PARIS — It took just four years for Virgil Abloh to go from staging his first showroom presentation in Paris for his streetwear label Off-White to being named men’s wear designer for Louis Vuitton, the world’s biggest luxury brand.
But as far as the Chicago-born designer is concerned, his debut for the label on Thursday will mark year zero in terms of his fashion career. “To me, this is like my first show. Everything was sort of leading up to this,” Abloh said in an interview at the Vuitton studio on Tuesday.
“This is ‘life’s work’ territory, to distill, to be metaphoric in a poetic way,” he added, comparing it to Martin Margiela’s debut, when the Belgian designer laid out his groundbreaking design aesthetic. “For me it’s the same, but I gotta find myself, so this is myself on display and it’s simply about letting people see my silhouette.”
That might sound presumptuous, but Abloh is right about the scale of the task. His debut collection for Vuitton, the largest and most profitable brand in the LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton conglomerate, is being hyped as the beginning of a new chapter in fashion history: the moment when streetwear crashed the hallowed halls of luxury brands.
The peripatetic designer is in a unique position. In parallel to the Vuitton show, Abloh is presenting the men’s spring collection and women’s resort line for Off-White, as well as the second installment of his collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, with a party at the Gagosian gallery set for Friday.
That’s not counting a slew of recent collaborations with brands including Nike, Jimmy Choo, Rimowa and Ikea.
“I’m an independent designer and a major house designer at the same time,” he wryly noted. “I love the ability to have both, but this is sort of like the inauguration of what is Virgil Abloh as a designer.”
In contrast to the usual controlled chaos in the run-up to a show, the level of nervous tension at Vuitton is markedly higher this season as Abloh’s team finds its marks. Surrounded by clothing and handbag samples, a group including Australian stylist Christine Centenera is in deep conversation in front of a look board.
As we speak, the sneaker samples arrive. A delighted Abloh rushes over and starts tossing the shoes in front of WWD’s photographer and a colleague wielding an iPhone (smartphones are always at hand when Abloh is around — his favored mode of communicating with the Vuitton studio team is via WhatsApp.)
His office, meanwhile, looks more like a DJ booth than the control center for a leading luxury brand. Turntables line a table overlooking the street, churning out a constant flow of tunes. It turns out that Abloh has just launched a Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music called “Televised Radio,” broadcasting from his office.
Don’t let the laid-back demeanor fool you: he has approached the task of putting his stamp on Vuitton with scholarly zeal. Abloh’s first Instagram post, the day his appointment was announced in March, was of an archival trunk decked in the label’s signature monogram canvas — the foundation of his study of the house, founded in 1854.
“Before the excitement and before the eagerness to get going, I asked myself and the brand, the teams, ‘Why does Louis Vuitton make clothing?’ It’s a malletier, not an atelier-based brand. It comes from the trunk,” he mused.
“My natural way of taking on something big is distill it down to its parts,” he added. “I decided there was a missing category of garments that wasn’t quite defined yet, which I could introduce with this collection.”
He provided a glimpse of the idea with the outfit he premiered at the Met Ball in early May. Flanked by Kendall Jenner, he wore a cream suit with an embroidered holster and a matching cylindrical clutch. It turns out that harness-style bag (clutch now firmly affixed) is a central concept of his first collection.
“Inside the studio, we made up this word called Accessomorphosis,” he explained with a laugh. “The idea is that it’s the point at which an accessory can transform into a garment.”
That Abloh should come up with a somewhat elaborate idea with an equally elaborate name comes as little surprise. Trained as an engineer and architect, the 37-year-old rose to prominence as a DJ, cofounder of Chicago concept store RSVP Gallery and member of Kanye West’s creative agency Donda.
As such, Abloh is comfortable with spinning complex theories at the crossroads of culture, politics and sociology — or what he has previously termed “the romantic interchange between intellectuals about fashion.”
“I’ve got a very scientific, analytical design approach,” he said. “That’s the brand as I’m defining it, and that’s the building block to bridge the gap between accessories and fashion. Just even that five-minute spiel took three months of thinking, researching. I feel like I’m writing a thesis on it.”
Indeed, Abloh feels it is vital to bring something new to the table.
“At first, I could just bring streetwear, my toolkit of that, just apply it over and do graphics,” he said. “That I can do in my sleep and I’ll do that, but not in this founding season. So the idea of the show is to establish that rationale, introduce the brand from the past in a new way that makes sense to contemporary dressing.”
One thing he’s had to adjust to is making his wildest concepts come true — and there are some truly extravagant pieces in the show.
“I design by visualization. I see things, and most of the time they’re not practical to actually make, and what I’ve found here, it’s like anything’s possible,” he marveled. Pointing to the sneakers, he noted: “This is the first time that I’ve made a sole unit in two months. That process usually would take six, so here’s a difference.”
As for the clothing itself, he is taking a similar “building blocks” approach, starting with the color scheme, which is based on the concept of white light hitting a prism and separating into a rainbow spectrum of colors.
