If you are a butt-plugged snob who reads Pitchfork daily or a fratty douche who relies on Spotify’s Billboard Top 100 playlist, will.i.am might only be the guy who made you agree that tonight is going to be a good, good night—whether you fist-pumped it proudly at the club or secretly in your apartment after hitting the slopes. That's a bummer. It's unfortunate that "cool kids" have their heads so far up their asses they can't see how awesome he is because of his unfortunate Fergie association (sorry homegirl, but even I'm still haunted by your girl-scout uniform in the video for "Fergiligious."). In real life, will.i.am is one down ass-dude whose commercial success with the Black Eyed Peas is merely the eruption of his creative volcano. Although hits like "Boom Boom Pow" are what everyone talks about, there is a lot of interesting arty stuff churning beneath the surface.
For example, he attended the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandise in Los Angeles, and has dabbled with several fashion lines of his own in the past. His latest venture, EKOCYCLE, is an eco-friendly line partnered with Coca-Cola that works with brands such as Levi’s and Beats by Dr. Dre to create products made with at least 25 percent recycled material made from Coca-Cola bottles. So, the next pair of Levi's 501s you purchase could be made from a Diet Coke bottle that was sucked on by Christina Hendricks. Ponder that one.
I sat down with will.i.am on Wednesday to discuss EKOCYCLE and then later attended the launch party. And yes, I managed to bite my tongue and not make any "So I guess contract prevents you from going down on Lana Del Rey?" jokes.
VICE: How did the EKOCYCLE concept come about?
will.i.am: Well, I learned a bunch of information about the G8's millennium goals and how companies were moving towards fulfilling them, whether it be through sustainability or zero waste around sustainability or greener solutions for our environment. A lot of times you say, Wow, look at those companies, look what they do. But you never realize what you do as an individual and how you pollute. So one day I was on stage with the Black Eyed Peas, we had just played a concert and there were two hundred thousand people there, and I thought, Wow they’re here just for us, two hundred thousand people, that’s nuts. And then we hung out after the show and I saw all the waste that we caused in that city. So I thought, What can I do to offset this so it doesn’t happen? And I started thinking of ideas like having recycling bins at our concerts. That’s one way to do it, but that doesn’t mean that people will actually put their bottles in the bins. So then I thought, How do you start it before they even get there? Before they even put on their shoes or their jacket? Those jackets and those shoes should be sustainable, too. I realized we were looking in the wrong place. We needed to look at culture and get behind something that people could be a part of, something that was tangible, something that they wanted and desired. And I realized as much as people want cheap things, they don’t really want things made cheaply. They want things that are made well, they want things that are expensive looking.
I suppose it depends on what you can afford.
Even if it’s hard, people work their whole lives to get it. They put themselves in debt to have it. And the things that they put themselves in debt for end up being the things that mess up the environment. And I thought that was kind of weird.
Like what sort of things?
Like say you want a product that has to be made by chopping down trees. That kind of messes your environment up, but you want it so you go out and get it. It should be that the things you want are also sustainable for the environment. But that doesn’t happen. So I thought, Wow, let’s make that. So I came up with EKOCYCLE and I pitched it to Coca-Cola in 2009 and here we are.
Why did you choose Coca-Cola to reach out and partner with?
OK, so right now a couple of brands have recycled shoes or recycled shirts or jackets. And then they have the products they make their money off of. The ones that are green end up getting swallowed because they can’t market them right. So then they stop those programs. Right now you've got all these one-offs who don’t really make that much noise and don’t coincide with an overall brand identity. So when this all started out, I tried to think of the biggest marketer on the planet who could sustain a green side project and produce base cloth and badge—and that would be Coca-Cola. So I aligned with Coke to put together this thing called EKOCYCLE.
You mentioned a base cloth, how exactly is the EKOCYCLE material made?
What they do is they shred up plastic bottles into flakes and then they shred those flakes into thread and then it’s base cloth.
It becomes a movement that these partners are a part of. So instead of, “What is that jacket?” “Oh, this is cotton.” It will be “What is that?” This is EKOCYCLE.” So it’s the first time anyone's taken recycling and sustainability and developed a new fabric via technology.
And it looks and feels exactly the same?
How has your background in fashion played a role in EKOCYCLE?
It just gave me guidelines on what to do. I learned a lot in the past—like how to think about who you are designing for and who you are not designing for. A lot of times designers think they are designing for themselves. And that’s a bad idea. If that was the case, I’d be coming out with some space shit. [Laughs] You can’t do that.
Are there other musician fashion lines out there that you admire?
A lot of those musician fashion lines… That’s why I stopped doing my previous line. Because I don’t want to... No disrespect to their stuff. I just don’t appreciate… See, I sound like a hater. I’m not a hater, I’m a lack-of-appreciator.
I like that. I’m going to steal that line from you.
I don’t appreciate it when people just take their name and stick it on a brand and there’s a whole bunch of designers behind them. I mean that’s cool, I guess. I just don’t want to be looked at like that. Because then when you’re around other designers and you actually have background in that, they don’t respect you because of the crowd that they come from. It just didn’t feel good when I was going and doing design work, for my brand, and I always had to defend myself because I am a musician. It’s like an actor trying to defend their singing because they studied theater. Like, Robert Downy Jr. is a fucking amazing singer but if he was to come into the studio, he would have to defend himself. Most people don’t know that he is an incredible singer. I just got tired of defending myself.
What spurred your interest in environmental issues other than witnessing the waste generated at your concerts?
Well, you go to the store and you see a pair of green shoes that are hideous and they cost $5. And then you want the ones that cost $5,000 and are probably not that good for the environment. Just those kinds of voids and things that need fixing in our society. I was driven to fill those voids.
“Driven by filling voids,” that’s a lovely sentence. Well, anything else you’d like to add?
I tell you, shit was hard. Because I came full circle. Black Eyed Peas started out as an underground group and everyone was all “Yeah! Black Eyed Peas, you guys are so cool,” because we were. But then we blew up and people were like “What the hell are you guys doing?” Sometimes it’s a struggle against this tornado wave. But EKOCYCLE is bigger than all off that.