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Pharrell at Louis Vuitton: Has Luxury Outgrown Fashion?

Reactions to the brand’s move to appoint a non-designer as men’s creative director were mixed. But cultural strategies that stretch beyond fashion may be increasingly important to brands at Vuitton’s scale.
Pharrell Williams has been appointed men’s creative director at luxury’s biggest brand in the first big move by new CEO Pietro Beccari.
Pharrell Williams has been appointed men’s creative director at luxury’s biggest brand in the first big move by new CEO Pietro Beccari. (Getty Images)

It’s been 25 years since Marc Jacobs sent Louis Vuitton’s first-ever ready-to-wear look down the runway. The all-white, logo-free ensemble evoked the 150 year-old trunkmaker’s blank canvas in the fashion space, as well as recalling the toiles for draping and pattern cutting that were then filling the brand’s Pont Neuf headquarters for the first time.

Louis Vuitton’s long history before becoming a fashion brand now feels like a distant memory. From Jacobs’ subsequent runways featuring campy nurse outfits and choo-choo trains, to Nicolas Ghesquière’s ür-sophisticated romps around the globe — staging travel shows at architectural landmarks from Rio de Janeiro to Palm Springs — to the late Virgil Abloh’s cross-cultural menswear happenings, memory is now rife with examples of how luxury’s biggest and most powerful brand has used fashion to become even more so. While Vuitton’s business remains driven by accessories, the brand’s presence on runways, photoshoots and red carpets have imbued what was once a dusty luggage maker with contemporary relevance, making it a hip mark of desirability worldwide.

This week, Louis Vuitton named Pharrell Williams as its new menswear creative director — ending long running speculation about who would succeed Abloh, the design star who died in November 2021 after a stellar three-year turn at the brand.

The choice of Williams, a multi-hyphenate singer, producer, entrepreneur and street-style star was a somewhat unexpected choice, after names of industry-approved designers reported to be in the running including Martine Rose and Grace Wales Bonner circulated for months. At the same time, the move was in line with Louis Vuitton’s stated strategy in recent years of moving beyond fashion to transform itself into a “cultural brand” operating across sports, music, art and media as well as design.

“[Williams’] creative vision beyond fashion will undoubtedly lead Louis Vuitton toward a new and very exciting chapter,” said new CEO Pietro Beccari, who joined the brand Feb. 1 from LVMH stablemate Christian Dior.

Faced with the choice between successors who could carry on Abloh’s transformative design legacy, or one who could aspire to fill his shoes as a cross-cultural broker of clout, Louis Vuitton opted for the latter option. The pick suggests that after 25 years, Louis Vuitton may have outgrown fashion.

One might have seen it coming: Since crossing the historic threshold of €10 billion in annual sales in 2018, then doubling that figure to become the world’s first €20-billion luxury brand last year, Louis Vuitton has been increasingly focused on staging shock-and-awe marketing initiatives that link the brand to arenas beyond fashion.

The brand’s biggest-ever art collaboration went live in January — a tie up with Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama for which the full-court marketing press has been near-impossible to miss. In November, the brand flexed its marketing heft by tapping rival football superstars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to pose together in an ad released on the eve of the FIFA World Cup.

So far, reactions to the appointment have been mixed. Devotees of the stylish Williams, who consider him to be the menswear GOAT, seem thrilled.

Plenty of industry insiders bemoaned the move, seeing it as just the latest sign of luxury’s waning interest in actual design in favour of all the marketing bits and bobs that go with it. Vuitton’s pick suggested “a pure designer was not enough. That’s disheartening. It’s also simply not true,” Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan wrote.

“The lines between media, entertainment and business aren’t just blurred — they no longer exist,” 1 Granary, the fashion education account run by Olya Kuryshchuk, posted. “If we’re still hoping to become the next creative director we might have to reconsider our path.”

Others welcomed the potential for continuity between Abloh and Williams: Williams’ somewhat dandy, expressive and street-smart style is exemplary of the post-streetwear look many of Abloh’s former clients have gravitated to in recent seasons.

And both Abloh and Williams have had careers driven by savvy collaborations, building networks far beyond their respective industries. In addition to producing and performing, Williams has founded multiple fashion labels with Japanese streetwear legend Nigo, collaborated with Chanel and Louis Vuitton, staged art exhibitions, and has a sneaker line with Adidas as well as his own skin care brand.

While Williams may not be the hottest celebrity working today (or at least wasn’t, prior to the appointment), he is one of culture’s most established figures, and an uncontroversial household name worldwide. Due to the variety of his activities, under the hood of Williams’ mass appeal lies a web of connections across various topics — sports, streetwear, art, beauty, luxury, environmental activism — all of which have robust, highly engaged audiences. That wide-spanning credibility will play a key role in Vuitton’s next chapter, in which fashion could become just one tool among many.

Of course, there’s no roadmap for a €20 billion brand, and it’s hard to say how far Louis Vuitton can expand its focus beyond fashion without diluting its impact.

While fashion brands’ partnerships with ambassadors are key to driving visibility, those tie-ups capture audiences’ attention based on the assumption that brands are bringing design authority and novelty to the table.

On Louis Vuitton’s womens’ side, the prestigious couturier Nicolas Ghesquière remains in place: the brand has yet to take any risks on letting its fashion authority slip for that larger business. It’s one where pop culture also tends to play a far-less decisive role among consumers.

