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Beneath The Mask: The Designer Behind Kanye West’s ‘DONDA’ Balaclava

As Kanye West continues to mystify with his intriguing and prolonged ‘DONDA’ rollout, all eyes are frequently on his iconic headwear.

Kanye West x GG Denim

Kanye West pictured wearing one of his trademark balaclavas from GG Denim.

GG Denim/Twitter

In a time when face masks are synonymous with everyday life, it seems fitting that no one should bat an eyelid at Kanye West wearing a balaclava to attend a Balenciaga fashion show in Paris. Or most recently, to simply work on his DONDA album.

But it’s not the pandemic that’s conditioned everyone to the ubiquity of mask-wearing in the case of West, it’s the fact that the rapper has long been a pro-balaclava wearer. And there’s a reason for it.

Looking back on the live shows of 2014’s YEEZUS tour, West rarely showed his face.

More often than not, he would take to the stage donning embellished and bedazzled face masks designed by French high fashion house, Maison Margiela (then known as Maison Martin Margiela), a collaboration which married the label’s classic attributes with the perfect touch of Yeezy.

And it was during an appearance at the London Wireless Festival at Finsbury Park that he had decided to reveal why he was doing so.

Flicking the pages of the calendar back to July 4th, 2014, West was right in the middle of a nine-month long YEEZUS tour.

After he had treated the audience at Finsbury Park to a performance of “Runaway” from 2010’s Grammy-winning My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West took a familiar left turn. He began to unpack some of the frustrations he was dealing with at the time, along with shedding some light on the reason he chose to wear masks.

“That’s why I got this fucking mask on,” West exclaimed to the Wireless Festival during his exceedingly-long, auto-tune-enhanced speech. “Because I ain’t worried about saving face. Fuck my face! That sounded wrong.”

“But they finally got a headline,” West continued, laughing. “But fuck whatever my face is supposed to mean and fuck whatever the name Kanye is supposed to mean. It’s about my dreams! And it’s about anybody’s dreams. It’s about creating. It’s not about the idea about being a fucking celebrity, it’s not about the idea of being a black man trying to do fashion and shit.”

In 2021, West continues to explore the world of high fashion in only the boldest of ways, sitting front row at Paris Fashion Week earlier this year, as well as tapping Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia for the creative direction of his second DONDA listening party in Atlanta.

While he may have left those Maison Margiela masks in 2014, seven years on, West has undeniably ushered in a new era in his career; most effectively represented in his fashion choices.

Any true Kanye West fan knows that what’s happening off stage for the artist is equally as important as what’s happening on-stage – particularly in terms of both fashion and music. And this of course includes the fact that in recent times, we’ve rarely seen his face.

Whether it was the force of necessity brought on by the pandemic that saw the return of West’s face masks, preferring to not face the cameras following a very public divorce from Kim Kardashian, or being in the midst of working on his tenth studio album, West once again decided to cover up, this time with a velvet balaclava.

Just hours before West took to Merdedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia to reveal the first version of DONDA to the world in late-July, West was pictured by his close collaborator Justin LaBoy, wearing a peculiarly luxurious balaclava.

It was unlike anything West had been seen wearing earlier in the year at Paris Fashion Week or at Ice Cube’s Big3 basketball game in Las Vegas.

It was eye-catching, it was embellished and it fit West’s head like a glove.

Since its debut, the iconic image of Kanye – pictured in the midst of the Mercedes-Benz Stadium – has become globally-recognised, much like the artist himself. The design and its associated inspiration and meaning has become a source of much debate for fans around the world.

While some have speculated it’s simply a throwback to West’s YEEZUS era, others have searched for deeper meaning, with numerous theories positing it’s to do with the artist’s own ego, and others claiming it’s reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1836 short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil”.

GG Denim balaclava

Courtesy of GG Denim

With a longstanding shroud of mystery surrounding this new era of West face masks, we discovered the piece was an original design by Toronto-based fashion label, GG Denim, crafted from vintage floral velvet adorned with Russian Matryoshka dolls.

GG Denim first launched in May 2017, having started out by crafting customised pairs of jeans and other garments. It wasn’t until January of this year that they decided to expand their sartorial horizons, seeing the brand creating 100% handmade, unisex, one-size-fits-all balaclavas.

GG Denim’s founder Zamuel Herdsman says that for him, his business was born from his love for art, with his purpose being to “create art for art’s sake.”

“I just started off making garments for myself,” he explains. “And I’m very much a person who likes to experiment.”

After trialling different designs with a wide variety of fabrics, the GG Denim balaclavas caught the eyes of many, both in real life and online. And all of the curiosity had culminated in the same question: could they get one too?

With the pandemic seeing mandatory mask-wearing enforced in many parts of the world, GG Denim said that this factor played a role in opting to make balaclavas, however, it wasn’t the main reason.

“[Mask-wearing] is definitely something we took into consideration, but it wasn’t the main intention,” GG Denim’s team explains.

Whether it’s the West influence that’s seen the balaclavas’ stocks shoot right through the roof or not, one thing’s for sure: you won’t be able to get balaclavas like these anywhere else.

The reason for that is that they deliberately use fabrics that they know are unique.

“We have custom fabrics that are imported from Europe. So these fabrics are very intentional, you know,” Herdsman tells Rolling Stone Australia, “They represent family and unity. And that’s what we’re all about: togetherness.”

And the fabric used to create the limited edition Russian Doll balaclava worn by West speaks to the brand’s values, as they believe that the Russian and Ukrainian Matryoshka dolls seen on the fabric represent deep generational bonds between elders, ancestors and the children of today.

They don’t reveal exactly the intriguing origin story of just how the balaclava fell into the hands of West, but they did reveal that “the piece was worn by specific people in the insider group. And [West] wanted it.”

GG Denim founder Zamuel Herdsman

GG Denim founder Zamuel Herdsman. (Photo courtesy of GG Denim)

When asked how it feels for such an influential yet enigmatic artist like West to wear their designs, they explain that their goal was never to specifically target artists and celebrities. As they see it, they’re just “friends”.

“That was never the goal,” they explain. “A lot of these artists and people you see wearing our clothing are friends. So I wouldn’t put them on a pedestal. We have industry connections. And our community is built with people from industry connections, to chefs, to teachers at schools and kids.”

“We go back to schools that we used to learn from and we tell those kids that anything in life is possible, and they have the ability to achieve the goals that they always dreamed of.”

“And that’s a big mission for us here at GG denim – to let the people know that anything in life is possible,” they conclude. “And you know, togetherness is key, unity is key, and we’re here for the community.”

Unlike West, GG Denim are just getting started. But just like West, GG Denim are here to make waves through innovation, by “changing the fashion game”. So maybe it’s no wonder that West is team GG Denim… it seems that they’re cut from the same cloth after all.