You know, even Mozart was wearing something.”
If the past few decades of popular culture have been a journey into what was once considered the alternative, Williams has been a frontiersman. As one half of the production duo The Neptunes, alongside his schoolfriend Chad Hugo, Williams did for the 2000s and 2010s what Nile Rodgers did for the 1970s: creating a sound so irresistible that the musical universe was forced to bend gravitationally around it. With an eerie, percussive production style (Williams has cited Carl Sagan’s 1980s television series Cosmos as an inspiration), he and Hugo built the chassis for every era-defining record from Snoop Dogg’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl”, while he has also amassed a significant catalogue both as solo artist Hugo and in the punk rock-infused hip-hop group NERD.
“In the 2000s, 2010s, 2020s and from now on…whenever there’s a collection of the best songs of the era – it will be mostly his songs,” said Nigo, the artistic director of Kenzo, who has collaborated with Williams on the brands Billionaire Boys Club and Icecream as well as his album I Know Nigo!.
At the same time, Williams was one of several black artists – alongside Kanye West and the late Virgil Abloh – making inroads into the fashion establishment, striking high-profile collaboration deals with houses including Chanel and Louis Vuitton, and appearing on the cover of American Vogue in 2017. To think of Williams is to think of his most famous looks: the oversized Vivienne Westwood “Buffalo” hat he wore to the 2014 Grammy Awards, or the tiny diamond-encrusted teardrop sunglasses that are the product of a recent collaboration with Tiffany & Co.
Today, Williams’ teenage son Rocket potters around the room taking videos with a handheld camera, surrounded by scattered nuggets from his father’s life in fashion: the Moncler vest from 2010 draped over another couch to our left, featuring a print by Japanese artist Keita Sugiura; chunky red Timberland boots from 2014, a year after Williams won three Grammy Awards for his work on Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, on which he has handwritten “Equality via education”.
“It was a long time coming,” says Williams of fashion’s embrace of hip-hop culture that reached its apotheosis in 2018 with Abloh’s appointment as artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. Does he ever feel uncomfortable with the mainstreaming of hip-hop, which he describes as “a form of rebellion and radical expression in a very culturally suppressive system”? He shakes his head: “I’m uncomfortable it took this long.”
At 49, Williams could reasonably be thought of as one of hip-hop’s elder statesmen. Like Jay-Z, who is three years older, he radiates the aura of a man who has lived through the excesses of the business and come serenely out the other side. “I looked up to my big brother Jay-Z, also Puff [Daddy], you know, and at the time, they were brash with it, they let you know,” he says of his early years in music and the styling that came with them. “Because it was so hard for them to get in that when they got in, they just acted all the way up, you know, in the most luxurious way that they could. So in trying to keep up with them, that led me to be braggadocious at times.”
It’s a braggadocio that arguably reached its zenith with the 2013 provocative mega-hit “Blurred Lines”. Co-written with Robin Thicke, and starring a naked Emily Ratajkowski, it was later criticised for its misogynistic video and lyrics, and Williams has since distanced himself from the song. Speaking to GQ in 2019, he said: “My mind opened up to what was actually being said in the song and how it could make someone feel… I realised that we live in a chauvinist culture in our country.”
To that extent Joopiter could represent another re-evaluation: the decision of man who no longer wants, or needs, to be surrounded by his past. Today, he says he sees himself as part of a vanguard pushing to move both music and fashion forward. “You know, myself, Kanye, Virgil… we’re all on the front lines, helping to get some of those old spirits to wake up,” he says. “Woke scares people sometimes but, damn, I’d rather be woke than asleep.”
And Williams’ fingerprints are still everywhere in music. From the boisterously charismatic Tyler, the Creator, to the fashion savant A$AP Rocky, to the Gen Z wunderkind Billie Eilish, his influence is palpable in a new generation of stars. “He is singular,” says the film score composer Hans Zimmer, who has worked with Williams on projects including the soundtrack to Despicable Me 2, which gave rise to his biggest solo hit, 2013’s infectious “Happy”. “He is singular in the way the ideas form, the way the ideas are executed… What I love about him is that he connects the music with the fashion, which connects the whole thing with the zeitgeist.”
Williams himself has weathered the relentless turnover of musical tastes, and the streaming-era shift to new forms of output that are no longer constrained to traditional album structures or cycles. In June, he released “Cash In Cash Out”, a moody, otherworldly banger featuring Tyler, the Creator and the Atlanta rapper 21 Savage, the video for which currently has more than 16 million views on YouTube.
“You listen to pop music right now, you probably only get two choruses, maybe two verses, maybe a break,” he says of the contemporary landscape. “And then that’s it, the song’s over in two minutes and 30 seconds. When I was a little boy, you know, you’d be a minute in before you even heard the first verse.” Likewise, he insists that the success of any song is the product of “so many variables” that it is impossible to predict what will be a hit, nor should any artist be overly credited with creating one. “There are so many genius songs out there that you and I have never heard and never will,” he says, “just because the odds, the math, was not in their favour at that time, in that space. That’s not humility, it’s math.”
Joopiter is just one of Williams’ many business interests. The father of four is juggling an array of extra-musical ventures, including skincare brand Humanrace and educational non-profit Yellow – though for now he insists his focus is on Joopiter, and making “space for the next chapter”. When I ask if that chapter involves working on Rihanna’s long-awaited ninth studio album, as indicated by an Instagram post by the artist last February, he politely swerves the question: “Let’s get through this first.”
We survey the collection of items laid out before us, each of which evokes a moment in his artistic life. Beside us lies a varsity jacket with the appliquéd initials of his old high school in Virginia. The pieces seem so quintessential to the mythology of Pharrell Williams that I wonder if he’ll miss them. Williams seems unbothered. “I was born without it,” he shrugs. “And when I die I won’t have it, right?”