“I was just thinking about how to introduce a show, a new designer. How do you make a break from the past and introduce something new?” he asked. “Purity: it’s about adjusting your eye, like when you’re in a dark room and go to a bright room, or the opposite.”
The color gradient idea will translate to the set of the show, which will feature a 200-meter-long runway. True to Abloh’s tradition of opening the doors of his shows to young people, Vuitton has invited some 700 students from design schools, including the Institut Français de la Mode and Atelier Chardon Savard, to attend.
Abloh, who triggered a riot in March when groupies descended on his Off-White women’s show, would have liked the guest policy to be even more inclusive. “This is Paris, my first show. I’m all about democracy,” he said. “If some kid shows up, flew from New Jersey to just be around, let’s get him a seat.”
He still vividly remembers being turned away from shows with West and other members of his flamboyantly dressed crew. He recently posted a Tommy Ton photo from 2009 where he poses alongside West; Don Crawley, cofounder of RSVP Gallery; designer and retailer Chris Julian, and musicians Taz Arnold and Fonzworth Bentley.
“We were obviously fans of fashion. That’s how we arrived at the industry,” he recalled. “We couldn’t even have gone in to a Louis Vuitton show at the time.”
Abloh, who after 10 years of Paris hotels finally moved into his own Left Bank apartment last week, noted with satisfaction that his outfit on the picture has found its way into the color palette of his debut Vuitton collection. “I had red glasses on, yellow shoes, a marble-patterned shirt and a blue Moncler vest,” he detailed.
“It was kind of a laughing-stock-type photo, because my friend had leopard leggings on and cowboy boots, but that peacocking, that’s us: unabashed, unjaded, confident. Here in the fashion industry a little too early, but obviously we’ve stuck around, and now everyone’s super influential. And I knew that when the photo came out. I was like, ‘Finally, we will write ourselves into history,’” he said.
The original group, including West, is expected to attend Thursday’s show. West’s presence would be significant: he hasn’t been seen at Paris Fashion Week since the gunpoint robbery of his wife Kim Kardashian in 2016, and the rapper, who has struggled to be accepted by the fashion establishment, initially expressed mixed emotions about Abloh’s appointment.
Abloh paid homage to his former mentor, noting that West’s collaboration with Adidas was an industry game-changer. “Kanye since then has by and large still been the architect,” he said. “We are on the same mission.”
He also expressed his admiration for Nicolas Ghesquière, women’s wear creative director at Vuitton, though the two men’s universes scarcely overlap. Ironically, Abloh is friends with his predecessor Kim Jones, who after leaving Vuitton took the reins at Dior Homme, where he will also make his debut this season.
Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, acknowledged Ghesquière and Abloh have different approaches, but suggested this would be a plus for the brand.
“They’re coming at it from different vantage points. I think that is interesting per se. A house like Vuitton is too rich, has too long of a history, to be only interpreted from one direction,” he argued. “A pure fashion house would probably be better off with one singular influence. A true luxury house probably can benefit from different points of view.”
Nonetheless, he held out the prospect of greater synergies in future. “How will they evolve over time? Will there be convergence and if yes, how? That’s what’s going to be interesting to follow — but time will tell,” he said.
Burke was an early proponent of bringing streetwear into the luxury sphere, having instigated Vuitton’s wildly successful collaboration last year with New York skatewear brand Supreme, which was said to have drummed up 100 million euros in business.
While declining to talk figures, Burke said the venture could have been even more lucrative — as evidenced by a recent auction at Artcurial in Paris, which saw a trunk from the collaboration go under the hammer for more than 88,000 euros.
“We could have made it 10 times bigger. It only lasted three weekends, and people are still talking about it. We could have taken it to yearend, and it could have been bigger than all but maybe a half-a-dozen brands in their annual sales. That’s how big it could have been. We consciously didn’t want to do that,” he said.
What the executive does want to do is introduce Vuitton to a new age group. “Every generation has to rediscover what their parents already know, and generational transmission does not occur as it used to. Each generation has their own mediums, their own content,” he noted. “Today, what’s truly different is the inclusiveness.”
Abloh is conscious that those young kids are looking to him to blaze a trail. “Someone said [my appointment] felt like [Barack] Obama getting elected president — like the same epiphany. We got that it was possible, but we didn’t think [it would happen.] When it’s official, it’s different,” he noted.
He credited his dialogue with his fans with propelling him to the top. “It happened because the kids that I speak to on the street supported it in the store, liked the photo on Instagram, bought it and wore it, and that was a very different exchange than luxury typically had with its older client base,” Abloh said.
Yet even as he remains firmly entrenched in the social media generation, the designer has his eye on posterity. “The idea is to find chicness. I think there’s an absolute beauty that exists within every moment in culture, and so I’m trying to make things that are youthful, timely and timeless, but in a quality that’s surprising,” he said.