MILAN — Louis Vuitton has tied up with artists Lady Pink, Lee Quiñones and the estate of Rammellzee to reinterpret the LV Trainer sneaker style, which was originally designed by the late Virgil Abloh for spring 2019, his debut collection as men’s creative director of the brand.
Developed by the company in the last few months based on an idea initiated in 2021 by Abloh in partnership with Sky Gellatly, the project marks the first iteration of a new series of artistic collaborations dedicated to the product. The initiative intends to spotlight the design by offering its all-white leather low-top shape and basketball shoes-inspired lines as a blank canvas for contemporary artists, beginning with the three legends that marked the New York underground scene starting from the ‘70s.
“This project all stemmed from the optimistic heart of my friend Virgil Abloh and his persistent desire to uplift and celebrate some of his and my childhood superheroes; for this project, he and I were able to co-curate such a cohort-specific to the genre of graffiti,” Gellatly told WWD.
Chief executive officer and cofounder of marketing and artist management agency Icnclst/, Gellatly is not new to the task as he has orchestrated some of the most impactful collaborations in the art world and campaigns for luxury brands.
“Virgil’s brief to me was as organic, generous and ‘baton passing’ as any other project or conversation I shared with him throughout the years. We aligned that we were to curate three artists to lend their artistry to the LV Trainer. Virgil was wearing a Supreme Rammellzee hoodie in our first meeting on the project, which he admitted was equal parts coincidence and fortuitous foreshadowing,” recalled Gellatly, adding that “working to complete this project for Virgil is one of the greatest honors of my career.”
“It is also incredibly personal for me because of our friendship. If anything, I hope that what we’ve created functions as a mirror that shares the love, intelligence, creativity and beauty that Virgil shared with the world,” he said.
As part of the project, Gellatly was also asked to curate a dedicated exhibition, which will open during Milan Fashion Week at Louis Vuitton’s new flagship housed at the city’s Garage Traversi.
Running Feb. 24 through March 16, the showcase will feature the artists’ original hand-painted sneaker adaptations in addition to multimedia installations retracing their creative process and a selection of their work, including the paintings “Celtic Piece” by Lady Pink, “SPLIT #1” and “Tablet 3″ by Lee Quiñones and “Incantation of the Queen Bee” by the late Rammellzee, as well as the ‘L’ and ‘V’ sculptures from his “Letters Racers” alphabet.
Lady Pink and Lee Quiñones are expected to make an appearance during a show preview to perform a live painting session on vast white canvases, which will result in on-site installations to remain part of the exhibit.
Filmed interviews with the artists will be flanked by short clips charting the sneakers’ transition from hand-crafted artwork to commercialized form, capturing Louis Vuitton’s artisans at work.
“The mission that Virgil and I had for this endeavor was to create a platform that allowed viewers, depending on who they are, to simultaneously celebrate, discover, or rediscover Rammellzee, Lady Pink, and Lee Quiñones,” said Gellatly. “We wanted kids to discover and be inspired by artists that made us dream big when we were kids — and whom we still today venerate as national treasures.”
“The space itself is a beautiful, industrial-feeling cocoon — ripe with its own local history. It is the perfect locale for blending modern and midcentury, high gloss sheen, and the texture of tactile making,” he said about the location, a renovated 1930s building that was the first fully automated car garage in Italy and developed by architects Giuseppe De Min and Alessandro Rimini. Located a few steps away from the city’s central Piazza San Babila and the Golden Triangle, the flagship officially opened last month and already hosted a showcase dedicated to Louis Vuitton’s Yayoi Kusama collaboration.
The commercialized versions of the three limited-edition LV Trainers will launch on the opening day of the exhibition and will be exclusively sold at the store for the duration of the showcase. Retailing at 1,440 euros each, the styles will then drop in the U.S. and China.
But the exhibition will remain exclusive to Milan, which has been picked to house the inaugural edition of the artistic program in a celebratory nod to the Italian craftsmanship behind the product.
Boasting a complex, seven-hour manufacturing process, each sneaker is made at the company’s shoe factories in Fiesso d’Artico, in the Veneto region. The style bears signature codes of the brand, such as monogram flowers embedded across the sole, which alone is composed of 20 pieces, while the upper part is made of 106 pieces.
