When Louis Vuitton appointed Virgil Abloh–a Ghanaian immigrant who made his mark as a streetwear designer–to be its artistic director for menswear on Monday, it marked a new era for one of the most well-known luxury houses.
For decades, luxury fashion has revolved around exclusivity. Heritage European brands made beautifully crafted products in limited quantities, deliberately priced beyond what most people could afford. They were slow to include people of color in their runway shows and advertising spreads. Vuitton is no exception. Last year was the first time in its 163-year history that it opened a runway show with a black model, a moved that was widely interpreted as a sign of how backward the brand is when it comes to diversity.
With an African-American man taking the helm, replacing Kim Jones, who has been with the brand since 2011, it’s almost inevitable that Abloh will help remake Vuitton. He’s a designer who has been equally game to create shoes for Jimmy Choo as he was to make uniforms for the Melting Passes, a Paris-based nonprofit soccer club made up primarily of illegal immigrants from West Africa. “It’s quite exciting to see somebody who comes from our world really making it to the top,” says Jeff Carvalho, managing director of Highsnobiety, a streetwear blog that has covered Abloh from his earliest days.
But inclusivity is not just “woke”: it spurs innovation and drives business. Vuitton, which made $9.9 billion in revenue last year, now has an opportunity to appeal to a wider audience and win over millennials, the generation that now has the greatest spending power. Abloh’s influence is already in effect. On Monday, when Abloh’s appointment was announced, luxury resale marketplace The RealReal reported that searches for Louis Vuitton immediately increased by 64% and searches by millennial men went up by 135%, signaling a spike in interest in the brand.
Engineering Gucci’s Magic
By bringing on 37-year-old Abloh, Vuitton may be trying to create some of the magic that Gucci has experienced over the last two years, when Alessandro Michele was brought on as creative director. Michele has managed to transform Gucci from a stuffy luxury house into a culturally relevant brand with a wildly popular Instagram following. Gucci just posted its strongest revenue increase in 20 years, with organic sales in the first quarter of this year jumping by 48.3% to $1.44 billion. Half of Gucci’s revenue now comes from 18- to 35-year-olds.
When I spoke to Marco Bizzari, Gucci’s CEO, he attributed the brand’s newfound success to being more inviting to everybody, not just people of a particular income bracket or demographic. To him, this means being warm to everybody who steps into a store or interacts with the brand on social media. “We needed to start seeing luxury as creating beautiful, unique products,” Bizzarri told me earlier this year. “The approach should be welcoming and smiling in a genuine way that is not forced, because this is the way to be inclusive in the end.”
Michele, for his part, has been systematically killing off anything pretentious or grandiose about Gucci. In his accessories line, he playfully references the long history of bootleggers creating fake Gucci products by making purses with the word “Guccy” deliberately misspelled in sparkly letters, much like you might find on street stalls in New York. He’s brought streetwear influences into his collections and paid homage to legendary hip-hop clothier Dapper Dan.
Much like Michele, Abloh’s work has always featured playfulness, irony, and humor and it is possible that this is exactly why Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s CEO, thought he would be right for the role.
One ongoing theme in Abloh’s career is his belief that great design should be accessible to everyone. He’s collaborated with mass market brands like Ikea, Champion, and Vans, along with high-end brands like Moncler. And through Off-White, he’s taken humble basics–T-shirts, track pants, hoodies–and turned them into works of art by making small tweaks to their construction or materials. The larger message here seems to be that luxury isn’t necessarily about a price point or particular consumer: it’s about attention to detail.
Abloh, Master Communicator
As artistic director for menswear, Abloh will be responsible for a relatively small part of Louis Vuitton’s business. Menswear is currently sold in just a third of the brand’s 450 stores worldwide, although the company told the New York Times that it plans to increase this figure and introduce more free-standing menswear stores.
But Abloh has the potential to have a powerful impact on the marketplace and beyond–and he knows it, telling the Times that he is interested in “rethinking how the brand communicated with its consumers, including the release of products, the runway show, and the way it interacted with the global political mood.”
Abloh is a masterful communicator, able to hold the attention of his audience across almost any medium. He’s created album covers, given lectures at Ivy League universities, DJed. (A decade-old blog he shared with two friends called The Brilliance is a fascinating chronicle of Abloh’s twenty-something artistic explorations.) He’s particularly skilled at bringing together the worlds of celebrity, music, and fashion, building hype around the projects he is involved with. While many brands introduce a new product a few days or weeks before they drop, when Abloh created a sneaker for Nike, he started teasing it a full year before the launch and managed to sustain interest in the product, baffling traditional marketers and PR pros.
Fashion is just another language for Abloh. Back in 2006, Kanye West and Abloh interned at Fendi, in an effort to better understand the world of luxury fashion so that they could go on to create their own brands. In 2013, Abloh launched his own label, Off-White, which two years later was a finalist at LVMH Young Designers Prize.
With his new, bigger platform at Vuitton, Abloh has the potential not only to attract a broader audiences to a prestigious–but perhaps, slightly staid–heritage brand. He could also use his influence to change the very definition of high-fashion in the way that he elevates street culture and highlights the artistic contributions of black artists, musicians, and designers. By bringing Abloh on, Vuitton may finally be recognizing that streetwear is the new luxury.
“Luxury brands have been aware of the street fashion scene, but many people didn’t understand just how strong they had become,” Carvalho says. “Now they’re scrambling to ask themselves, “How do you approach them? How do you tailor your product to them?””
Respecting The Source Material
There’s a good chance that Abloh will inflect Vuitton’s menswear line with a streetwear aesthetic. Jones already began moving in this direction by spearheading the wildly successful collaboration with Supreme. But Abloh will probably also reveal new sides of himself in this new role.
Abloh has been accused of being unoriginal, most prominently last year in GQ by Raf Simons, Calvin Klein’s chief creative officer. “He’s a sweet guy,” Simons said of Abloh. “But I’m inspired by people who bring something that I think has not been seen, that is original.”
But that assessment misunderstands Abloh’s fundamental design philosophy. When Abloh describes his own work, he talks about tweaking archetypes that already exist in the fashion lexicon. Take, for instance, the sneakers he’s designed for Nike. Rather than reinventing the shoe, he’s taken Nike classics, like the Air Jordan or the VaporMax, making just enough of a change to make an impact.
In his work so far, Abloh has found inspiration in many places. His mood boards have featured everything from Princess Diana to equestrian style to skateboarders. But Abloh seems to care about respecting the source material, rather than appropriating it. This goes against the grain of many luxury brands including Chanel, Gucci, and Vuitton, which have borrowed freely from black street fashion, without actually acknowledging it.
Back in 2007, in a short post for his blog, The Brilliance, Abloh encouraged readers to go check out the just-released Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton documentary, that took the viewer through Jacobs’s process when he served as creative director and launched the brand’s first ready to wear line. “Too much of the design world is so secret,” Abloh wrote. “Part of what makes designers and brands seem so unattainable is because you have no clue what they really do.”