PARIS — New era, new system.
As the fashion world grapples with how to deal with the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, Louis Vuitton is upending its men’s wear schedule and switching to a seasonless, itinerant model of fashion shows, beginning with physical runway displays in Shanghai on Aug. 6 and in Tokyo at a later date.
Titled “Message in a Bottle,” the spring 2021 collection will introduce a multifaceted sustainability initiative, where work can be recycled, upcycled and even reissued in its original form.
Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, and Virgil Abloh, artistic director of men’s wear, revealed their plans in an exclusive joint Zoom interview with WWD, ahead of a cocktail event on Thursday evening at the historic Louis Vuitton grounds in the Paris suburb of Asnières.
In a wide-ranging talk, the men addressed topics ranging from the show calendar and the impact of digital on design, to fostering inclusivity and how they’re dealing with haters online.
A New Frontier
Instead of showing its men’s collection in Paris, Vuitton plans to kick off its international tour with the screening of a short film that blends live action with animated characters that Abloh has dubbed “Zoooom with friends,” as they set off on a sea voyage.
“This next show is probably the biggest leap that I’ve made in terms of proposing a new system, how it lives and operates. It’s probably the most fully packaged from the clothes itself and the craftsmanship, to the things you’ll see with the films and how it activates,” the designer said from his lakeside retreat in Wisconsin, some 40 minutes outside Chicago.
The peripatetic designer has been forced to slow down since last fall, when he was grounded on doctor’s orders. It’s given him time to reconsider how he works. “I’m on a lot of different panels that were sort of questioning what fashion can become in an urgent sense,” Abloh said.
“Instead of the doom and gloom, sort of panic approach, I looked at it like, ‘Oh, this is the new frontier that we’ve been asking for in fashion,’” he continued. “We’re in a new era. I feel like this is the pandemic of 2020 with the hard stop between fashion as it was before, and I’m interested in this sort of investigation.”
Since Abloh joined Vuitton in 2018, he’s been credited with writing a new chapter in fashion history: the moment when streetwear crashed the hallowed halls of luxury brands. From the inclusive casting of his shows to his advertising campaigns featuring young children, the designer has consistently challenged the status quo.
With foreign editors and clients unable to travel because of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, French fashion’s governing body, canceled the June edition of Paris Fashion Week Men’s. Instead, brands are staging virtual presentations on a dedicated online platform from July 9 to 13.
Burke doesn’t think the fashion show is dead, but he’s decided to take this particular one on the road. “We know people are not going to be able to travel, so let’s not have people travel to the venues — let’s have the clothes travel to the venues,” he said, speaking from his secondary home in Biarritz on France’s Atlantic coast.
Back in March, Vuitton closed the last round of shows before the lockdown with its women’s wear collection, designed by Nicolas Ghesquière. “It was a surreal moment in Paris,” the executive recalled. “There was this sense of doom and imminent danger.” Since then, the future of physical events has been thrown into question.
“I think fashion shows have to remain live. There has to be an audience. There has to be anticipation, there has to be tension, there has to be last-minute desperation. If you don’t have that, it’s like some of these football games that are being played with no audience — they have to pipe in the noise,” Burke argued.
The upcoming shows will be open to the general public and will be livestreamed, and further destinations may be added between now and the end of the year.
“We think that excitement has to come from that element of being live in front of a live audience, but it’s more modern to not have a hierarchy as to who gets to see it,” Burke said. “The fundamental idea is that we’re getting rid of the straitjacket the industry has been operating under.”
Both men stressed the playful element of the approach, which ties in with Abloh’s ongoing exploration of boyhood. “You have to bring back fun because the last time we were together, it was sad and deadly,” Burke said.
The designer’s cover design for WWD gives a peek into the animated characters — as does the invitation for the cocktail, an inflatable plastic doll in a container-shaped box that perpetuates the brand’s recent tradition of sending out collectible objects as show invitations, at the risk of infuriating environmental activists.
“It’s a little bit like my motley crew that arrived to Paris with me. Me, my network of friends, my outlook on casting, the characterization that I brought to the studio and how I’ve sort of started to take root within the house of Vuitton at Pont-Neuf, is in a metaphorical sense what that animation means. It’s the classic with the new,” Abloh explained.
He tapped director Reggieknow to develop the animation, and The Sa-Ra Creative Partners — the hip-hop group made up of Om’Mas Keith, Taz Arnold and Shafiq Husayn — to produce the psychedelic score.
