Pharrell Williams Shares His Inspirations, From Henry Taylor to ‘Jabberjaw’

Pharrell Williams — the clothing designer who succeeded Virgil Abloh in February 2023, just over a year after his death, as Louis Vuitton’s men’s creative director; the Grammy-winning record producer behind such pop masterpieces as Justin Timberlake’s “Justified” (2002) and Clipse’s “Hell Hath No Fury” (2006); the musician and performer who in conversation casually refers to the French electronic duo Daft Punk as “the robots” and Karl Lagerfeld as “Karl” — doesn’t like talking about himself. “This is absolutely Dante’s ‘Inferno,’” he said over the phone this past June, a few days after lighting up Paris’s Pont Neuf with his spectacular debut for the French fashion house. At one point, it seemed like he might give up on the conversation altogether. “This is straight up like voice mail syndrome,” he said. “I mean, do you like listening to yourself on voice mail?”

Williams, 50, was raised in Virginia Beach by his father, Pharaoh, a handyman, and his mother, Carolyn, a teacher. It was there that he met numerous lifelong collaborators, including Chad Hugo, his producing partner in the Neptunes, a duo as important to the sound of hip-hop over the past 30 years as the Funk Brothers were to Motown in the 1960s. A dedicated polymath who shifts between styles, genres and media, Williams is his best, most creative self in the presence of water. He grew up in a housing project called Atlantis, right by the beach; today, he holds an annual music and art festival in Virginia Beach called Something in the Water. And when he’s not in Miami on Biscayne Bay, he spends his time in Paris, where he has a music studio at the LVMH headquarters overlooking the Seine.

At top: “This was taken in Los Angeles last year, a few months before the Louis Vuitton announcement. Being a producer and a creative director are similar. I can go from apparel to drums, from trunks to melodies. Within my design studio, I have a section allocated to music, so I go back and forth all day.”

Credit…Left: Launchmetrics/Spotlight. Right: © Henry Taylor, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen

Left and right: “I wanted to work with [the American artist] Henry Taylor [whose paintings, one of which is shown here, were embroidered onto garments and bags from Williams’s first collection for Louis Vuitton]. It’s not lost on me that this appointment was given to another Black man from America. This is pivotal for us, you know, after Virgil, our brother who’s gone back up to the stars. I think it’s important that we continue to tell interesting stories. I don’t have an agenda — I am the agenda. I want not only people who look like me but people who don’t look like me to be inspired by this moment. And working with an artist like Henry Taylor helps tell that story.”

Credit…From left: Dre Rojas; courtesy of Helen Williams; Sam Hayes

Left: “This was taken at a Chanel show in Africa last year. [Williams was a brand ambassador from 2014 to 2022.] We went to Dakar, Senegal, and I had on a fresh pair of [Adidas] Sambas. Years ago, I’d asked Karl [Lagerfeld, Chanel’s longtime creative director who died in 2019] to take the house to Africa, and he said we would get to it, but he passed before we got a chance to.”

Center: “My oldest son [Rocket, pictured here with Williams at Disney World in 2012] makes beats. We [Pharrell and his wife, the model and fashion designer Helen Williams] also have triplets. It’s a triple handful. We say it’s beautifully intense and intensely beautiful.”

Right: “We turned a house in Miami into a studio. I have no idea [when we set it up], but it’s been a couple of years. I’m terrible with chronology: I live in the moment, but I process things in the future and I get lost in the past. In Miami, it’s all about the weather and the humidity. It’s always been very inspiring to me. It’s fun to record there on the water, which sounds like a flex, but it’s really not.”

Credit…From left: Kourtrajmeuf; Vinyls/Alamy; Dre Rojas

Left: “With this Vuitton appointment, it’s like I’m a perpetual student. If I’m the king of anything, it’s the king of being a pupil. I knew I wanted to work on Damier [the brand’s signature checkerboard pattern]. I’ve always loved pixelated camo, so we did it with Damier, leveling it up, and that’s how we got Damouflage [pictured here on a model during a fitting earlier this year]. Being surrounded by so many talented people is the best. I mean, I’m an Aries, so I’ve always been superimpulsive. But without the resources and the people, I’d be just like every other person with a great idea.”

Center: “As a kid, I listened to a lot of records my aunt would play in her house. Parliament-Funkadelic had songs that blew my mind. I also think [Kraftwerk’s sixth studio album] ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977) happened around that time. Atlantis was like this neighborhood in a bubble. It’s where music was everything and, when certain songs came on, it was like a musical happening right there in front of you. You could either be a part of it or you could stand back and watch.”

Right: “This picture was taken earlier this year at Le Café V [a Louis Vuitton cafe in Osaka]. Japan is my favorite place. On my 50th orbit, I had a birthday party organized by [the Tokyo-based artistic director of Kenzo and hip-hop producer] Nigo. One of the most amazing gifts is his presence in my life. Twenty years ago, I needed to go to Japan to record something, so Nigo arranged for me to come to his studio, which is basically a compound on five floors of a building. One floor is a showroom, one is a photo studio, another is a recording studio, and I was like, ‘Wow, this guy lives what’s in his head.’ That changed me. I was so used to bragging because that was the world I came from. And then I met Nigo, who barely said anything. He didn’t have to. Humility is in the Tokyo air like the humidity in Virginia.”

Credit…From left: Dr. Carolyn Williams; Hanna-Barbera/Photofest; Columbia/Photofest

Left: “I think this picture is from around 1976, so when I was 3 years old. I’m the third of eight kids — two sisters and five brothers. I want to say ‘Star Wars’ (1977) came out around then. I just remember being back in the Atlantis apartments in Virginia Beach. I didn’t know life was as hard as it was, because it was fun to me.”

Center: “My favorite cartoon as a kid was ‘Jabberjaw’ (1976), and the band he played in was called the Neptunes. So that’s where the name [of his songwriting and production duo with Chad Hugo] came from.”

Right: “I love watching movies to escape. But the funny thing is, I couldn’t tell you from what. My favorite movie is ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (1977). I relate to Richard Dreyfuss’s character and the alien.”

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