A New Look for Louis Vuitton: Examining Virgil Abloh's New Appointment
A New Look for Louis Vuitton: Examining Virgil Abloh's New Appointment
- Words Marc Richardson
- Date April 3, 2018
Despite the fact that we should have seen it coming, and that nobody was really that surprised, news of Louis Vuitton tapping Virgil Abloh to be the maison’s new menswear director sent the industry—and the internet—into a tizzy (Abloh was literally a “trending topic” on Twitter the day of the announcement). It explains why Virgil has been on an absolute tear the last month and a half—making sure to get all of his creative side projects out of the way before taking over at Vuitton. Despite all of the cries that Abloh has no business at the helm of the storied brand, who else but Kim Jones’ close friend could succeed him at the Parisian house? Jones, after all, slowly-but-surely eroded the preconceived notions about Vuitton’s definition of luxury and integrated a dash of streetwear and street culture. So, I ask again, why not Virgil to write the next act of Louis Vuitton’s menswear?
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If Louis Vuitton has slowly moved away from traditional luxury, Virgil Abloh has lived the evolution from bootlegged T-shirts to luxury at hyper speed. Trained as a civil engineer and architect, Abloh was recruited to Kanye West’s brain trust shortly after graduating.
In 2009, Abloh starts to integrate fashion into his creative spectrum, interning with Kanye at Fendi under Louis Vuitton’s now-CEO Michael Burke. West famously recalled the duo proposing leather jogging pants to Fendi, only to be rejected and see the trend emerge a few years later. Later in 2009, Abloh makes his first major appearance at Paris Fashion Week alongside Kanye and the rest of his creative team—the crew’s eccentric outfits eventually ended up being parodied on South Park.
Virgil’s story really starts to get interesting in 2012, though, when he created PYREX VISION. PYREX was, at its roots, the epitome of a streetwear startup. Abloh took Champion blanks—from T-shirts to shorts—and screen printed simple graphics and photos onto them before flipping them at a markup. Most famously, the Ghanaian-American creative bought up hundreds of deadstock Ralph Lauren Rugby flannels, screen printed “PYREX 23” on the back, and sold them at a whopping 700% markup.
But, while his PYREX antics may have rubbed some the wrong way, the short-lived project paved the way for the founding of Off-White in 2013. Off-White gave Abloh his entry into the world of high-end fashion and his menswear and womenswear shows in Paris became must-attend events within a few seasons.
Abloh’s meteoric rise in fashion was best exemplified by his nomination for the prestigious LVMH Prize in 2015. Though Off-White eventually lost out to Marques’Almeida and Jacquemus, Abloh is now enjoying delayed gratification as his appointment to Louis Vuitton marked the first time a finalist took up a senior design position at one of the conglomerate’s brands. Abloh then went on to open Off-White flagship stores across the world and reel off an impressive list of collaborations including, most notably, “The Ten” with Nike.
Even a cursory overview of Abloh’s career arc makes his recent appointment at Louis Vuitton impressive. In six years, Virgil has lived the entire evolution of fashion, from screen printing on blanks and being stocked at PacSun (even though this occurred when he was on his way out of the project, shout out to the revolutionary #BEENTRILL#), to overflowing runway shows in Paris and concept shops around the globe. He has become the fashion equivalent of a growth hacker in the best way possible.
Until recently, it would have been unthinkable for a designer with Abloh’s background—and relatively short career—to be named menswear director at one of the major labels. Even Jones’ appointment was questioned at the time given his limited experience at Dunhill and his eponymous label. But, streetwear has become increasingly important and designers have referenced the sartorial subculture en masse over the last few years.
Nowhere is that more true than at Vuitton where Kim Jones gradually infused his love of streetwear into the storied luggage purveyor’s DNA. It came to a head, of course, with the Fall/Winter 2017 collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme. At the time, the collection was touted as signalling streetwear arrival in the fashion world, others critiqued it as streetwear selling out and the bursting of a streetwear bubble. Regardless, it created an unparalleled level of hype around the brand, something which, despite being Louis Vuitton, the Parisian label needed.
Few others in fashion would be capable of following up Kim Jones’ act at Vuitton. What Virgil brings to the table is an understanding of the new luxury customer and that is why his appointment to the position rubs some the wrong way. It’s impossible to deny that he doesn’t fit the profile of a Vuitton menswear director (at least in one that continues in Jones’ tradition).
Critics have argued that Abloh doesn’t bring any real fashion design credentials to the the table. There’s truth to the argument: He, quite literally, is not a trained fashion designer. Nor is anybody making claims that Abloh is the most technically-skilled designer—rather, some of his actual garment design work has been clumsy in the past.
