PARIS, France —Virgil Abloh’s elementary school principal attended his show on Thursday night. They took a photo together backstage, and it was casual as if she was stopping by to congratulate him for a job well done in the high school musical. He seemed happy to see her, because he’s still a nice Midwestern kid.
But American dreams aside, this isn’t amateur hour, it’s Paris Fashion Week, and Abloh is now a grownup with a lot to prove. People want to know if his women’s label is more than a mashup of other designers’ references, and if his self-aware slogans are the beginning of a lasting brand. This season, fashion has moved further and further away from the merch-style streetwear that has dominated the zeitgeist of late. Has Abloh evolved with it?
Abloh staged a sort of jock prom in partnership with American sportswear giant Nike, a follow-up to the clothes he designed for Serena Williams at this year’s US Open. (He said he was “celebrating women and using sport as a metaphor.”)
At the centre of his racetrack-cum-runway stood a digital leaderboard, which blasted off the names of the models, some of whom you knew — K. Jenner, B. Hadid — and some of whom you didn’t, because they were real-life athletes, wearing his chartreuse catsuits and pieced-together engineer-knit leggings with a confidence rarely seen on the catwalk. The athletic stuff was the best; you could see the designer's Care Bear-coloured spikes fulfilling plenty of teenage (and adult) dreams.
Abloh’s success lies in his ability to make the obvious appealing. For instance, he manages to render the word “Woman” look irresistible across the shoulder blades of a blouse. But is he a good designer, or simply a great marketer?
The rest of the collection, giving off white-party vibes, was static. Along with floating snake-print gowns and mermaid green velour trousers, Abloh sent out a series of cut-chiffon cupcake dresses worn with running shoes. It was a little too Vogue — or Teen Vogue? — circa 2007.
I kept thinking back to another another Nike collaborator, Marine Serre, who showed her collection earlier this week. In many ways, Serre and Abloh are designing for the same woman, but what she presented felt so much more vital.
Does Abloh have the chops to make clothes that feel equally necessary? He is certainly industrious enough to try. When asked how he was managing the workload now that he also heads up menswear at Louis Vuitton, the designer said that he "could do 30 more" jobs. That boundless energy, and determination, makes one hopeful.