Today, Louis Vuitton announced it would be appointing streetwear designer Virgil Abloh as its artistic director of menswear.
Louis Vuitton is one of luxury fashion’s most visible brands and the same could be said about Abloh in the streetwear world.
Abloh is the designer for haute streetwear label Off-White, which sells $300 tees, $700 camo pants, and $915 denim jackets. While the average shopper certainly can’t afford Abloh’s clothes, which are sold at stores like Barneys and Bergdorf Goodman as well as the brand’s 11 boutiques, customers can still get a taste through the laundry list of collabs he’s done. (If you manage to get to them before they sell out or are listed for triple the price on eBay, anyway.) Abloh, who will be the first African-American artistic director at Louis Vuitton, has worked with highbrow labels like Moncler and Jimmy Choo, but he’s also teamed up with brands as accessible as Levi’s, Nike, Champion, Warby Parker, and Ikea. As the king of collabs, he’s been dubbed “the busiest man in fashion,” and is known as a creative who’s thrived off of the “digital hype-o-sphere” — that is, fashion brands that receive extreme hype for their reputation (and resale value).
While Abloh is a jack-of-all-trades — fashion designer, DJ, tastemaker — it’s fair to say he initially rose to fame as Kayne West’s creative director. He’s been in Kanye’s inner circle for over 15 years, to the point where West even brought him along on a Fendi internship in 2009. He oversees the rapper’s strategy for album covers, set designs, and tour merch, and being BFFs with a megastar has certainly helped out the client list for Off-White, which includes Rihanna, Gigi Hadid, Justin Bieber, and Beyoncè.
When speaking about his foray into fashion, Abloh has talked a lot about access. He’s described himself as someone who was a part of the “Tumblr generation,” where kids who couldn’t afford luxury fashion still got to learn about it, and develop a taste for it, via the internet. This is a point Abloh now wants to see through with luxury fashion. He told the New York Times that his new position will be an opportunity to “think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean.” Abloh is now putting together an eight-page “brand manual” that will comprise Louis Vuitton’s newest design language.
“For the last eight to 10 years we’ve been having this conversation about what’s new, and for me, that has to do with making luxury relatable across generations,” Abloh said. “The first thing I am going to do is define new codes. My muse has always been what people actually wear, and I am really excited to make a luxury version of that.”
Abloh also said that he’ll be helping Louis Vuitton think about how the company releases products — no doubt referring to the product “drops” the streetwear community thrives off of — as well as how it interacts “with the global political mood,” perhaps a nod to Louis Vuitton as yet another brand that will become politically active.
Louis Vuitton hiring Abloh isn’t just smart from a design perspective; the luxury fashion house is surely betting on some street cred with young shoppers by bringing on a big name. As the Times notes, the luxury brand’s menswear is in need of more visibility. Its logo-heavy bags and belts might be best-sellers, but Louis Vuitton clothing is not nearly as in-demand the way a streetwear company like Supreme is, where young, millennial shoppers are willing to wait in line for hours in any weather just to buy something from the brand’s weekly drop.
Abloh’s new position at Louis Vuitton also speaks to how luxury fashion is finally recognizing its need to keep up with current culture. Old-school brands like Chanel and Dior are still covetable, but as British department store Selfridges’s director of menswear Bosse Myhr told Business of Fashion, “there is a new guard of designers that represent the luxury culture.” There have been plenty of attempts to inject young hipness into stodgy old-school fashion houses; earlier this month, heritage British fashion house Burberry appointed Riccardo Tisci as its new creative director, even though Tisci’s vibe is a far cry from the tasteful, English style Burberry is known for. As Louis Vuitton gears up to trade its long-held identity for newness under Abloh, there’s certainly the risk that things, after a while, might all just start looking the same. But as Digiday put it earlier this year, there’s an ultimatum now for luxury fashion houses “as they look to win over a younger set of customers: Find a way to cop some street cred, or risk irrelevancy.”