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In Defense of Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh’s appointment as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton was a polarising choice, attracting charges like ‘he’s not a designer’ and ‘streetwear is a passing trend.’ Wrong and wrong, argues David Fischer of Highsnobiety. 
Virgil Abloh at the CFDA Awards in a a preview look from Louis Vuitton’s upcoming Spring/Summer 2019 show | Source: Courtesy
  • David Fischer

PARIS, France — Virgil Abloh's appointment as men's artistic director of Louis Vuitton, the world's mightiest luxury fashion brand, has some in the industry up in arms. Abloh was trained as an architect, not a fashion designer, and is the founder of streetwear sensation Off-White with no experience at a traditional luxury house. The resulting charges range from "he's not a designer" to "streetwear is a passing trend" to "he's going to turn Vuitton into a skate shop."

Wrong, wrong and wrong.

While many have criticised Abloh’s lack of originality, citing his liberal referencing of other fashion designers, his job as a creative director is ultimately to create a formula for generating desirability. Sure, he takes inspiration from a range of references — fashion history, streetwear history, architectural history — and he uses these to inform his output. But this is totally fair.

Innovation has always been about building on what came before. And these days bringing back design elements that others invented is not only commonplace, it’s a sign of the times and reflective of the internet-driven, copy-paste culture we inhabit.

At the same time, Abloh has developed a strong visual signature of his own, known for its highly graphic elements. It’s certainly strong enough to powerfully inflect other brands with even subtle gestures. Abloh has consistently picked the best brands to work with — from Nike to Rimowa — and left his mark on them. Perhaps it’s more about branding and communications than design in the traditional sense — but then again so is today’s fashion industry.

Abloh also invites his community of fans and followers to come along for the ride. Louis Vuitton has already tapped into this, using platforms like Instagram Stories to give consumers a first-hand look at Abloh’s early days at the fashion house. It’s the perfect fusion of marketing hype and true-to-life authenticity, painting a portrait of a savvy image-maker wholly aware that showing a work-in-progress builds anticipation for the final product.

The question that often comes up with Abloh is: how long can it last?

Looking at the continued success of Abloh’s Nike collaboration, it seems the market isn’t bored yet. And I can see how easily the formula can be applied to Louis Vuitton.

Louis Vuitton has long catered to the streetwear market — though perhaps not explicitly. Marc Jacobs first brought the idea of collaboration to the brand through his work with artists like Stephen Sprouse and Takashi Murakami. Murakami's camouflage patterns and pop colours, in particular, are signifiers that translate very well in the streetwear space.

Jacobs’ Marc By Marc Jacobs line already spoke to the market with its premium basics, one-offs, gadgets and a self-aware sense of humor. Thirteen years ago, his Vans collaboration was one of the first instances of a high fashion designer engaging with limited-edition sneaker culture. And he brought precisely this energy to Louis Vuitton.

Of course, there was also Louis Vuitton's collaboration with Kanye West on three limited-edition sneakers. (Most likely Abloh, then working for West, was deeply involved in the project). This was back in 2009, just before West released his first Air Yeezy sneakers with Nike and four years before he forged his current partnership with Adidas. It was proof that a European luxury brand could capture the attention of the next young generation with the right project. But at that time, Vuitton seemed unsure if streetwear was a passing trend or here to stay. The appointment of Kim Jones to the creative helm of Vuitton's men's line back in 2011 seemed to solidify the company's thinking and certainly laid the path for Abloh's ascent. Jones finished his tenure at the house with two watershed collaborations with Hiroshi Fujiwara and Supreme.

Innovation has always been about building on what came before.

Today, like much of the fashion industry, Vuitton knows that not only are streetwear and sneakers here to stay, but, more importantly, the millennials and members of Gen-Z that crave them are critical to the sector and nobody captures this generation better than Abloh.

For a long time, the worlds of streetwear and high fashion simply didn’t speak the same language. Now we're in the middle of a generational shift and streetwear, which always aspired to cred on the level of high fashion, has become the modern language of luxury.

Despite what may seem like an aesthetic disconnect, there is a natural fit between the two worlds. Both thrive off a spirit of exclusivity, the idea that there's something everyone wants, but for a variety of reasons, not everyone can have it. The same kid who buys limited-edition Nikes with high resale value also shops for Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Off-White.

This shift is perhaps most explicit in the East. Chinese consumers are shopping seamlessly across traditional luxury brands and streetwear. And Off-White is a hit in the Asian market in particular. So, Louis Vuitton has brought in Abloh to tackle the opportunity head-on. Bravo.

It may be a failure, but more likely than not it’s going to work. Either way, one thing’s for sure: with his debut show only days away, Abloh’s ability to bring his streetwear-infused approach to a major European luxury house will soon be put to the test.

David Fischer is the founder of Highsnobiety. 

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