“The concept is that Vuitton started at Asnières, the home of the family around manufacturing trunks. So I’m taking that liberty to say a shipping container is the new trunk,” he added.
“My shows will now travel the world, the beginning and ends of season won’t be on the invite,” he said. “It’s one continuous flow that has a little bit of new and some things you’ve seen before. And philosophically, when it comes to the sustainability idea, I’m starting to collapse all the seasons into one.”
The next collection is comprised of 30 looks made from new material, 25 looks made from recycled materials, and 25 looks from the previous collection. Vuitton is duplicating some existing designs in new fabrics, and Abloh asked his team to create individual looks using overstock.
Reconditioned pieces will carry the Upcycling Signal Logo, a new emblem for the house.
For a brand rooted in travel, the global shutdown has forced a fundamental reassessment. Vuitton is currently running a print campaign showing a young boy playing with a kite on a beach at sunset, with the tagline: “Imagination Takes Flight.” It also revived some former campaigns shot by Jean Larivière in the Nineties.
“We were the only ones to do a COVID-19-specific campaign,” Burke noted. “I thought it very in keeping with the mood, but up, not sad.” With its teams forced to work from home, the idea of decentralizing the men’s fashion show began to take root.
Asia appeared like an obvious place to start: Louis Vuitton recently opened its first stand-alone men’s store in Tokyo, coinciding with the launch of Abloh’s collaboration with Japanese designer Nigo, creator of the clothing lines A Bathing Ape (Bape) and Human Made, on the LV2 pre-fall collection.
Meanwhile, China was one of the first countries to emerge from lockdown, and its consumers are expected to account for nearly 50 percent of the global luxury market by 2025, according to consultancy Bain & Co. Burke would not comment on the region’s economic importance, but said Vuitton had to think more globally.
“Until now, we were laboring under the same laws of the 19th century when Worth started the couture collections. You know, it had to start in Paris, and then it trickled down,” he said. “Today, that is totally antiquated. With the Internet, everybody can see it simultaneously, so why does it have to be only in one city?”
The roving men’s shows will rely on coordination between the Paris and regional offices, the executive continued. “It’s a lot more modern way of working because the Chinese team is going to find the venue, they’re going to co-design the event with Virgil, they’re going to produce it, the models are going to be all Chinese,” he said.
Abloh noted his debut show in June 2018 already reflected his globalized outlook. The show notes included a map of the world dotted with the cities where his models were born. “All the regions of the globe trigger different ideas when you place the epicenter there, and that to me is going deeper in the brain on inclusivity,” he said.
“It’s 2020. Let’s explore, debuting an idea in this hemisphere and next season we might say, ‘Hey, let’s go the complete opposite.’ Because we’re outside of this idea that Paris has to emanate, and then everyone has to come to Paris and then go back around the world.”
In terms of the pair’s ambition for the men’s division, the sky is the proverbial limit. Burke says as Vuitton’s overall revenues continue to grow, more men’s stores will likely spin off into stand-alone boutiques.
“If you take out handbags and high jewelry, basically the men’s business needs to be as important as the women’s business — and that’s the case,” he said.
“Louis Vuitton is one of the most gender-fluid houses in existence. And that’s because we were not born as a couture house. We were not born as the emanation of a singular individual. We were born as a trunk-maker, and we evolved into fashion, but we were born genderless,” he noted.
“I take that baton, and I often reference the accessory, the trunk, the craftsmanship, as a reason to why we make clothes in a modern sense,” Abloh chimed in. “It’s safe to say the ready-to-wear portion of the creative endeavor is super important today and growing in importance as we move along.”
The designer is no stranger to working online, famously juggling two phones to stay in touch with his teams via WhatsApp. But he admitted the pandemic, with its endless rounds of Zoom calls, has left a mark.
“The collection is now designed with the idea of it being broadcast on hundreds of thousands of screens, so that’s having an effect on the clothes. I look at my studio as a mix between Disney and an art-making studio,” he said.
Having famously declared streetwear dead, he’s also having to reconsider what men will want to wear after the lockdown. His fall collection, which was all about the suit, may require some recalibrating now that many people are working from home.
“With COVID-19, I’m not gonna lie, as I’m sitting in hoodies and T-shirts every day and we’re sitting in our house, how can you switch your brain on to fashion?” he confessed.
“Michael and I spoke a bit about this: It’s like the restaurant is an essential component to fashion, or the communal gathering or vacation. I start there when I think of what fashion the world may need. And now that the restaurants are opening up, you can sort of see it’s a little bit of a process to get there,” Abloh said.
