We go shopping in Soho with the Korean rapper and fashion darling.
“You know when you’re drinking a 40 you’re ready to have fun in New York,” CL, the Korean rapper, tells me. She laughs a throaty laugh, the kind that reminds you of a tomboyish high school friend. As it so happens, we’re in a place reminiscent of that attic where you and that friend might have had your first 40-ounce of beer: an office-closet behind the stairs on the top floor of Opening Ceremony, which we ducked into at the end of a Soho shopping trip.
You might be wondering: Why would she interview one of the world’s most famous pop stars in an office-closet? We were on our way to a very luxurious Soho hotel bar, but her team informed me that another engagement came up, so it was now or never. “I like this better,” CL said three times fast as we sat down in the space so cozy our knees almost touched.
CL is that cool high school friend grown-up—into an insanely coordinated dancer, a smooth-flowing rapper in English and Korean (she also understands Japanese and French), and a flawless fashion plate. Today, she’s wearing a Vetements dress and 5-inch white patent leather Balenciaga platforms. (“They’re actually super comfortable.”) Stepping from curb to cobblestone on Mercer Street, she turns to me to make sure I’m ok.
It’s suspicious almost, the low-key coolness. As we snap her portrait outside the Alexander Wang store, a loose crowd of fans gathers, cell phones raised. How could CL—a.k.a. GZB, a.k.a. The Baddest Female—not be the pop-star diva that is totally her prerogative? Her girl group, 2NE1, sold the most albums in the US of any Korean artist in the course of a week, per Billboard. Her first solo song, 2013’s “The Baddest Female,” hit #1 on 7 Korean music charts—”all-kill” status—within hours. (A typical YouTube comment: “She could literally stab me and I would apologize for bleeding on her outfit.”) With Scooter Braun managing, CL has been edging her way into the US market. She rapped alongside Diplo and Riff Raff in last summer’s delightfully weird banger “Doctor Pepper”. The English/Korean track “Hello Bitches”, which reached #1 on Spotify’s US viral chart, showed her wiling out with a tough squad of leather-clad dancers. Her new song, “Lifted”—rapped in English and set in New York City—came out in August.
In the New York fashion world, meanwhile, she’s already a phenomenon. (And in Paris, in Tokyo, and pretty much everywhere else.) Jeremy Scott is a good friend; so is Alexander Wang. “CL is beautiful… you can’t take your eyes off her,” Karl Lagerfeld told the BBC. She reps underground designers, too: Discount Universe, Off-White, Sophie Hardeman. Coming to New York Fashion Week on and off since 2013, she started working with a New York-based stylist, DJ Matthew Mazur, last season.
Why is fashion a core part of CL’s message? “What I do is all about expressing myself, whether it’s music or the clothes I wear,” she tells me. Alexander Wang—whose store on Grand Street is the starting point of our shopping trip—has a similar ethos, she says. “Being an Asian girl and seeing Alex make it here in such a cool way, I have so much respect.” At the designer’s fashion week after-party the night before, CL performed, wearing a customized adidas Originals x Alexander Wang top and a face mask. A face mask? Indeed, CL regularly pulls off outfits that make the surgical masks so ubiquitous in Asia look intimidatingly cool.
At Opening Ceremony, she gravitates to jackets. The first is a bubblegum-pink puffer, by the Chinese designer Chen Peng. Then comes a grey zippered bomber, by France’s Y/Project. “That’s more real-life me,” she says of the second. “The other I’d wear on stage.” We find her favorite—a blue and black puffer by Raf Simons which she asks Mazur to pull—in the men’s shop. It’s giant enough to fit two of her, at least. “I love men’s clothes better than women’s collections,” she says. “You don’t have to be naked to look bad.” Bad? As she raps in “The Baddest Female,” “Not bad meaning bad but bad meaning good, you know?”
The various forms of CL’s tough-girl persona are often articulated through clothing. In an early 2NE1 video, 2010’s “Go Away,” she’s a battered girlfriend who ditches giant dark glasses for a slick race-car-driver get-up—then challenges her ex to a race that ends in a fiery crash. In “The Baddest Female,” she goes from red-carpet starlet to hard-edged rapper showing off a fanged grill to a pigtailed girl licking a lollipop. Performing live, her style is “comfortable,” she says. “I love to go crazy.” (One of my favorite CL dance moves is what I might fondly call the Head Tornado.)
In “Lifted,” the Baddest Female gets a New York City makeover. CL gets low on a fire escape, twirls bandanas on a basketball court, blows smoke rings in a tire yard, and floats on a tiny CGI cloud above the Williamsburg Bridge. The song’s hook—”I got myself a 40/I got myself a shorty/I’m about to go get lifted”—is quoted from Method Man’s self-titled Wu Tang song. CL’s version of the song is sweeter than Method Man’s. His: “I’ll make a bitch squirm/For my Super Sperm (check it).” Hers:”Girls gettin’ mad cause their boys want a kiss.” In Korea, the Ministry of Gender Equality & Family often steps in to prevent young audiences from being exposed to songs it deems inappropriate, prompting artists to change lyrics. (In one case, the group 2PM changed “put your drinks up” to “put your dreams up.”) “Lifted”—which name-checks a 40 six separate times—hasn’t been released on Korean music streaming websites.
An American hip-hop classic given a rebirth by an international artist: might this formula ruffle feathers? CL’s rep asked her to pass on a question I posed about how she’ll navigate the racial politics of American rap. In any case, “Lifted” has cred: the video was directed by Dave Meyers, who also did Method Man’s “Da Rockwilder.” And it features a cameo by Method Man himself, who dances with CL outside of a Williamsburg body shop. CL recalls their meeting: “He knew exactly how I made the song, by pulling up his lyrics and then freestyling,” she says. “And he’s like, ‘I know,’ cause that’s how he made his songs.”
Like her fashion, CL’s music is global, she says. “My creative is for the world.” What 40s and shorties are to New York, “karaoke and soju” are to Seoul, she says, with that throaty laugh. “You’re having fun. You’re not thinking too much.”
It’s a fine line to walk—fun and badass, relatable and powerful, bad-bad and good-bad. But CL walks it. In 5-inch platforms.
Text Alice Hines
Photography Petra Collins