Kanye West (left), Damon Dash, and Twista in New York City, 2004 (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
SNEAKERS & FASHION

A Brief History of Yeezy

A nickname from Jay-Z became a billion-dollar brand. On “Yeezy Day,” learn how Kanye West’s footwear line grew into a global hit (and an international holiday).

Entering the fall of 2002, Kanye West was an aberration in Roc-A-Fella’s famed Baseline Studio. Wearing a pink Polo and vintage Air Max models in an abyss of throwback jerseys and Air Force 1s, the producer responsible for Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth” was a sartorial outlier, but sonic gold.

Running radio and Rap City by way of his soul samples, Kanye had every reason to be content with his soaring status as Baseline’s go-to guy for beats.

However, he was not.

Desperately wanting to be seen and heard as a rapper despite his counter-culture image and super-producer status, an impatient West snuck his own clever punchlines and ambitious verses on beat tapes passed around Baseline by the likes of Dame Dash, Cam’ron, and Freeway. For his efforts, Jay-Z re-introduced the amped-up artist from Chicago on The Blueprint 2‘s Timbaland-produced track, “The Bounce,” rolling out the red carpet for Kanye’s first accredited Roc-A-Fella rap appearance with a sign-of-the-times nickname in tow:

“Shout out to Just Bleezy and Kan-Yeezy
See how we adjusted the game so easy”

Jay’s illustrious intro set the stage for breathy bars from a still-developing Kanye — and the Yeezy monicker West would come to love.

As time progressed, Kanye’s rapping improved exponentially and his off-kilter clothing cut through. By 2004, his debut album, The College Dropout, had disciples of the Roc popping their collars, evaluating the ethos of rap subject matter and lacing up retro running shoes rather than bulky Timberland boots or Nike Air Forces.

Because of Kanye’s obvious impact on hip-hop fashion, brands began catering to the Chicago kid who saw things differently. The Jay-Z-repped Reebok rolled out S. Carters in pastel patent leather with Kanye’s Dropout Bear logo gracing the heel. Infatuation with West’s first album even crossed hemispheres, as Japanese brand A Bathing Ape collaborated with Kanye on a Bapesta release detailed via his debut.

From outlier to outstanding, Kanye’s come-up called for not just coloring up other people’s shoes, but eventually launching his own. As West worked away on his third album, Graduation, the producer-turned-rapper began getting out his dreams as a designer by partnering with Nike for his first shoe, the Air Yeezy.

And while the Beaverton brand could have easily leaned into the titles picked by his parents, a salute to the E-40-inspired nickname bestowed by Hov himself hit the hardest.

At the 2008 Grammy Awards in Los Angeles, West debuted the Nike Air Yeezy 1 in a heartfelt tribute to his recently deceased mother, Donda. As he owned the Staples Center stage, the world watched and waited until the spring of 2009 for a formal release.

(The Grammy pair aged incredibly well, selling in April 2021 for $1.8 million in the most expensive individual sneaker sale of all time.)

LEFT: Kanye West in Air Yeezy 1 samples at the 2008 Grammy Awards (Photo by Lester Cohen/WireImage)
RIGHT: Grammy-worn Air Yeezy 1 Samples on display after selling for $1.8 million (Photo via RARES)

After appearing in Nike Air Yeezy 1 samples for much of that summer’s Glow in the Dark Tour in addition to the ’08 Grammys, three colorways of Kanye’s first official silo hit Tier Zero Nike accounts in extremely limited numbers in April, May, and June of 2009 for a retail price of $215.

Kanye had another trick up his sleeve in July, launching slew of sneakers with Louis Vuitton. Rather than rely on his Yeezy monicker, however, he named each LV silo after friends like barber Ibn Jasper, manager Don C, and vocal collaborator Mr. Hudson.

By the fall of 2009, it was apparent that Kanye clearly had a hit on his hands (or his feet, as it were). Fans anxiously awaited a sequel to the Air Yeezy 1 for months that soon became years. It wouldn’t be until February 2011 — almost two years after the “Zen Grey” Yeezy 1 hit retail — that the Nike Air Yeezy 2 flashed before the public eye for the first time in Kobe Bryant and Robert Rodriguez’s short film, The Black Mamba.

The internet went into uproar as West later wore his new shoes for a performance at Coachella and an appearance at Paris Fashion Week. After over another year of buildup, the Nike Air Yeezy 2 released in “Pure Platinum” and Black/Solar Red styles on June 9, 2012 to even more hysteria than their predecessor.

With two sell-out signatures from the Swoosh, everything was all good, right?

Not so much.

Kanye publicly pointed out that Nike did not allow him to release his shoes as often or abundantly as he felt his creativity and influence demanded. Conversely, Nike did not want an artist as the face of their athlete-oriented brand. After a year of on-stage name-calling, behind the scenes banter, and radio rants, Kanye left Nike for Adidas in the fall of 2013.

He took the Yeezy name with him.

And once again, the public had to wait for new shoes from West.

Finally, at All-Star Weekend in 2015, which cosmically corresponded with New York Fashion Week, Kanye unveiled and released the Adidas Yeezy Boost 750 as his first signature shoe from The Three Stripes.

Adidas Yeezys as seen at the YEEZY SEASON 1 fashion show at New York Fashion Week, 2015 (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for adidas)

The following months of 2015 also saw the retail release of the Yeezy Boost 350, which sold out to rave reviews. Putting a bow on a triumphant turn, Kanye capped off the year by dropping the Nike diss track “FACTS” on Dec. 31 right before the ball dropped.

In the years to follow, the Yeezy brand grew with healthy backing from Adidas and the immutable creativity of Kanye. Industry veterans like Steven Smith, Mark Miner, and Christian Tresser joined the booming brand, honing Mr. West’s off-the-wall ideas into market-ready releases.

Quickly, the cache around new Yeezy footwear models grew as Kanye’s family and friends endorsed each new model ranging from the chunky Yeezy Boost 700 to the court ready Yeezy BSKTBL. While Adidas’ Yeezy launches still served as status symbols similar to that of his work with Nike, the new direction for Kanye and his camp called for more releases and greater accessibility.

Such is seen on Aug. 2, which is now known as Yeezy Day.

Kanye at July 22’s “Donda” listening event at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Universal Music Group)

Juxtaposing carefully orchestrated hype with replenishing restocks, Kanye West is every bit the outlier he was in his early days with Roc-A-Fella, trading his popped pink Polo from Baseline Studios for the red, collarless coat he donned at Mercedes Benz Stadium in July. Becoming a billionaire through footwear and now reunited with big brother Jay-Z on his upcoming album, Donda, the fall of 2021 has Kanye West right where he always envisioned himself all along.

Even if no one else saw it coming.