Eugene Rabkin, of StyleZeitgeist, told Highsnobiety that he was “very disappointed” with Abloh’s appointment and that it represented, “A disservice to fashion at large, and will only contribute to the dismal state of contemporary fashion.” He added that he expected a diet of “boring, easily-digestible menswear archetypes” and a logo-heavy Vuitton under Abloh.
It’s actually quite possible that Rabkin is right and that the new Vuitton will be easily-digestible and representative of contemporary fashion. But those are not actually negative things. In fact, they are in-line with Louis Vuitton’s values per the company’s CEO. “Louis Vuitton was not a couture house,” explained Michael Burke to The New York Times. “From the mid-19th century to the 1920s and beyond it always sought to cater to the new wealthy class, not the old aristocrats.”
Fashion need not be unattainable or hard to understand. That’s the play that Louis Vuitton is making with the Abloh appointment. What he lacks in design credentials, he makes up for in spades as a communicator of ideas and emotions. Many think of Vuitton as a archaic, aristocratic brand, so if the mandate is to educate contemporary millennial customers about the label’s history, then few designers would be better suited for the job than Abloh.
This is where Abloh’s history—or lack thereof—in fashion design will serve as his greatest asset. His experience with Vuitton, and with fashion writ large, has been, for the most part, as a consumer first and foremost. He is uniquely placed to offer collections that reflect how people interact with and see the LV Monogram.
We are likely to see many collaborations under Abloh’s watch, but, then again, that fits within the narrative of contemporary Vuitton. Kim Jones, Abloh’s predecessor, often made waves with collaborations with artists that inspired and interested him personally. Marc Jacobs, the man who appointed Jones, also had a knack for knocking collaborations out of the park. The only difference is that now, we might get more than we’re used to, though, and with unexpected partners.
Industry insiders see Abloh pushing the house in a new direction. “I think the runway shows will be quite different from what people expect of Vuitton, but that’s not a bad thing,” one told Dry Clean Only. “He knows how to get people going. He’s going to bring more energy, hype and excitement to LV, which the company needs. He’s probably the only person in fashion who can follow up Kim Jones.” Even those who have bemoaned the move seem to agree on that front: Abloh will bring hype and a boost in sales to Vuitton.
The greatest collaboration of all, though, may come unofficially and internally at LVMH. Between Abloh, Jones—now in charge of Dior Homme—and Hedi Slimane, who will be launching menswear at Céline. Abloh refers to Jones as his mentor and will want to prove he can keep up, while Jones will set his sights on recreating his magic at Dior. Slimane, for his part, will attempt to do at Céline what he did at Dior Homme in the ’00s and build a brand to that competes with Louis Vuitton and Dior Homme from scratch. While this might come across as pure speculation, it’s not hard to see the trio looking over each other’s shoulders in an effort to outdo one another and differentiate their respective brands. It’s actually an exciting proposition.
Overall the move augurs well for LVMH and it’s almost impossible to see how menswear sales will take a dip when looking back at the social and monetary success of the brand’s foray with Supreme. What then, of the repercussions for luxury menswear as a whole? Much has been written about Abloh’s appointment serving as a challenge to fashion’s status quo. But it’s part of a much larger movement and symptomatic of a period of change in the industry. Fashion has been streetwear-inflected for some time now, but this might be representative of a definitive shift towards more accessible fashion.
One fashion retailer tells Dry Clean Only that it “may set the tone for a shift in the industry and give luxury a bit of a younger vibe.” He reasons that the shift at lower echelons of fashion are gradually creeping up to the top-tier luxury brands and “millennial customers are going to grow away from the T-shirts and trainers they desire from brands like Off-White, but look for something familiar when they build a more elevated wardrobe.”
The move breathes some diversity into fashion, too. Virgil Abloh is but the third black man to helm one of the French houses—following in Ozwald Boateng and Olivier Rousteing’s footsteps. Fashion has long been a white-dominated industry and the systemic racism has become all-too apparent in recent years. There are a plethora of talented black designers who will hopefully no longer be seen as outsiders in fashion; Abloh’s appointment is just one step forward in bringing that wall down.
What’s more, is that, should Vuitton’s Abloh gamble pay off—and there’s reason to think that it will from a business standpoint—then other labels may be encouraged to opt for directors who aren’t formally-trained designers. After all, shouldn’t directors be the—“ideas”—people who bring other talented individuals together and offer them...well, direction?
Regardless of what ends up coming down Virgil’s first runway show, his hiring has already been a coup of sorts for Louis Vuitton; for the last week, everybody has been talking about Vuitton—after all, isn’t that the point to begin with?