World exclusive: What Frank Ocean did next
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One of Frank Ocean’s favourite photographs of himself was taken when he was a baby. “I’m wearing a gold bracelet, gold rings and a gold chain,” says the reclusive, industry-disrupting recording artist. “My mother was into jewellery, but in a low-key Princess Diana kind of way. My godfather was into guns, but he was also into cars, and he bought luxury-lifestyle magazines, which I became obsessed with. They became a form of play for me as a child. It was the furthest thing from my actual life at the time, and I began plotting ideas and a life in that universe. I’d look at yachts and want one. But I don’t have one because I get super-seasick.”
The 33-year-old singer-songwriter, who appeared in Time’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world when he was in his mid-20s, is discussing the origins behind his new luxury brand, called Homer, which is launching with a 25-piece collection of mostly fine and some high jewellery. Five years since he last released an album, and following a period in which his appearances have been elusive, the new launch marks an unexpected return to the public gaze. But Ocean has always functioned by being unpredictable. A queer cult figure in an age of disposable celebrity, Ocean remains sphinx-like on social media, and prefers to present his projects as fait accompli. He self-released his album Blonde in 2016 the day after Endless was released by Def Jam. The latter was a critically well-received contractual obligation, the former received more acclaim and came as a total surprise. It was a bold, defiant statement, and a practice he has stuck to, to this day.
Neither does he court the attention normally afforded to someone of his stature. When he walks his bike through the lobby of the Mercer Hotel in SoHo on an aggressively humid summer afternoon, no one looks twice. He’s a regular here, handsome but understated, wearing a white vest and a diamond earring and a necklace from the new line.
The jewellery collection that he has been working on for three and a half years is as iconoclastic as his recordings are confessional. Why Homer? “Mostly because it’s five letters and the dotcom was available,” he says. “But also because Homer is considered the father of history and history is meant to endure – the same as diamonds and gold – and I know Homer used papyrus, but I’ve always liked the idea of carving history into stone.”
Despite the literary credentials, the collection is full of joy: the pieces are pop but luxury, channelling the personality of Takashi Murakami and the graphic energy of ’90s club flyers. Scrolling through images on an iPad, he shows me dancing “Angry Man” pendants rendered in brightly coloured enamels, while the classic shape of children’s Jacks are turned into rarefied objects studded with lab-grown diamonds. He has updated his mother’s favourite “Sade hoops”, with diamonds punctuating the circle at their equator, and has created his own family crest. In addition to the jewellery, the debut includes a belt buckle and a silk scarf, and prices range from $395 to $1.9m.
“I didn’t want our work to be any less expensive than Cartier,” he says matter-of-factly. In person he is modest but straightforward. He knows he’s talented as much as he knows he is a focus of fascination for many, but he wears this knowledge lightly. Contrary to the standard digital-first strategy for launching a retail business in the 2020s, Homer is arriving via a bricks-and-mortar store in the downtown jewellery district of Manhattan. It won’t be available online, though you can order by phone. If you want to buy it, you have to see and feel it first.
Frank Ocean is an empire-building individual. “I don’t find business boring, I really enjoy it,” he says. He is worth an estimated $13m, and famous for doing things in an unexpected way. His ambitions and way of working, he argues, were rooted early on in childhood. Born Christopher “Lonny” Breaux, Ocean grew up in New Orleans amid considerable disadvantages. “The city probably had the highest murder rate in the country,” he says, as he talks about a childhood that was the opposite of his song “Super Rich Kids”. His first successes came writing for John Legend and Justin Bieber. Then around 2010 he met future close friend Tyler, The Creator, and his career accelerated. He still wrote for others – including Beyoncé and Alicia Keys – but his debut album in 2012 reached number two in the Billboard charts.
“It’s never lost on me that my surname is a by-product of slavery in the US,” he says of Breaux, a common surname in a part of the country that saw enslaved African people brought to the area by the French in 1718. “It’s never lost on me that I don’t have access to my real name. I can’t trace my heritage back that far, which is why I am interested in creating things that are mine, stay mine and belong to my family. Things that I can pass on.”
I ask Virgil Abloh, a close friend of Ocean’s, what he thinks about the singer’s creative process and progression. Ocean has made regular appearances in the front row of Abloh’s Louis Vuitton and Off-White presentations, and both men are self-styled, phenomenally successful polymaths. “Frank Ocean and myself live with a discerning eye toward the pursuit of the arts,” he replies. “Our kind is born to create. That creation knows no limits.”
The power of jewellery, says Ocean, is how he can use it to create a feeling. It’s a personal thing for him and makes him feel positive. I’m reminded of the stories of Andy Warhol carrying priceless diamonds in his breast pocket – close to him but invisible, just for the hell and thrill of it. “I seldom appear on stage,” says Ocean, “and I keep things to myself. But I’m perfectly happy wearing $3m worth of jewellery and going to the studio, or for a walk in the desert.”
