Could Machine Gun Kelly Be Fashion's Newest Icon?

Machine Gun Kelly performs during his Bad Things Tour at The Fillmore on Nov. 17, 2016 in Detroit.
Scott Legato/Getty Images

Machine Gun Kelly performs during his Bad Things Tour at The Fillmore on Nov. 17, 2016 in Detroit. 

Having hit No. 1 with his pop hit “Bad Things” this year, and No. 6 overall with his album Bloom, Machine Gun Kelly might be one of the busiest men on the planet. His name — which has for the past few years been a growing whisper or a passing comment in music circles — is now the center of attention in more ways than one. What’s caught him a landslide of attention this past year isn’t just his music, it’s him in his entirety.

A newfound fashion icon, Reebok recently signed him on as a global brand partner. However, he’s managed to make a bigger splash with luxury designer John Varvatos, walking in shows for the label, all leading up to his current position as the face of the brand’s F/W 17 campaign.

This is, of course, all on top of his burgeoning acting career. You may have seen him last year as Wes in Showtime’s (canceled all too soon) show Roadies, but you could always catch him in the upcoming sci-fi thriller Captive State. Oh, and he just got home from a European tour to head out on the (unfortunately equally canceled) Blinkin Park tour. Although his given name is Richard Colson Baker, Machine Gun Kelly isn’t a nickname or a persona he inhabits —  it’s a philosophy.

Speaking to him, though, feels less like a conversation with a platinum-certified artist, and more like one with a friend from high school. It’s comforting, and not in a way that feels forced. Rather, the way he speaks gives you the sense that if he wasn’t interested in talking to you, he wouldn’t be. His demeanor makes it apparent that, to Kelly, no time is wasted except for when it’s out of his control. And rarely, if ever, is Machine Gun Kelly not in control.

The now 27-year-old first met John Varvatos a few years ago at CBGB. As any dedicated rock fan knows, the designer opened a location inside the building where the legendary club was housed, but maintained much of the original façade when he took it over in 2008. In doing this, he made it a point of a pilgrimage when those interested in the history of rock and punk musics, like MGK, visit New York. Luckily, during an instance when Kelly made a pilgrimage to the store, the designer himself was there — it turned into a happenstance meeting that brought about a partnership so perfect it seems almost by design.

“I remember, that day, I almost lost the shirt I was supposed to wear with the blazer. So I was like ‘Fuck it,’ and I just wore this John Varvatos two-piece suit with no shirt and a John Varvatos scarf tied in the John Varvatos way. And I think he just saw me and was just like, ‘This dude’s fuckin’ cool.’ We were just two rock-n-rollers in the same spot at the same time. Ever since... it just felt like it was gonna happen.”

And happen it did. After the two met again — this time in Europe — and Kelly expressed interest in being in a show, Varvatos invited the multihyphenate to walk in his fall 2017 menswear show, taking place in February 2017. It was so crucial to have him in the show, in fact, that the designer took a risk on time constraints, fitting garments for Kelly without the artist being there. When Kelly finally did show up half an hour before showtime, as he told PAPER, the garments fit “like the Cinderella glass slipper,” and he was able to walk. And he’s right, Varvatos saw him as cool; cool enough to make him the face of the same season’s campaign. The natural chemistry between the designer and the musician, with both holding the other in high regard, laid out something very plainly. It wouldn’t make sense for the face of John Varvatos F/W 2017 to be anyone but Machine Gun Kelly.

However, as mentioned before, Varvatos isn’t the only fashion brand with its eyes on the star. This summer, it was announced that Kelly would also be teaming up with Reebok as a brand ambassador, on a roster that also includes artists such as Future and Rae Sremmurd. For Kelly’s first Reebok campaign, he helped the brand relaunch the Club C sneaker; but that doesn’t mean his time is done with the brand. MGK is set on collaborating on a shoe and has definitely begun the brainstorming process. “I don’t want to share my ideas for it because then it would ruin it for Reebok,” notes the artist, but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to share at least a little bit of his plans. “I think that me as a person, and as a personality, even my name alone, ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ — it is very loud, and it says a lot. I’d like to contrast my loud persona with a shoe that’s almost a hidden gem. Like, ‘Oh shit, this is Machine Gun Kelly’s shoe? This is rad.’”

