In somewhat of a surprise move, Louis Vuitton declared that Virgil Abloh, Off-White founder and Zeitgeist-surfer extraordinaire, will become the house’s next Artistic Director for menswear. The position left by Kim Jones has been filled. The move is commercially wise on LVMH’s part - seen the meteoric rise of Off-White - but one of impactful symbolism too, positioning a black American of first-generation Ghanaian descent at the very top of one of the oldest and biggest power players in European luxury. Only Olivier Rousteing (Balmain) and Ozwald Boateng (formerly Givenchy) have ventured there before. Virgil Abloh will also be the first LVMH prize finalist to play a major design part in an LVMH brand; it’s been a newsworthy time for the group lately. If you’re a little fuzzy on how this all came to be, sit back and sip this light refresher.
Virgil Abloh found his way to the limelight through being the longtime creative consultant to Kanye West and his creative think tank DONDA. Despite having no formal education in fashion, Abloh learned from his seamstress mother and later applied his studies in civil engineering and architecture (with a Mies van der Rohe curriculum) through a modernist lens to the field of fashion. At age 22, Abloh started out at DONDA, working on everything from clothing and footwear to Grammy-nominated album cover designs and set design. Together, Kanye and Virgil have laboured tirelessly and against harsh critiques to carve out their own lane, from the never-launched Pastelle - although Colette sold a few designs - to ultimately the birth of the monolithic YEEZY brand. Undoubtedly, Abloh first got to taste the internal structure at Louis Vuitton when Kanye notably designed the Don sneakers for the heritage brand in 2009 and made an international street style splash in Paris with ‘Ye and collaborators like Taz Arnold, Tracy Mills, Ibn Jasper and Don C.
That same year, Abloh interned for six months alongside Kanye West at Fendi HQ in Rome. “Virgil is incredibly good at creating bridges between the classic and the zeitgeist of the moment,” Michael Burke - then-chief executive of Fendi and now in the same role at Louis Vuitton - told Business of Fashion. "I paid them $500 a month! I was really impressed with how they brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way. Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since.” It was during the Fendi days that Abloh met Kim Jones, who has mentored him ever since. Soon afterwards he created his first concept label, Pyrex Vision, which debuted in New York in December of 2012.
The much-coveted and talked about Pyrex provided the fuel and foundations for Off-White – or more formally Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh™. The designer’s keen use of irony and reference paired with manifold celebrity endorsements and Gen Z digital hype has propelled the high end youth-driven brand to the top, making it the cultural colossus it is today. Quotation marks will never be the same. Always the eager collaborator, Virgil Abloh has simultaneously signature-stamped his name on the biggest brands ranging from Nike, Moncler, Jimmy Choo and soon, Ikea. He only just teamed up with another Louis Vuitton icon, Takashi Murakami, for a show at the London Gagosian.
Kids love an Off-White moment regardless, but Abloh makes sure to keep reality in check – for instance by infusing shows with political statements on the global refugee crisis. All of this makes for a potent commercial mixture, as Off-White jumped 31 places to become the number 3 hottest brand in the world on Business of Fashion’s 2017 consumer index. In five short years, we’re talking international brick-and-mortar stores, 100% sales increases, Paris Fashion week frenzies: it’s all been aligning.
THE ROAD AHEAD
When KNOTORYUS last spoke to Virgil about what was next, he talked about being focused on all the minute details and steps he sees in front of him to reach those loftier goals: “Accolades are great, but still live short of what I see in my head. The process motivates me, I'm excited about the evolution and building something special.” Asserting that he wanted to “create on the highest platform” and “make it to the “fashion Olympics”, it now seems the time has come to operate in that highest echelon. Apparently, he has already been working on an eight-page brand manual containing new codes defining the ethos of Vuitton.
Though fashion traditionalist are sure to keep bemoaning the apparent rise of the so-called ‘stylist-designer’ and still feel consumer-driven apparel does not compute with high fashion, Abloh’s peers prove to be elated:
Abloh will continue on in his role at Off-White - stating it's for the 17-year-old version of himself, whereas Vuitton is for the 37-year-old he is today - and will keep working with Kanye West but is cutting back on other activities like DJ'ing. Abloh is slated to show his first collection for Louis Vuitton during Paris Men’s Fashion Week in June. In 2019, he will also open a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
For the culture.
Header image: Juergen Teller