The announcement that rocked the fashion industry: Virgil Abloh is in at Louis.
Why is this so radical? Another Creative Director mix-up, another day in the impossibly complex game of musical chairs played by designers at the height of fashion.
And yet, this definitely feels different.
High fashion, predominantly residing in major European cities like Paris and Milan, has been controlled by white people since its conception. Enter Olivier Rousteing, the Creative Director of Balmain since 2011. At the ripe age of 25, Mr. Rousteing became the first black individual to head a major Parisian brand - ever.
In the twenty-first century.
Shocked? You should be.
Of course this creates a plethora of problems. Where there is a lack of diversity, cultural appropriation runs rampant and the likelihood of tone-deafness increases (am I right H&M?). Black culture, particularly, has been systematically appropriated, and these things come from the top. At the height of fashion, a lack of representation has not only held the entire fashion industry back, but has create a barrier between high fashion and its consumer base.
As times change and high fashion begins to cast a larger consumer net, change is inevitable. Street fashion has shifted the paradigm of what we consider “luxury” and more high fashion brands have cashed in on streetwear. Often influenced by Hip-Hop culture, streetwear is much more
accessible to the average consumer, than
Brands like Ventments and Off-White, the undisputed kings of street, have had a huge impact on fashion and culture generally. The hype created by these brands has been largely elusive to luxury with the exception of designers as personalities.
In the tradition of Christian Dior, Coco Chanel, Oscar de la Renta, Yves Saint Laurent, and Cristobal Balenciaga, designer as personality has always been a staple of the fashion industry. This legacy has been continued by the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Carolina Herrera, Diane von Ferstenberg, Kim Jones, Tom Ford, and Donatella Versace. Unlike their predecessors, however, these designers have evolved into living legacies, personified manifestations of their bands that can be celebrated, but more importantly, monetized. From Lagerfeld’s animated graphic T’s (with and without his Instagram famous cat) to Tom Ford’s cameo appearances in his fragrance ads, brands have learned to use their creatives as marketing tools.
The titans of fashion largely remain in their lanes, reigning from their positions at highly respected, often storied brands. Little movement at the top has given birth to a new generation of celebrity designers whose talent skyrockets them to the top of their field. Traditionally, these designers would spend years, even decades with their brand, using the time to nurture and slowly shift their interpretation of the brand. This creates a more lasting legacy for the designer and gives consumers time to adapt to a new interpretation. More recently, however, the climate has accelerated to a maddening pace; Directors run rampant, entering storied brands and changing everything from the name (Heidi Silmane at Saint Laurent) to the flagship stores (Raf Simons at Dior) and then departing after their 4-year minimum contracts. This has been a huge issue for labels, with half realized plans being abandoned after large initial investments, confusing consumers and creating frustration in some cases (Justin O’Shea’s disastrous time at Brioni, anyone?). However, it has also created huge opportunities to generate hype around a label. Bringing in a hip, new designer to the helm creates buzz and much anticipation. Fashion publications muse about how the new director will interpret a much-loved label and influencers become nostalgic about their beloved “OG” bags.
Buzz around menswear has been stronger than ever, largely due to big-name creatives, and menswear-exclusive designers are beginning to take their places among celebrated womenswear designers. With sales slowing in womenswear, large brands are now looking to menswear as the final frontier.
This climate has set the scene for a huge shift at two of the most well known French luxury brands, Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton. Kim Jones, a staple at Louis Vuitton’s menswear and buzzy Creative Director, has successfully incorporated his streetwear aesthetic into the core of Louis Vuitton after serving the brand for nearly 7 years. This trend has snowballed into other Houses and has ultimately led to his hiring at Dior.
Meanwhile, Virgil Abloh, mentee to Kanye West and Kim Jones and founder of Off-White, has managed to make a larger splash in the fashion industry in the past four years than most major luxury brands have made in the past decade. From collaborations with Nike and IKEA to celebrity endorsements and knock-offs, Off-White has been an almost unprecedented success for Abloh.
All of these factors have culminated to this changing of the guard, Kim Jones leaving Louis Vuitton for Dior Homme. Replacing Kris Van Assche, Kim Jones has brought streetwear to Dior with his Spring 2019 collection. Meanwhile, Louis Vuitton celebrates its own shiny-and-new streetwear designer to its studios: Virgil Abloh.
Abloh is somewhat controversial. He has been criticized in the past for not being a designer (with degrees in Civil Engineering and Architecture) as well as not serving his time like other designers. Abloh has not called himself a designer, and has assured the press that he is paving the way for a new kind of Creative Director, not trying to fit into the old mold. He isn’t clear about what that means exactly, but if we can trust to trends, it seems like design-focused creatives may take back seat to creatives more focused on branding and creating experiences.
So here we are, somewhere along the Yellow Brick Road, our real-life Dorthy walking hand-in-hand with his equally influential friends. The path that has brought Virgil Abloh to the peak of French menswear is such a long and complicated road that it almost appears serendipitous. And yet, watching on as tearful embraces and headlines followed Abloh’s debut at Louis Vuitton, it is clear that this is no chance occurrence (remember what Oprah said about luck?). Celebrity designers, the rise of streetwear, the beginning of a more inclusive industry: people have been working toward these things behind the scenes for decades (I'm looking at you André Leon Talley), and this moment is just the beginning of a much longer, much more diverse chapter in fashion. Does this moment fix a systemic lack of diversity the fashion industry has experienced for centuries? Of course not. But it is a step in the right direction. Whether forced by trend or embraced with diversity in mind, high fashion is changing. Rihanna is proving that the black community doesn’t need the approval of the mainstream. Rousteing is proving that diversity accelerates culture. Abloh is proving that any outsider can make it big.
Is this a long time coming? Yes, and in many ways. Menswear is getting the attention it deserves. Fashion is get becoming more accessible. And most importantly, this could signal the beginning of a reckoning for black culture in the fashion industry.
This is a win, but we should continue to demand this kind of inclusivity. As long as fashion’s path continues to steer toward a place of diversity, Virgil Abloh’s rainbow catwalk just might lead us into that future. Just remember, "you can do it too..."