MGK’s loud persona shines through in his clothing choices no matter what brand he wears, but it shows through at no point more than when he is performing for his rapidly-growing fanbase. “I feel like a golden god,” he says, referencing the outfits he wears onstage. “And that is what the fuck you should feel when you’re performing in front of 10 thousand people. Because if you own that shit, they will do whatever the fuck you say, and that is what music is about. It’s about escaping. I don’t want to feel like the cool kid in the crowd who doesn’t want to do what the artist’s saying. I want to be so in awe of the artist, that I’m literally jumping up and down, even if I’ve got on brand new Louboutins.”

Offstage, though, the mutability of Kelly’s fashion sense seems to excite him. “I love looking at pictures of me in 2012-2017, because every single one of those Machine Gun Kellys looks different... It took me 26 years to wear color,” acknowledges the artist. “But I love always being able to put on something that is untouched by time, like a classic leather jacket.” However, that doesn’t mean he’s going to pay much attention to what’s on trend this season. “I just don’t ever want people to think I give a fuck,” he says. “I don’t want people to think I’m putting on these clothes to try and be cool, to fit in, or try and be seen....I wake up, and I am fully fucking dressed, all day every day. And it’s for myself, not to fit in.”

Machine Gun Kelly’s uncompromising outlook regarding his collaborations and personal style further speaks to a trait of his that’s made clear only in one-on-one conversation: a desire for people to like what he does not because he is famous, or because his name is attached to it, but because it stands on its own as being well done. This facet of his persona not only shines through in his fashion career, but in what’s inarguably the most important piece of his identity, his music. His latest album, Bloom, closes with a track titled “27,” a meditation on the infamous “27 Club” that boasts such members as Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix, but also Kelly’s own mortality in the face of success. With lines like “No matter how I'm remembered, just let me be remembered,” “27” is an unexpectedly intimate track from the same person who brought you “Bad Mother F*cker” and “Wild Boy,” but that doesn’t detract from its potency. “How am I supposed to write a song when I'm famous/ And all the pain is created?” he asks, more to himself than anyone else.

“I think what I said in there is very honest, and I think you kind of create your own pain,” discloses Kelly when asked about the song. “I don’t think that my music without pain is good music — and I wouldn’t know, because I haven’t made any music without pain. So that’s why I feel like without it, it would be missing the secret ingredient ... If you’ve gotta drink yourself into a hole where you just stay in the house for a week and you don’t talk to anybody and you just feel alone, and you kind of tap into this really weird place and something beautiful comes out of it that helps somebody else, it’s worth it. And I think that even listening to Chester [Bennington]’s lyrics, after he passed, listening to his lyrics now, it says so much more. And I just keep creating. And it’s odd, but pain’s odd.”

This level of personal exposure is something Kelly has also watched cross over into his live shows recently. “Everything changed when our crowd got dominated by beautiful girls who came to sing ... It was something really beautiful. Girls seem like they have some kind of vulnerability that they can wear in their eyes, that when you look at them while they sing these things, they just feel it a little bit more,” reveals the artist. But it’s just as much of a personal shift as a shift in audience. “Not to sound cliché, but I’ve been this tough spirit,” he confides. “To look at me and connect was a hard thing. And I’ve just been experiencing the craziest highs from singing ‘Let You Go’ and looking at these girls singing their hearts out.”

Machine Gun Kelly is still a wild boy — there’s no arguing that. It’s part of what makes his larger-than-life presence so magnetic. But with a 10-year career already in the bank, he seems more ready and willing than ever to progress and learn from what is around him. By opening himself up to new experiences — new styles of dress, new sounds, and new audiences — Kelly has achieved stratospheric success in a form nobody, seemingly not even he, saw coming. Not bad for 27.



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