The clue was in the invitation — a single, rhinestone-encrusted white glove — though close followers of Virgil Abloh already knew that his fall men’s show for Louis Vuitton was all about Michael Jackson, the subject of a current exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris.
The streetwear guru, whose Off-White label has been anointed the hottest in the world right now, had lifted the lid on the theme in a conversation with Interview magazine in December, upending a long-held tradition of secrecy among luxury houses in the run-up to their runway displays.
Guests stepped into a darkened tent in the Tuileries garden, where the brand had re-created a Manhattan street corner at nighttime, reminiscent of the set of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video — complete with light-up pavement stones. Guests, including rappers Offset, Gunna, Kid Cudi and Skepta, huddled on a stoop.
The asphalt set defined the color palette of the collection, which was a sea of gray and tan, with the odd pop of purple and red — perhaps the color most associated with the King of Pop.
Among Abloh’s new tailoring propositions were double jackets – a short jacket with an elasticated waistband worn over a longer sleeveless underlayer – and a Zoot Suit jacket with concealed buttons. Jackson’s fondness for military garb was channeled into padded sashes and crest-shaped patches on a puffy camel hoodie and coat.
The outerwear, on the other hand, was pure hip-hop swagger. Options included a charcoal gray shearling coat with a shaved monogram motif; a double trenchcoat in powdery crocodile-embossed nubuck leather, and an inflated black Monogram-padded lambskin puffer vest with a matching giant Keepall bag.
There was a visual link to Abloh’s debut show for Vuitton last June, via a naive print featuring the characters in “The Wiz” — the 1978 remake of “The Wizard of Oz” starring Jackson as the Scarecrow. A trio of sequin-encrusted tops nodded to the singer’s more flamboyant stage costumes, while a T-shirt printed with an image of his loafer-clad feet and white socks paid homage to his dance genius.
Indeed, loafers were the footwear of choice in this show, eclipsing the sneakers for which Abloh is famous. They came in leather and gray flannel versions, festooned with the link chain he is establishing as a new Vuitton signature. “To me, they can be chic and new, just like a white pair of Stan Smiths,” Abloh said during a preview.
Beyond the style icon, he was interested in the humanitarian aspect of Jackson’s work, in particular the “message of universality, inclusiveness and love” conveyed through projects such as the “We Are the World” charity single. In that spirit, leather outfits came in a patchwork of flags representing the nationalities of his studio team.
A U.S. flag pattern was worked in tonal motifs on sweeping sun-pleated wrap skirts, suggesting how inclusivity might extend to definitions of gender.
Indeed, Abloh has blown open the luxury sphere for a diverse audience like no other designer before him. In a nod to his streetwear roots, he had graffiti artist Futura spray-paint the set during the show, which also featured rappers such as Octavian and Sheck Wes on the runway, and a live soundtrack by Dev Hynes.
“Copier c’est voler” (“Copying is theft”) read the tag on one wall — a message no doubt addressed at those who accuse Abloh of merely copying other designers’ ideas. Another was hidden in the show notes under the heading “Irony,” which he defined as: “The presence of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton.”
Abloh is acutely aware that his young followers can’t afford the clothes he designs for Vuitton. What he’s offering, rather, is an example to follow.
“It’s important to be creative. Instagram is free. I prefer that my tenure at a house opens the lightbulb. It’s not about owning the thing. For me, I couldn’t afford it either — I aspired to. That’s what got me a work ethic. That’s why I don’t sleep — because I want things and I work for it,” he said.
If Abloh’s appointment raised eyebrows initially, it’s looking increasingly like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton made the right choice: His sophomore show was a thriller.