Still, he maintains that the era of the facile hoodie has come to a close. “I want to urge the industry not to just focus on easy-to-sell garments that we know work commercially. The Nigo collection is a perfect example,” he said, noting that the Japanese streetwear pioneer was also keen to evolve his aesthetic.
“We made a collection of tailoring that was useful. It wasn’t your dad’s suit, but it had traits more toward that. And I’m excited at this point in my career to sort of challenge conceptions and hopefully make new waves,” Abloh added. The line raked in 6 million euros in its first six days on sale at the Tokyo store, according to sources.
One area where Abloh has made plenty of waves recently is social media. The designer was sharply criticized after he lamented the vandalism that took place during protests over police brutality against Black people, and was slammed online for donating $50 to a bail fund for Black Lives Matter protesters.
Abloh issued a lengthy apology and explanation, but the negative publicity has dogged him.
Meanwhile, Vuitton has been called out for its Rainbow Project campaign, launched in May, which involved asking its employees and their children to draw rainbows to be displayed in its store windows. Critics panned the house for not linking the use of the rainbows to Pride Month in June and the LGBTQ community.
“The world, unfortunately, has become very polarized and there’s nothing we can do about it,” Burke lamented, saying the immediacy of the Internet favors hair-trigger judgments.
“But that shouldn’t prevent us from doing the right thing. I’ve spoken to Virgil a lot about this, and we agree that the filter that we have to use is the filter that is long-term. We can’t be judged in a split second,” he added. “Everything we do has to survive the test of time. And that makes it a little bit painful in the short term, but that’s the way it is. It’s the new paradigm.”
He added that the rainbow was used as a fundamental symbol of hope.
“I don’t think anybody can own the rainbow. It’s universal. Every human culture has always figured out that the rainbow is something magical,” he said. “So by definition, it’s something that you should share. But when you say that, you’re going to have people that are going to be against it. Everybody tries to politicize their bias.”
Abloh believes his track record speaks for itself, saying his studio is filled with diverse teams, many of them hired locally.
“Both Michael and I aren’t too distracted by those short moments, short justice, because you can’t exist at this scale unless you have the mental fortitude to understand the larger work that you’re doing, but also what you’ve done in the past and where we’re going to go in future,” he said.
“And I think you’re looking at two individuals and two logics that are dedicated to positivity, optimism, diversity, inclusion,” Abloh added. “So I look at it, like, we’re in a tough time for the world and the world is speaking and calling everyone to task, and we’re both trusted by our track record.”
Burke acknowledged that while hiring Abloh was a move in the right direction, more can be done both at the brand and within parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the luxury conglomerate run by French tycoon Bernard Arnault.
“If I take what happened at Vuitton in the last two years with Virgil and I extrapolate to LVMH, of course, we can always do better, we can do more. But I think the record speaks for itself. Bernard Arnault and LVMH and myself have always had only one thing in mind, and that is identifying, nurturing and supporting talent,” he said.
“There’s still work to be done and not all minorities have benefited as much as others but, all in all, it’s been extremely beneficial to minorities. It’s been extremely beneficial to people that were outside of the system and that were welcomed into the system,” he added.
As cancel culture rages, Abloh believes that dialogue is key to moving forward. To that end, he has held a series of webinars with Vuitton employees to talk about his experience as the son of Ghanaian immigrants, born in the U.S.
“It’s been completely one of the best experiences that I’ve had over the COVID-19,” he enthused.
“As a symbol of diversity in an industry that’s not so diverse, the most fulfilling part was talking to the employees from store level down to me here, just having a dialogue and saying how I grew up and what I went through. The first step is conversation, talking and listening. And the webinars were great,” he said.
“My favorite thing is young people, and safe places to dialogue. The best quote that I heard over the break was that in order to do better, you have to know better, right? And that’s simple. Maybe someone has to say something. You need not to be chastised and thrown out into the gutter,” Abloh argued.
“Talking: that’s the phase that I hope that our modern generation can tackle. We can change the world, but we have to allow people a second to sort of get up to speed and feel and hear, instead of other drastic means. I run a studio of optimism, and I have a general belief in good and beauty,” he said.
Abloh hopes his new approach to showing and producing his collections will benefit young people.
“I grew up idolizing the greats, and wanted to contribute. I love the history of fashion. I love the nuances of innovation. And, I just want to add another book to the bookshelf of the history of fashion, of how you can do this practice. I feel like that contribution is helpful to the whole and helpful to the young generation,” he said.
WATCH: Virgil Abloh’s Film for Louis Vuitton: