The entire unfolding of events seemed tailor-made for the ethos of the digital times.
No sooner than Virgil Abloh could board his flight to Paris (a saga he documented on his Instagram Stories to appease his devout loyalists of 2 million+ followers) to pen ink to his contract with Louis Vuitton than the entire fashion guard both new and old had something to say about his much rumoured and hyped appointment as Head Creative Director of the brand's menswear collection represented for the industry. Some were screaming sellout and blasphemy while street style savants, Gen Z tastemakers, digital influencers and celebrities alike scrambled to showcase their spasm of adulation on the modern ingenue's rocket-like trajectory to a role only one other man of colour had held before. From humble beginnings in Illinois to Ghanian-American parents, with an education in architecture and not in traditional design (a point detractors and "congratulators" alike were quick to ensure was including in any response to the announcement), Abloh's ascension to the title left no tongue unwagged either in praise or skepticism.
In what's been a marathon season of musical chairs within the industry (seeing Hedi Slimane take the reigns at Celine, Riccardo Tisci taking over Christopher Bailey's revival of Burberry, Kim Jones filling in for Kris Van Ashe at Dior Homme), Abloh's appointment to Vuitton proved to be the grand crescendo in the continued chaos. Furthermore, it blew the doors wide open on the long contentious debate on how digital hype is either good or bad for the luxury fashion industry as it grapples with both relevance and renaissance in an era where consumers are demanding so much more.
Beyond all the noise, there are obvious takeaways anyone watching the industry as of late can infer from the announcement.
There's the solidifying of the almost rhetorical notions that the lines of streetwear and luxury are non-existent to a younger audience of consumers, to showcasing the serious force and financial power menswear and male consumers have become compared to womenswear. There's also another major, most insidious talking point of his appointment, that being his digital marketing mastery trumping design credentials, that is also warranted but misplaced in pinning Abloh as the poster child of. Even the most polite of disapproving reviews of Abloh's appointment couldn’t help but undermine it by making the that marketing hype had trumped design glaringly visible in the byline of each article.
As the converse screams of blasphemy and social hysteria both equally convey, it's proof we do indeed live a brave new world, if Virgil Abloh is any indication, fortune favours those who are savvy enough to use the many tools at their disposal to get what they want; even if those tools are an iPhone and not a sewing machine. It especially favours those who are skilled in building communities around them and knowing when to activate them at strategic moments that advance their cause and all-seeing vision. Bonus points if some are A-listers. global superstars and celebrities who following and social clout is even greater than yours.
Abloh x Bey
Abloh recently unveiled a preview of his tenure at Vuitton, putting a fresh spin on the brand's recent handbag collaboration with Jeff Koons for devotee and friend Beyonce.
The act of tapping into communities and mass hysteria of fan worship to inspire product is not a new to the fashion industry. The likes of Mick, Elvis, Ringo, Paul, George and John may have made it famous, but creative directors have always drawn inspiration for other communities and mediums, often times to the degree of flagrant cultural appropriation, all to the delight and furthered fanaticism of their devout loyalists that held court on their every move. Yves Saint Laurent fell in love with Marrakesh and the Orient, Stefano Gabbana and Domenico Dolce have been plugging Sicilian motifs for over a decade (though both are not from the region) and Marc Jacobs has been ripping off New York street culture as far back as his "groundbreaking" punk collection 1992. How is taking references from engaging online communities, as Abloh is famous for, more inferior than taking cues from other cultures and travels, even if those designers existed in an hour where every movement and trip wasn't document via social media?
What's also equal parts eyebrow-raising if not amusing is comparing Abloh's appointment to his long-time friend and predecessor at Louis Vuitton, Kim Jones (Jones exited as Head of Vuitton menswear to fill the seat Van Asche vacated at Dior Homme). Both were industry outsiders who cracked the industry by tapping into street culture. While Jones' approach was more grassroots, by recruiting East London club kids and Hackney's finest at nightclubs he frequented and often promoted for while attending Central Saint Martin's, the mechanic and ideology are very much the same. It's also a reason why Jones is very much beloved by Vuitton and other legacy houses alike because of his ear to street culture. However, unlike Abloh, Jones rise to fame was before the digital times, and his exposure a fraction of Abloh has amassed.
Both men and their appointments are from the same LVMH playbook, where the brand taps into the street culture to remain alive and relevant in the hearts of a new generation. Lest we forget it was Kim Jones who orchestrated Louis Vuitton's seismic collaboration with Supreme; an equally polarising moment in the brand's recent history and tangled relationship with streetwear.
Then there’s the case of Riccardo Tisci, and his recent appointment to Burberry shortly before Abloh. Also a graduate of Central Saint Martins, and an outsider who quickly gained adoration infusing Parisian street culture (and religious themes) to breathe new life into the fashion relic that is now the resurrected Givenchy (with Claire Wright Keller currently at the helm). While Tisci’s appointment also received a notable, collective gasp because of his provocative design demeanour, a cautious optimism was still staunchly provide as caveat in even the harshest of assessments.
One quickly realizes the credentials and key plays are very much the same, yet Abloh remains the odd man out for his lack of "traditional", formal fashion training and a CV which lacks a stamp of approval from the the clergy of traditional design schools. While it may be to sensational to insinuate that there is something more systematically more literal at play to explain the aversion to Abloh, it's not too much of a stretch to insinuate some of those against Abloh are in fact perturbed he was not cut from the same cloth of academia.
I must admit I too was once a cynic and a non-believer. My first encounter with the cult of Abloh was at Pitti Uomo 93 last year in Florence, when Off White was a featured presentation showcasing their upcoming AW18 menswear collection. The madness outside Florence's famed Pitt Palace was nothing like I'd seen outside a show before. Flash forward 6 months later (where my bemusement morphed into countless readings and studying of all things Off White and the gospel according to Abloh), there I stood in bemusement watching Abloh guest DJ a set at Soho House Miami during last year's Art Basel Miami Beach. It may of have been the I liked the taste of music or the rapturous nature of the attendees drinking every drop of Abloh's hype, but on that day for some strange reason I became a believer.
No matter what side of the aisle you stand on, why assessing Abloh's ascension to the menswear throne Louis Vuitton is nothing short of a sign of the times and a victory for the digital age. One thing both the doomsdayers and those Abloh have in common is their shared, quiet recognition that the fashion industry is indeed a broken, fractured realm.
Yet we all know regardless of the era, fashion is an industry built and emboldened by subjectivity. This moment was no exception. While some welcomed the announcement with rapture, other oracles deemed yet another horseman of fashion’s continued drudge to the end times as we entered a true David and Goliath moment. Where David is the age old craft of classically trained design, and the marketing muscle mastered by the likes of Abloh and Generation YeeZy personifying Goliath.
However, before harkening him a zealot or accusing apostasy, his critics should step back to assess the irony, hypocrisy and flat out reality of what his appointment truly means as a testament the modern state of an industry still in a schism. While the pen may be proving mightier than the sword as it concerns his critics, Abloh on his own measure is proving digital prowess overpowers the pin cushion.
At the end of the day, fashion is much more about survival than adhering to a strict set of religious principles which have proven inapplicable for these changing times, and in this case, Bernard Arnault (CEO of LVMH and oracle who approved Abloh's appointment) plays Charles Darwin. There are certain, indisputable characteristics to continuing ones legacy, relevancy being one or the most paramount.
Even if the end is indeed nigh, at least we will be given a front row seat to the apocalypse via Abloh’s Instagram, and the streets will be heard. In regards to judgement day? that shouldn’t necessarily be measured in how many critics turn to converts come this June in Paris when his first colleciton debuts, but how well he's able to win over new believers that in turn receives the good word at the cash register. To anyone who's studied fashion and LVMH long enough knows, that is the only commandment that seems to matters anyway.