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Kanye West, Balmain, & the Dissolution of the Motorcycle Jean

How Ye gave designer Christophe Decarnin an Evil Knievel request, tuning the worlds of high fashion and hip hop into the Hells Angels aesthetic of hog heaven.

Kanye West is heralded as a disruptor in music, footwear, and perhaps even politics. Yet there’s one category where he doesn’t get enough credit: pants.

Between popularizing slimmer denim during his pink Polo ascent at The Roc and bringing Fendi the concept for the leather jogger during his internship run with Virgil Abloh, Kanye recently revealed another way that he shifted the stride of modern fashion.

“I was the first person to ever have the motorcycle jeans,” he told Jason Lee in an interview for Hollywood Unlocked. “They made them for me at Balmain.”

No need to screech your tires, the tale of the tape checks out.

Bad to the Bone

Hip-hop has long fostered rebellious inspiration from biker culture, dating back to the black leather looks of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five in the ’80s all the way up to the Ruff Ryders revival in the ’90s and even Jim Jones and Skull Gang in the mid ’00s.

While each outfit brought a new take on the tough aesthetic associated with Hells Angels and Harley Davidson, none was doing it quite like Kanye. This is not surprising. Over the course of his career, he’s set trends by doing the daring.

Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage

In the early ’00s, the backpack sporting producer arrived at Baseline Studios in preppy attire akin to Carlton Banks, while his peers at State Property were swimming in baggy denim and Rocawear tees.

Fast forward to 2007, and West was perhaps the most popular rapper in the world, introducing a global audience to a fusion of streetwear, sportswear, and luxury, all through a lens of retro futurism, best seen through his famous Shutter Shades in the music video for “Stronger.”

However in 2009, West made history in what may be his most infamous moment ever when he interrupted Taylor Swift on stage during her MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech. The incident amassed millions of views, thousands of headlines, and an array of memes. Even after all these years, the VMA exploit is minted as one of the most controversial moments in modern pop culture.

It was also the mainstream debut of the Balmain biker jean.

Said to be ideated by West during a shopping trip in France, the trendsetting artist used his connections and clout to have his own pair of pants inspired by chopper style made specifically for himself.

“I was at Balmain and the designer was Christophe Decarnin at that time,” Kanye recalled to Jason Lee. “The drip was just too crazy. I was at the Balmain store in Paris going, ‘Where’s Christophe!’

As alluded, they connected.

The timeline checks out as Decarnin served at Balmain as Artistic Director from 2006 to 2011. The meeting of the minds makes sense as Decarnin often cited rock ‘n roll as an inspiration for much of his work while West had been a fixture at Paris Fashion Week since appearing in the front row in 2006 with then-fiancée and fellow designer Alexis Phifer.

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Whether on tour or traveling for fun, West knew his way around Europe with the aftermath of the VMA incident making him even more of a regular.

Due to the public backlash associated with the Taylor Swift saga, West went on an overseas sabbatical to escape the mainstream media and dive headfirst into fashion. At that time, he and his close friend Virgil Abloh interned at Fendi to better understand the workings of the runway world from the inside out.

After months abroad, West returned to the US, posting up in Hawaii to work on redemption through rap.

By the fall of 2010, West had finished his magnum opus and was back in the limelight with the release of his acclaimed album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Mainstream media and corporate players were warming up to West and the praise associated with his recent work. Rather than rebook Big & Rich, the NBA saw the success of his single “All of the Lights” and selected West to perform at halftime of the 2011 All-Star Game at Staples Center in support of Rihanna and Drake.

The basketball spectacular proved the perfect place to bring back the biking pants.

“I said I needed some custom Balmain and he made me some red joints,” Kanye continued to Lee. “I did this All-Star Game performance with Rihanna and [Lil] Wayne looked at me like, ‘Where’d you get them pants from?‘ This was kind of the invention of the Balmain motorcycle jeans.”

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

King of the Road

The worlds of hip hop and high fashion quickly took to the ribbed pants popularized by West.

A month after asking Kanye about his ruby red rendition at All-Star Weekend, Lil Wayne was wearing a metallic silver pair while performing at the Wells Fargo Center.

By 2014, Ye protégé Kid Cudi released the single “Balmain Jeans,” a love song tied to the motorcycle denim made famous by his mentor with backing vocals from Raphael Saadiq.

Photo by Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images

In the years to follow, rappers ranging from Wale to Jim Jones quickly added various pairs of the pants to their rotations, whether released in standard wash denim or khaki finish. The elevated aesthetic, designer prestige, and Kanye co-sign made them fair play at parties, on red carpets, and in performances.

With no need for endorsement by actual bikers, rap had made the motorcycle jean its own. Quickly, competitors and copycats took on the ribbed aesthetic of the Balmain motorcycle pant and released their own versions.

Once again, it was hip hop steering the direction of fashion from the fast lane with Kanye once again behind the wheel.

While sneakers, sunglasses, and hats usually capture the cache of hip hop culture, pants are perhaps a more unruly representation.

“Jeans move with music,” Virgil Abloh told FADER in 2014 when speaking on the unique aesthetic of his Off-White line. “Hip-hop was the first form of music that glorified how much shit cost and what name brand it was; it’s the greatest vehicle to move products.”

This still proves true today with hip hop continuing to push looks from runway to run-of-the-mill. While the motorcycle look is perhaps played out to purists, it’s still off-roading in all price points of fashion.

In 2022, over a decade after Kanye hit Christophe with an ask, Balmain still produces plenty of pairs of motorcycle-inspired pants, ranging in price from $1,095 to $2,095.

These days you can get similar styles in ribbing and inspiration for under $50 put out by PacSun, Fashion Nova, and Forever 21, with even Walmart selling pairs online in aggregated Amazon fashion. Just the same, performance pairs made for actual riding — not just style — play with the same ribbed engineering in both denim and synthetic materials, proving that function exists over just aesthetic.

Whether or not Kanye has rode a motorcycle outside of the “Bound 2” video remains undocumented.

What is documented is his influence on an entire category of clothing, helping catapult a brand that’s since opened stores in New York City, partnered with Kylie Jenner, and remained relevant.

While West notes that in the early 2000s it was only him and Michael Jackson wearing Balmain, the French fashion house now headed by Olivier Rousteing resides as the No. 17 hottest brand in fashion, according to a recent ranking from Lyst.

Much of this momentum still stems from the exposure its trademark denim design received from an off-the-cuff request by Kanye West.

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