It’s interesting to me that in the same week Black Panther breaks the record as the highest grossing superhero movie in U.S. history (soon to be the world, at this rate), Virgil Abloh is named Menswear Artist Director at Louis Vuitton. These two points are synergistic because of (and beyond) their obvious parallels of black people winning in realms that traditionally do not root for them to win, or even to be equitably represented. Today, as Virgil’s Louis Vuitton appointment breaks Instagram, it’s telling to see how those who participate in fashion are reacting to the news, everything from high octane elation through to the unimpressed emoji. Opinions, of course, are due to vary, as in the case of the many prominent male appointments of recent weeks; Tisci at Burberry, Hedi at Celine and Kim Jones at Dior Homme. This one, however, has a different resonance, from a cultural, business, technical and personal POV.
From a cultural standpoint, this is important. Virgil is one of only two black people currently in the lead creative (and visible) role at a notable fashion house or brand. To expand on this point would require an intense and deeper analysis of how we got here – saliently, our industry’s issues rooted in racism, ignorance and complicity that has been allowed to fester and calcify the infrastructure of the business of fashion to present day.
From a business standpoint, it’s a progressive move for LV, one of the oldest and most powerful houses in fashion. Virgil has the Midas touch, where everything he put in his signature quotation marks turns into sales and press. Additionally, with womenswear and fashion weeks reaching saturation points, as more focus is given to the menswear renaissance and streetwear helps to buoy up luxury sales (both of which, in turn, are influencing the womens market), tapping the creator of one of the most successful modern-day brands is smart. And they’re going all-in, as LV makes a larger investment with increased dedicated mens stores and up the menswear ratio in their retail offering overall, it’s clear that they’re banking on this perfect storm to translate into Supreme-style store lines and SALES.
From a technical standpoint, it’s a very different landscape. One of the main elements that has worked so well for Virgil in this game is also the target on his back – as news breaks, many are pointing to hype and ‘over-exposure’ being responsible for a hire of such magnitude, and that alone. This is similar to criticism the last time another designer of color was hired in a prestigious role, namely Alexander Wang at Balenciaga in 2012. While Virgil is not a formally-trained fashion designer (he holds a B.A. in Civil Engineering and a Masters in Architecture), one has to wonder where such criticism is rooted when, particularly in fashion and beauty, much credence has been bestowed on those who have used the disruptive nature of digital and social media to fast-track trajectories and enable a different path to success. Look at the paths forged by Glossier, Kylie Jenner’s multi-billion dollar business, the introduction of bloggers and influencers, many of whom have created viable brands for themselves. We’re living in an era of redefinition, rethinking everything from luxury to gender. Is artistic leadership then not subject to any transformation?
As a multi-hyphenate, Virgil is the ultimate collaborator in both the literal and conceptual sense – from concurrent partnerships with a plethora of brands, to using social media and audiences as a means to infuse codes of inclusion and democracy into his brand and persona, to ‘appropriating’ designs that came before. The latter is a large part of the overall Off-White backlash, mostly from fashion purists (including Raf Simons). That being said, Virgil has in the past put forward a fairly compelling thought to this, citing “We can offer a 2.0 to every idea.” Regardless of how you look at it, platforms like the Diet Prada’s of the world exist because this is not something unique to Virgil. What Virgil lacks in technical training, he more than makes up for in cultural point of view and context, which is an integral component of fashion design and the industry at large, and often a layer that is overlooked or lacking. As the schoolyard comeback might be in this case – you can learn the technical facets of design, but not the intangible insights of culture and connection. And that’s what I think this opportunity represents – learning, on both sides. For Virgil, to push himself as a designer and businessperson and intake as much as possible at the heady heights of an elite high fashion company, hopefully in turn helping to take his own business to the next levels. For Vuitton, I think Virgil brings a combination of timely relevance, social and cultural clout paired with critical thought that is currently second to none. A strategic win for the 164 year-old-brand – who can also now authentically tap into fashion’s newest cash cow – streetwear.
From a personal standpoint, I’m optimistic – and this brings me back to my original point. The success of Black Panther and Virgil’s appointment is important. It brings to life the codes of growing up black – knowing that you’ll have to work twice as hard to reap half the glory, but when you break through, that glory can be culture-shifting. And while Black Panther is only one film, and Virgil is one man, their magnitude has been seen by all, and can be replicated and implemented in other areas across business and culture.
This specific appointment announced today was made all the more poignant when listening to today’s edition of The Daily, a New York Times podcast, about the kids of gun violence in Chicago, Virgil’s hometown. He told the NYT yesterday “And to show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look is a fantastically modern spirit in which to start.” I agree.