Talk about a watershed moment. As Virgil Abloh took his bow after his debut men’s wear show for Louis Vuitton, he embraced his mentor, Kanye West, and the two men openly wept tears of joy. They’d made it, at last.
The designer from Rockford, Ill., who four years ago launched his streetwear label Off-White with the aim of revolutionizing high fashion, had a theory about what it meant for him to reach the top rungs of the industry.
In an alphabetical guide handed out to guests, he gave this definition of luxury: “A label determined by values, codes and qualities, its use and definition were the privilege of few until a new generation conquered its dominion and shifted the paradigm for good.”
But as he remarked a few days before the show, there’s a difference between knowing and feeling. His display on Thursday — held under a sun so searing that iPhones flashed temperature warnings — was one of those events destined to make the industry annals.
The celebrities! (Rihanna, Kim Kardashian, Naomi Campbell, A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, Kylie Jenner and Bella Hadid, to name just a few.) The setting! (A 650-foot-long rainbow catwalk in the Palais-Royal Garden.) The models! (Friends including Playboi Carti, Kid Cudi, Dev Hynes and Theophilus London walked in the show.)
The clothes themselves signaled the dawning of a new era. Neither pure streetwear, nor straightforward luxury, they sat somewhere in between, with all the trial and error that comes with mapping new territory.
In a preview at the Louis Vuitton studio, Abloh said he wanted to start with a blank slate. His color scheme was based on white light hitting a prism and separating into a spectrum of hues, with shades ranging from off-white (naturellement) to the multicolored palette of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Flanking the runway were 700 design school students, dressed in T-shirts color coordinated with the gradient runway, reflecting Abloh’s commitment to opening luxury to a new generation. Printed on the front were the words “Not Home,” a nod to Dorothy’s classic line: “’Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
Abloh likened himself to the character played by Judy Garland, the “farm girl from the Midwest transported to Oz, a fairy-tale land where she experiences things beyond the reach of her imagination.” Along his yellow brick road, he found transfigured basics: a jacket made of white mink; a camel double-faced cashmere hoodie, and a tie-dye T-shirt in white leather.
Also: elevated takes on the screen-printed motifs that have powered his streetwear business, such as a letterman jacket hand-embroidered with an image of Dorothy dreaming in a field of poppies.
In their pristine whiteness, the opening looks made a powerful statement. The mohair suit, crocodile leather trenchcoat and monogram-embossed leather vest were the sartorial equivalents of box-fresh sneakers.
Some of his other experiments — namely neon-colored vests with bulging pockets that he described as a bridge between accessories and fashion — clearly needed refining. Instead, the key takeaway of the show was a casual silhouette that, while not new to men’s wear at large, felt fresh for both Abloh and Vuitton.
“It’s not oversize. There’s volume in the pant, it’s very relaxed, very casual, very chic. Those are the things that I believe in. That’s my personal aesthetic. This is me having a conversation with luxury,” explained Abloh, who personally favors an adolescent’s uniform of T-shirt and jeans.
“Luxury is something that’s coveted. It’s not necessarily something that’s expensive, so I’m employing the perfect vintage T-shirt that you find in Melrose in L.A. — that’s equally as important as a cashmere sweater in brushed mohair,” he posited. As are the accessories.
From the new LV Skate sneakers to Timberland-inspired LV Creeper ankle boots, the covetable options on display suggested Vuitton could soon become a major mover on the footwear front. The bags, which power the business, were less convincing. Adding plastic chains to crocodile leather styles was probably a misfire.
Abloh seemed eager to address any detractors.
“I don’t call myself a designer, nor do I call myself an image-maker. I don’t reject the label of either. I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal, nor am I trying to be more, now. I would like to define the title of artistic director for a new and different era,” he said in his show notes.
The audience, at any rate, was lapping it up. Don Crawley, who cofounded Chicago’s RSVP Gallery concept store with Abloh, summed up the significance of the moment: “I always felt that before, we just begged for the culture to really have a voice in the product that the culture consumes. So we’re just so happy that now, that’s the case. It feels amazing.”