On the afternoon before Virgil Abloh debuted his menswear collection for Louis Vuitton — an event that drew 1,000 seated guests; an additional 1,500 specially invited students; a truckload of the designer’s global celebrity pals, boldface names like Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, Rihanna, ASAP Rocky, Alexander Skarsgard and Rita Ora; and a handful of Chinese pop stars with social media followings numbering in the multiple millions — a flash mob gathered at Vuitton headquarters on the Right Bank near the Seine.
Tandem teams of messengers hauled in flower arrangements for the designer, so many that the reception area began to look like a wedding hall. Assistants from a 35-member menswear team did frenzied, last minute fittings on a model. The Japanese artist Takashi Murakami — one of a laundry list of global creatives whom Abloh counts among his collaborators (the two have an exhibition scheduled to open Saturday at the Gagosian Gallery here) — drifted through the space, followed close behind by a posse of assistants wearing Comme des Garcons rags and surgical face masks.
The young American influencer Luka Sabbat darted around, hauling a big Louis Vuitton shopping bag over one shoulder. And Ian Connor, the tattooed Instagram phenom (@ianconnorsrevenge) whose self-assurance may out-scale even his million-strong Instagram following, scrolled through his phone feed, barely bothering to notice that Naomi Campbell had wandered in, clad in sneakers and leggings, to perform a supermodel gavotte — trailed, as always, by her entourage.
“This is the culmination of a lifetime of work,” said Abloh, who, at 37, effectively pinnacled the luxury-goods Everest with his appointment in March as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton.
“Look around this room,” added the designer — a child of Ghanaian immigrants, a suburban kid raised outside Chicago, a trained architect less notable for any specific design skills than for his masterful ability to manipulate social media. “There are people around this room who look like me,” he added. “You never saw that before in fashion. The people have changed and so fashion had to.”
By people Abloh meant consumers, of course, and the change he has ushered in represents fundamental shifts not only in who buys things but also in who gets to tell the story of fashion.
Fashion, as Stefano Sassi, the chief executive responsible for the turnaround of Valentino, recently noted in Milan, is above all a narrative business: “It’s not the sneakers you’re selling, it’s the perception and the dream.”
In former times the dominant narratives were handed down from on high to a waiting public by a succession of designers. If Abloh’s hiring proves anything, it’s that the old models have lost their validity; the cult of the Great Creative is dead. Gone are the mood boards, the Yves Saint Laurent-style mood swings, the lapdog press and all the hoary antique apparatus of the business.
Though a secular saint here, Saint Laurent probably could not get arrested in the new global digital marketplace, one in which the consumer is the presiding genius and the author of a story that increasingly epitomises aspects of Adam Smith’s free market doctrine.
In the advancing digital age, being has been substantially replaced by consuming and that act itself has devolved from anything closely related to need or pleasure into a performative existential gesture. Consider the case of Connor, the New York-born, Atlanta-raised 25-year-old whose social media tentacles reach millions on Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram. “Even if I didn’t have a home, I was sleeping on the floor, I always made sure I had my clothes,” Connor once said.
Unquestionably, along with his skill at upending fashion’s exclusionary tropes, it was Abloh’s ability to connect to people like Connor and the global digital tribes that the designer referenced in a show, held in the arcaded courtyard of the 17th-century Palais Royal, that led Louis Vuitton to him. “Fashion has to speak to a generation of people who look like me,” he said.
Accordingly, his Vuitton show featured a cast of ethnically diverse models (and also musicians like Kid Cudi, Playboi Carti and Theophilus London) that would have been inconceivable on a Paris runway as recently as five years ago. And yet, if there is little reason to question Abloh’s sincere dedication to diversity, there is somewhat less incentive to imagine the same of Bernard Arnault, the French magnate who owns Vuitton as part of his LVMH Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury empire.
It’s worth noting that suddenly the catwalks here and, before Paris, in Florence and Milan featured unprecedented numbers of models of colour. Designers in all those cities were quick to point out the change, noting how their runways now featured castings variously described to this observer as “exotic” or “coloured” or “immigrant.”
There are vast new millennial markets to exploit in China (400 million) and India (385 million), Asia representing 19 per cent of the global generational cohort, according to demographers at the Pew Research Center, followed closely by sub-Saharan Africa with roughly 13 per cent. (Only a slowly ageing Europe remains underweight in terms of pure population.)
The goal is getting at them; the surest route, the internet; and the odds are on the internet and the affable, easy-going Abloh knowing how.
Evidently he does. Titling the Vuitton show “We Are the World,” a reference to the 1985 charity single in support of Ethiopian famine relief, the designer included with his show notes maps detailing the global origins of each member of the cast.
On a radiantly sunny afternoon, he quickly put to rest any doubts about his design abilities — “People think I’m just that guy who puts a stripe on a hoodie,” he’d said earlier, at his studio — with a demonstration of his design conviction, opening with a suave double-breasted suit worn over double-pleated trousers precisely when most menswear labels are in desperate flight from tailored clothes.
This being Vuitton, it was paired with matte white crocodile sneakers and a tote. “Why do you guys even make clothes?” was the first question Abloh asked when he was hired by a house that originated as a luggage maker. “Accessomorphosis” was the term he then coined to fuse apparel with the accessories that drive Vuitton sales.
Why carry a wallet or strap on a fanny pack or burden yourself with a card holder when you can attach it to a harness, a holster or a multi-pocketed gilet? Sure you could see in those hybrid accessories a nod to ‘90s Helmut Lang (a designer once described as the Type O of fashion: its universal donor.) And you could discern in the shifting volumes — flowing suits played off tautly snug ones — elements reminiscent of screen grabs from Pinterest pages devoted to vintage Armani.
Yet all of these came neatly balanced by components from a very personal vocabulary Abloh honed at his own label, Off-White: transparency, asymmetry, ineffable skate-rat cool. Perhaps, as some suggested, the romanticism of sequinned jacket prints depicting Dorothy Gale asleep on a bed of roses (not far from Oz) were a reference to Abloh’s belief in pursuing one’s dream, but they also underscored the Midwestern gumption he shares with that girl from Kansas.
In conversation with this reporter last year in Milan, Abloh uttered what you might call a personal credo, one applicable to anyone determined to reach a goal. “I never mind when people turn me down, because I immediately start looking for solutions,” said Abloh, who appears to have attained his at Vuitton. “I always love that first no.”