Born in Long Beach, California. Family relocates to New Orleans when Ocean is five
Moves to LA and writes for Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and John Legend
Releases debut mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and works on Kanye West and Jay-Z album Watch the Throne
Releases his debut album Channel Orange
Is included in Time’s 100 most influential people in the world
Releases visual album Endless for Def Jam and self-releases Blonde the next day
His journey into what he calls “hard goods” began with a stint of bohemian DIY in LA in 2019, when he moved a group of 20 craftsmen friends into his house for his “Summit”, a secretive collective dedicated to developing designs. The house was virtually empty, surrounded by an expanse of land. Ocean’s concept was to use the time for experimentation: “We had everyone from horticulturalists to electrical engineers and architects, carpenters and metalworkers. We made tables and chairs, wired the lighting, then started working on other things for the house.”
Some of the objects they created feature in photography for his jewellery catalogue but aren’t for sale: makeshift seating and a concrete and mattress-foam lamp. After the essentials, things got macro and more interesting: “We worked on a deadbolt that was soft resin on the outside. It is a simple object, and the key and mechanism are banal and ordinary, but really detail-oriented. It ended up being quite beautiful.” The process led him to the idea of making jewellery, focusing on the minutiae and mixing materials – including the use of resins in both packaging and his store interior. One of the most complex pieces in the new collection incorporates a convex twist on the classic Cuban-link bracelet. “It took us a year and a half to make that fucking bracelet,” he says, with some exasperation.
Ocean speaks slowly and thoughtfully. He is immensely design literate, and happy to discuss his tastes and obsessions, but ponders each question posed before formulating answers. There’s no media training or filter, and if he could avoid interviews for the rest of his life, one imagines he’d be more than fine with that. But he engages with talk about furniture and architecture, which are perennial inspirations. He riffs enthusiastically about Donald Judd and his landmark house at 101 Spring Street, and how the artist created his own minimalist furniture because he could find nothing he liked. He also loves the Herzog & de Meuron-designed Prada store in Aoyama, Tokyo, with its honeycomb glass structure that is both natural and high-tech at the same time. It’s a sweet spot that intrigues him, and part of the reason why – as well as for environmental reasons – he wanted to work with lab-grown diamonds.
“I have a Pierre Paulin sofa at home, and it’s futuristic, but also natural. Paulin started out as a sculptor who was interested in flowers. I think there’s something peaceful and high-tech about the natural world. There’s an interplay there that is interesting to me. I use green a lot, because it is the stem of a flower and all colour works with it. I like Brazilian modernism. Sergio Rodrigues’s furniture is beautiful, warm and inviting. It’s just… horny.”
As his fingers scroll through a catalogue of his designs on an iPad, images of brightly coloured jackets with the Prada logo flash past – a forthcoming collaboration with his close friend Miuccia. I ask what she thinks of the jewellery designs. “Oh, I haven’t shown her yet,” he says. “I never let anyone see anything until I’m ready.”
I ask him what he thinks of the recent collections that Raf Simons has produced at Prada. “I really admire both Raf and Miuccia,” he says. “It’s a treat to see them play together and show us how they collaborate. I have had more conversations with Miuccia than Raf. I find her really warm and sharp-witted. She is so open-minded. Nothing about her feels jaded.”
Ocean has been aligned with Prada for some time. When the Met Gala came around in 2019 for the opening of the Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition, Joan Collins turned up in a voluminous Valentino white gown adorned with tier upon tier of feathers, and Harry Styles posed for photographers in a sheer black blouse from Gucci and heels. Ocean strolled in wearing a prosaic black Prada anorak. It was a genius move. He was the man of the moment. Like many of his generation, he is dissolving boundaries, expectations and clichés. Despite saying very little, he’s forged a path through the culture built on the single gesture. In an interview with Apple Music last year, rapper Lil Nas X, who came out as gay in 2019, said: “Artists like Frank and Tyler [The Creator] made it easier for me to be where I am, comfortably.”
Frank Ocean is an industry, but a purposely opaque one. He won’t say how many people there are in his team, or who anyone is. He also doesn’t want to be boiled down to stereotypes or to serve as a spokesperson 24/7. He gives credit to the place of jewellery in hip-hop culture for inspiring him on his new journey. “It’s a part of the end credits to what we are doing,” he says, “and it has influenced my perspective, but so have many other things.”
As an American artist who sits at the polar opposite from, say, straight white male Bruce Springsteen, he is wary of what he deems “descriptors”. “I just do what feels authentic and what feels right for me,” he says. “I’m someone who can make someone else feel like certain things are possible.”
When the BLM protests happened last year, many people looked at the fashion and luxury-goods industries with an arched eyebrow – there was a lot of rhetoric, but a blinding absence of black individuals in positions of control. Ocean is an asset to that industry going forward. “There are possibilities for black people now that weren’t always there for us,” he says. “I grew up in poverty. I’m grateful to my mother because she tried to expose me to as much as she could so far as the bigger picture is concerned. I’m very fortunate to be someone who can make someone else feel like they have possibilities, and I think that will make art and fashion richer for it.”
Ocean’s vast fan base will wonder what he has planned next. Will it be musical or design based? He plays his cards closer to his chest than anyone since David Bowie. Only he and his closest collaborator know. Until then, he’s keeping those secrets locked up on his iPad. And when he’s ready – he’ll be sure to let you know.