In the case of Rammellzee’s version, the sneaker was fully splashed with a print replicating the “Incantation of the Queen Bee” painting by the late graffiti hero, who died in 2010. Rammellzee was born in Queens to parents of Italian and African American descent and began a brief career as a graffiti artist on the A train in the mid-1970s. In the following decade his ideas sprouted into diverse and rich artworks that reflected New York City’s streets.
Detailing his creative approach in revisiting the sneakers, Lee Quiñones recalled his teenage days in the ‘70s, “roaming about in New York City, where ironically, the freshest sneakers were worn and torn and exhibiting a street patina that reflected the tough, gritty streets.”
“In recent years, the polished design shoe is a sign of refinement and achievement, reflected in a shoe like the LV Trainer. I wanted to use the limited real estate on the shoe canvas in a clever way without overwhelming the surface. As I was reflecting on this contrast, I revisited drawings I’ve made that show, fingers crossed, a symbol that captures the vibe of a New York childhood, where a hand gesture can be a mischievous deceit or a sign of hope,” said the artist, referring to the motif that stands out on the upper part of the shoe. Elsewhere, dripping effects in gold and rusty hues cover the white leather style.
Asked about the main challenges in blending his artistic vision with a commercially viable product, he noted that “artists, at times, tend to be too over-amplified and anxious. I’ve designed artwork on shoes before, but not at the level of sophistication where right out of the box, the canvas urges you to tastefully say more with less. Depending on the imagery or words, simplicity speaks volumes. I wouldn’t want any one component in my attire to dominate and detract attention from the overall package. After all, it should be a beautiful commotion of pieces in motion.”
Scale was the biggest challenge for Lady Pink, instead. “It’s not what I do: working on a small scale is very difficult,” she said over a Zoom call from her studio. Yet the process resulting in the artist’s signature style of bricks embellishing the sneakers went smoothly and fast. “It took me less than a day. It happened very quickly. I laid down the tape in the shape of bricks and spray-painted it real quick.”
Born in Ecuador and raised in New York, Lady Pink was a leading participant in the rise of graffiti-based art and remains a cult figure in the hip-hop community. She had her first solo show at the age of 21, and throughout the years her canvases have entered important art collections such as those of the Metropolitan Museum in New York City, the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, among others.
She confirmed this project was an idea of Abloh’s and said it was “an honor to be considered.”
“Virgil Abloh first approached me in the summer of 2021 about designing sneaker artwork for Louis Vuitton,” echoed Lee Quiñones. “Virgil and I never actually met in person, but we chatted a bit over Instagram. I had been following his work for some time, and he had collected some of my artwork, as well. He read the room and had a reverence for the history of streetwear, graffiti and subcultures that came across as fresh and was actually ahead of his time. I had a lot of admiration for what he was building at Louis Vuitton,” said the artist.
Born in Puerto Rico in 1960, he is one of the most influential artists of the New York City subway art movement and one of the originators of street art. He was also pivotal in moving street art above ground with the first handball court mural in 1978, while by the mid-‘80s he shifted to studio-based practice and began working on canvas and exhibiting his work in galleries. He has collaborated with brands such as Supreme and Adidas and his work is in the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands.
“Next year I will celebrate my 50th year making public artworks when I first started painting subway trains in 1974,” said Lee Quiñones, who is currently creating a new series of paintings in his New York studio.
Sharing future projects, he said he is headed to Hong Kong next month for the “City As Studio” showcase at the K11 Foundation exhibition space. “Later in the year, Deitch Projects will present a show celebrating the 40th anniversary of the movie ‘Wild Style,’ which is somewhat based on my trajectory from subway graffiti to the fine arts world in the early 1980s. Sara Driver, who directed and produced ‘Boom For Real: The Late Teenage Years of Jean-Michel Basquiat’, is in the process of filming me in and out of my studio for a documentary about my life,” he revealed. A catalogue and a memoir are also in the pipeline, as well as a number of shows to be revealed soon, including a potential museum retrospective of his work.
As for Lady Pink, she was gearing up to travel to London this week to join the “Beyond the Streets London” showcase opening at the Saatchi Gallery this month. Following successful legs in Los Angeles and New York and supported by Adidas Originals, the exhibition is billed as the most comprehensive graffiti and street art exhibition to open in the U.K. as it will involve more than 100 international names. It will feature new works, large-scale installations and fashion capturing the powerful impact of street art across the world.