PARIS — To say that Virgil Abloh left big shoes to fill might be the understatement of the year.
Louis Vuitton plans to pay tribute to its late artistic director of men’s wear with two shows in Paris on Thursday that will encapsulate his philosophy for the brand, from his game-changing debut in June 2018 to his show in Miami in late November, which unexpectedly turned into a memorial following Abloh’s sudden death at the age of 41.
“There is a circular aspect to it, so it comes back to certain things that were surprising in the first show. They’re obviously going to be there, but there’s other metaphors that he’s always used: there’s the metaphor of the house, the metaphor of the boy,” Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, told WWD in an exclusive interview ahead of the event.
For the set of the fall collection, simply titled “8,” expect a sprinkling of “Wizard of Oz” references and elements of Surrealism, in line with his previous seven collections. “He never wanted a show or a season to be monolithic in its existence. It had to be connected, in obvious and non-obvious ways, to what preceded it and what comes after,” said Burke.
After an afternoon show for press and influencers, the early evening display will be an opportunity for friends and family to come together.
“People have really expressed a desire for communion. Let’s not forget, this is the first physical [men’s] show [for Vuitton] in Paris in a year and a half,” said Burke. “Then there’s of course the desire to remember Virgil together, not somewhere online or at our homes, but together in a public space.”
To mark the occasion, Vuitton will publish a fanzine about the Miami show, with an initial print run of 1,500 copies, that will be available to purchase for eight euros exclusively at OFR. One of Abloh’s favorite bookstores, it’s located just down the street from the Carreau du Temple, where the shows will be held.
For the first time since Abloh’s death in November, Burke cautiously detailed the topic of his succession, the main subject of speculation during Paris Fashion Week for the men’s fall collections. He emphasized the brand, the jewel in the crown of French luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, is in no rush.
“It needs to be given the right amount of time. It cannot be done under pressure,” Burke said, adding that Vuitton was big enough to run on its own steam for a while. “This is not a house that relies on one singular individual. Louis Vuitton is too big for any singular individual.”
Given its position as industry leader, the brand has the luxury of choice, with names in the rumor mill ranging from established talents like Sacai’s Chitose Abe and Jonathan Anderson, creative director of Loewe, to rising talents such as Grace Wales Bonner and Samuel Ross, among others.
“The world is our playground. There are no geographic, no gender, no sexual orientation limitations, no age limitations. I’ve seen people at 30 that are more mature than people at 60, so it’s about your mental age, not your physical age,” Burke said of the potential candidates.
“But you have to have an appreciation of craft, you have to have an appreciation of materials, you have to have an appreciation of image and graphics, beyond, of course, products. You have to have an appreciation of the client. Virgil was always in the stores,” he continued.
He did not exclude hiring a female creative director of men’s wear, which would be a first for the brand. “Gender never comes into play. Those days are long gone,” Burke said.
To be sure, the right candidate will need the maturity to spearhead the men’s business for a brand that logged revenues of 16.7 billion euros in 2021, according to a recent HSBC estimate.
Flipping open the coffee table book “Louis Vuitton Manufactures,” dedicated to the house’s artisans, the executive pointed to an old black-and-white photograph of Louis, Georges and Gaston-Louis Vuitton with their employees, taken around 1888, followed by a group portrait from 2020 showing the current leaders, family members and craftspeople, including LVMH chairman and CEO Bernard Arnault.
“This is what the person is going to have to deal with,” Burke said gravely. “When you come to Louis Vuitton, the responsibility is immense vis-à-vis the past, vis-à-vis the cultural values that exist here.”
He suggested not everyone was equipped to steer such a juggernaut.
“We make our watches, we make our jewelry, we make our handbags, we make our leather, and these are constraints. If you embrace those constraints, you will be very, very successful. If you complain about those constraints, you will fail,” he warned. “What happens after Virgil has to respect the values that are here in this book: the people, the hands, the hearts, the passion.”
Still, Burke said he was not above making another disruptive choice. After appointing Abloh, ushering in a new era of diversity in the luxury industry, he is open to appointing someone who does not identify as a fashion designer, especially since Vuitton is increasingly active in areas as diverse as gaming, sports and entertainment.
“It would not be the obvious, but it’s not impossible,” Burke said. However, he cautioned that whoever steps into Abloh’s shoes will have to be respectful of the brand’s codes.
“When Virgil came, he was not your traditional couturier, but he had 10 years of fashion history behind him and he had shown immense respect for the industry. He disrupted parts of it, but I don’t really believe you can disrupt if you throw everything out,” said Burke.
“This individual needs to appreciate the tension between what you can change and what you can’t change,” he added. “And this is where somebody that has maybe more wide-ranging passions may have an advantage, than somebody that is more narrowly focused on fashion.”
How much change the 168-year-old brand can weather is something of an obsession for Burke, though he rejects the image of gatekeeper.
“I fully expect them to change half of what they find here. That’s an obligation. I’m not going to restrict that. That’s part of the job description. I don’t subscribe to the fact that I’m here guarding the temple,” he said. But longevity is key.
“There’s two ways of coming to a luxury house: embrace your predecessors or start with a clean slate. And both work, but they’re very different approaches. At a house by Louis Vuitton, we need the former,” he explained.
“If you think of the definition of a luxury company, it’s all about permanence. It’s about what’s going to happen in 50 years and 100 years,” he added.
“I was convinced when I hired Virgil that he would be respectful of half of what he would find, and he would want to twist and be playful with the other half,” Burke said.
“You can’t come in swashbuckling, trying to impose change. The Vuitton teams are very, very proud. They’re probably the most stable and loyal and hardworking and successful teams in this business in the world,” he argued. “There’s a certain amount of gravitas. This is not fluffy, it’s a very, very serious business.”
In the meantime, Burke is not ruling out the possibility of collaborations while the search for Abloh’s successor continues. “That’s been done successfully in the past. It’s not a long-term solution. It’s something that would be more short-term,” remarked the executive, who famously oversaw Vuitton’s mold-breaking tie-up with cult New York skatewear brand Supreme in 2017.
One thing is for certain: Burke is ready to move on from the old-school profile of lofty creative directors. He noted that in the outpouring of grief since Abloh’s death, many customers had shared their personal recollections of the designer.
“It seems that everybody has a personal story between them and Virgil. He was very, very open and approachable and grounded. The days of the gilded cage, and everything happens behind sealed walls, those days are over for the time being,” Burke opined.
For many, this final collection will be their last chance to own a piece of Abloh’s legacy. In line with recent practice, top clients will be able to order pieces, starting Friday, through virtual showrooms worldwide, as part of a shift to made-to-order production that fits with Vuitton’s commitment to circularity.
Meanwhile, Burke expects the limited-edition Louis Vuitton and Nike “Air Force 1” by Virgil Abloh sneakers to fly out once they hit store shelves. As reported, the shoes are launching with an auction at Sotheby’s to benefit Abloh’s scholarship fund for Black fashion students, which industry sources expect could net between $5 million and $10 million.
Vuitton has not yet provided details of when the shoes will be in stores, but they are sure to become collectors’ items. “The sneakers, we know they’re going to be sold out before we ship them,” the executive predicted.