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Will Kanye West be able to bring Yeezy production back in America?

Kanye says he wants to. But maybe it's not a realistic objective.

Will Kanye West be able to bring Yeezy production back in America? Kanye says he wants to. But maybe it's not a realistic objective.

In his conversation with Beats Radio 1 host Zane Lowe on the eve of the release of "Jesus is King," Kanye West made some of the most conservative and at the same time progressive statements ever made by a rapper. Kanye had first talked about "regaining food independence" and then announced that he wanted to bring the production of his Yeezy back to the USA, hiring in the factories African-American ex-convicts, the category of people who historically struggle more to re-enter the job world after detention.

As is often the case, Kanye has added a huge amount of information, some of which are relevant but overshadowed by the huge amount of data to be processed. He had already spoken about "the need to work for the recovery of our planet and to have the humility to understand that we cannot destroy the Earth - we can destroy resources and then destroy ourselves". In this sense, the announcement of the new Yeezy Foam Runner cannot be considered a surprise. It took place during the last Fast Company's Innovation Festival: a silhouette made from a algae-based foam and not toxic fossil fuels, immediately labelled by the Twitter and Instagram audience as the "Yeezy Crocs". Kanye went on to reiterate that "our goal over the next two years is to bring the industry back to America: South America and North America," and added that he had already moved Yeezy's HQ to his ranch in Cody, Wyoming.

In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump garnered nearly 70% of the vote in Wyoming. The "Equality State" is exactly the kind of American state that much of Trump's electoral base has focused on, where the white resentment that led to his election has been brooding for years. It's hard not to bring back every political-economic expression Kanye West has to Trump and his beliefs. In August 2019, POTUS had repeatedly announced the will and near-imposition for US multinationals to return to the country: "We have the greatest companies anywhere in the world. They’re all coming back now. They’re coming back to the United States." Trying to favor the process through a massive tax cut. However, the idea that big American companies can return home is "unrealistic," according to Bethany Aronhalt, a spokeswoman for the National Retail Federation - a lobbying group in the retail industry - who added in an interview with Buzzfeed News: «Retailers and other importers could not easily or quickly switch to domestic sources, because they do not exist on the scale that would be needed. Even if there were to be an eventual switch to US sourcing, it would take years to build up a base to support it ». Even in the event of an open trade war with China, the most viable option for American companies would be to move to Vietnam which is already one of the first suppliers of American retail.

The problem could be of particular concern to the sneaker industry. 98% of the sneakers marketed on American soil are imported from abroad, mainly from Vietnam, which has become the largest exporter of shoes to the United States: as many as 44% of the volumes distributed in the US come from Vietnam. The numbers therefore do not seem to support the idea of a possible domestic production of the Yeezy: adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted, in 2017, labelled the possibility of a return to the US as "illogical and highly unlikely". This is even more so in the aftermath of the closure of the projects that would have led to the opening of two speedfactories in the USA and Europe. The speedfactories -  automation centers that ensure faster and more efficient sneaker production - will be concentrated in Asia, "where know-how and suppliers are located and where adidas already produces 90% of its production" said Rich Efrus, spokesman for the quartz.

This situation also unites the other major player in the sector, Nike, which, despite symbolically representing the quintessence of American corporateism, produces most of its sneakers in Asia. Nike itself had been one of the main promoters of the TPP (the Trans Pacific Partnership) proposed by the Obama Administration in 2015, which promised a substantial increase in domestic hiring (about 10,000 jobs over the next 10 years "I think it's a good thing that we're going to be able to do that," he said.

But if it doesn't seem economically possible and sustainable to move Yeezy production completely to the US, why would Kanye West say such a thing? On the one hand there is the volatility of Kanye's ideas, his desire to externalise every single thing that goes through his head, no matter how achievable it actually is. In the American media, there is also the idea that the issue could be in some way attributable to his hypothesis of candidacy in the 2024 elections, always feared and confirmed once again at the Fast Company's Innovation Festival with a "kanyan": « When I run for president in 2024, we would've created so many jobs that I'm not going to run, I'm going to walk ». However, the symbolism behind Kanye's words and the desire to "bring jobs back to America" closely resembles that of the famous phrase "Republicans buys sneakers too". The phrase has been attributed for years to Michael Jordan, probably uttered when asked to support North Carolina's African-American Democratic candidate Harvey Gantt in his 1990 Senate campaign against Jesse Helms, who is accused of be racist. It was never clear whether or not Jordan had uttered the phrase, which has been used for years to demonstrate his endemic departure from any political party and the will not to enmity any kind of audience.

As  Michael Serazio wrote on the Washington Post:  «because of the massive and unchecked expansion of corporate power — in terms of not just market share but mind share — products must represent values, lifestyles and, in the age of President Trump, political ideologies». While bringing production back to the US is not a real goal today, the use of domestic production rhetoric serves as a brand positioning in the perception of costumers of a high-quality and perhaps sustainable product. Kanye West's statements to work for Yeezy on a more sustainable product made up entirely of recyclable materials should also be read in this regard. A statement met with some skepticism by those who point out the almost all-too-obvious hypocrisy between supporting a president who more or less explicitly denies climate change and the desire to produce sustainable clothing.

The sneaker-game, on the other hand, is now a complex game of political balance. In November 2016, New Balance faced criticism after expressly supporting Trump's decision to withdraw from the TPP: «The Obama admin turned a deaf ear to us and frankly with Pres-Elect Trump we feel things are going to move in the right direction », had told the Wall Street Journal, so much so that the rapper and new Balance Action enthusiast Bronson said: «I'll be donating a ridiculous amount of NBs and Yeezys to struggling immigrants in NYC ». Even on American alt-right and far-right sites, the definition of New Balances as "real sneakers of white Americans" began to circulate. Under Armour - which in 2017 launched its first line of apparel produced entirely in downtown Baltimore - has also found itself dealing with politics several times, first calling, through its CEO Kevin Plank, the US President "pro-business" and "a real resource for the country," and then distanced themselves from Trump's senseless attack on the city of Baltimore, the real heart of USA manufacturing, just that part of America where everyone seems to want to bring back their industries, to take them away from the sworn enemy of the economy America, but where no one has the strength to return. Not even Kanye West or Donald Trump.