But in menswear, where Louis Vuitton has continued to turn out perfectly respectable studio-signed collections since Abloh’s death, owner LVMH’s calculation seems to be different. Large-scale cross-cultural spectacles put on by friends and associates of Abloh for the studio collections have continued to garner world-wide buzz, featuring performances by Kendrick Lamar, Tyler the Creator, Gustavo Dudamel and Rosalía.

With a non-designer as creative director, Vuitton will need to take bold steps to show it’s still a design leader. It has the resources to do so. But the success of those recent designer-less outings seems to prove that for a mega-brand in menswear, the culture’s the thing.



Gucci Bag. Shutterstock.

Kering fourth-quarter sales fall. Kering’s fourth-quarter sales missed estimates, falling 7 percent on an organic basis as the group took a harder hit than rivals from coronavirus disruptions in China and softening demand in the US. The rising headwinds coincided with brand-specific struggles, including a designer transition at Gucci and ongoing controversy surrounding Balenciaga.

Hermès sales surged despite China shopping disruptions. Sales gained 23 percent in the three months through the end of December at constant exchange rates compared to the same period a year earlier, the French company said Friday in a statement. Analysts had expected a 17 percent gain.

LVMH faces renewed tax scrutiny after court loss. France’s top court on Wednesday overturned a prior ruling that had deemed the 2019 inspections to be unjustified. Wednesday’s decision revives a probe into suspicions that the firm may have tried to lower its tax bill by pretending it carried out treasury operations in Belgium rather than France.

Kering to name ‘brand safety’ boss after Balenciaga ad uproar. A series of high-profile public relations embarrassments, including the split between Adidas and rapper and fashion designer Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, after he made antisemitic remarks online, has piled pressure on companies to protect their brands.

Report: Away exploring options including sale. Valued at $1.45 billion when it raised capital in 2019, the luggage company is exploring strategic options including a sale, according to people with knowledge of the matter.

Gucci banks on private ‘salons’ for the ultra-rich to revive sales. Gucci is banking on new ultra-high-end “salons” offering merchandise priced at up to $3 million to help narrow a widening gap with rival Louis Vuitton as it waits for its new creative director to arrive.

Khaite opens first store, in Soho. Khaite used the store as a setting to stage a runway show for its Autumn/Winter 2023 collection during New York Fashion Week. The brand plans to open 10 brick-and-mortar locations over the next five years.

Neiman Marcus to lay off about 5 percent of workforce. The company joins a growing list of firms in corporate America — from Wall Street banks and tech companies to online furniture retailer Wayfair Inc — that have reduced their workforce amid worries of an economic downturn.

The RealReal announces layoffs, store closures. In an effort to cut costs, the luxury resale platform will lay off 230 employees (7 percent of its workforce) and close four stores in San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Austin this year, the company said in an SEC filing Thursday.

Anta sinks as $1.2 billion stake pops up in clearing system. Shares of the Chinese sportswear maker slumped as much as 8 percent in Hong Kong, the most since Oct. 24. The move came after exchange data as of Tuesday showed a 3.11 percent stake, or 84.5 million shares worth $1.2 billion, entered the Central Clearing and Settlement System.

Investment in next-gen materials halved in 2022. Start-ups developing new materials like mushroom and lab-grown leather raised $457 million in 2022, down from $980 million in 2021, according to a report published Wednesday by think tank Material Innovation Initiative.

Vietnam exporters fret over potential trade fallout of US rules on Xinjiang. Concerned Vietnam-based exporters are seeking to ensure they comply with a US ban on imported products using raw materials from China’s Xinjiang as lucrative trade in goods like garments and solar panels comes under closer scrutiny in Washington.


Olaplex hair repair-focused products.

Olaplex fires back at hair loss lawsuit. On Thursday, Olaplex began a defensive marketing push to fight back against a lawsuit accusing the brand’s products of causing hair loss and scalp sensitivity and irritation.

Glossier opens Soho flagship. The 3,200-square foot space marks the brand’s return to Manhattan after it closed its downtown store early in the pandemic.


A headshot of Mercedes Abramo

Cartier promotes Mercedes Abramo to deputy chief commercial officer role. Abramo, currently president and CEO for North America at the Richemont-owned jewellery house, will start in her new role from March 1.

Reference Studios appoints new CEO, opens Milan office. The Berlin-based communications agency founded by Mumi Haiati, whose clients include Supreme, Rimowa, Gucci and Nike, has tapped former JW Anderson chief executive Simon Whitehouse as CEO.

French prosecutors close rape investigation into former Elite Models Management executive Gérald Marie. Prosecutors closed the investigation Monday on the grounds that the alleged crimes in the 1980s and 1990s took place too long ago to fall within the French statute of limitations for a trial, Agence France-Presse reported.


Shopify app.

Shopify drops as revenue outlook misses analysts’ forecast. The Ottawa-based company said it expects first quarter revenue growth in the “high teen percentages” over last year, slightly below forecasts for 20 percent growth, according to a Bloomberg survey.

Chinese-owned rival to Shein makes splashy Super Bowl debut. Temu launched in September and rapidly scaled Apple’s US app store. It’s now considered a serious competitor to Shein, the fast-fashion phenomenon that’s also fired up American shoppers.

Etsy shares fall after getting called out for counterfeit goods. Research firm Citron Research alleged that Etsy has allowed sellers on the platform to buy “ad words” of the brands and then labelled many of them as trusted websites.

Rappers Drake, 21 Savage settle with Condé Nast over fake Vogue cover. In an internal memo on Thursday, Condé Nast general counsel Will Bowes said the settlement with the rappers includes an unspecified monetary payment that will “bolster our ongoing creative output, including Vogue editorial.”

Compiled by Joan Kennedy.

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