Louis Vuitton New Artistic Director Virgil Abloh could Out-Supreme Supreme
Having secured his designer credentials with his label Off-White, Kanye West’s creative director will head menswear at Louis Vuitton. It doesn’t just mean hautebeast going mainstream, it is also a shot at dominating China
Virgil Abloh is not just founder of hypebeast label Off-White, he’s also Kanye West’s creative director and Louis Vuitton’s new Artistic Director. But the implications are further than what most articles have explored. Abloh’s appointment as Louis Vuitton Artistic Director is not just emblematic of the hautebeast genre of streetwear going mainstream, it’s also a commercial masterstroke for one of Europe’s oldest and most powerful luxury maisons – with Virgil Abloh spearheading menswear, Louis Vuitton has a shot at absolutely dominating China.
The Hautebeast has landed: Louis Vuitton New Artistic Director Virgil Abloh could Out-Supreme Supreme and Win Big in China
Though popular in West Europe and the United States, hip hop fashion and streetwear has traditionally never done well in China, but all that began to change when an online reality rap competition called The Rap of China began to draw a massive following. Featuring four celebrity producers, aspiring hip hop and rap contestants vye for the mentorship of these producers who than train and guide these lyrical gangsters.
Produced by China’s largest online video platform iQiyi, the first episode launched on June 24 to a viewership of over 100 million viewers. By August, each episode drew 200 million pairs of eyeballs – no small potatoes for a previously niche genre of music. The side effect, high-end streetwear brands, including Virgil Abloh’s own Off-White, Vetements, Supreme and Raf Simons, have all become household names amongst China’s millennials overnight. According to Jing Daily, celebrity producers like Kris Wu have added to the effect when he wore an iconic Supreme tee to the first ever episode of The Rap of China. Already popular among Hong Kong IT celebrities like Shawn Yue and Edison Chen, Wu’s rabid female base and the collaboration with luxury staple Louis Vuitton, further accelerated the growth of popularity beyond Chinese hip hop circles. Furthermore, popular contestants often choose to don Off-White’s signature black and white striped hoodies, pants and hats while performing, adding to the fervour. When Victoria’s Secret supermodel Liu Wen was spotted wearing a denim Off-White gown to the 2017 edition of the Met Gala, the internet blazed into a frenzy in the Chinese market.
That said, hip hop, an anti-establishment subculture, is not favored by authoritarian CCP government, thus the allowance of such a show where over 100 hip hop songs have been outright banned, telegraphs a grudging capitulation to popular culture – in that sense, hautebeast streetwear only has the potential upside to burgeon and grow at a much greater pace!
Business of Luxury: What can Virgil Abloh do as new Louis Vuitton menswear Artistic Director
American designer, DJ and stylist Virgil Abloh came to prominence as Kanye West’s creative director. While his first fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, identified often through his signature screen-printed logos on Ralph Lauren rugby shirts was shuttered ignominiously, he soon returned (barely a year later) with another personal label – Off-White.
OFF-WHITE c/o VIRGIL ABLOH™ is a fashion label rooted in current culture with seasonal menswear and women’s collections inspired by the 37 year old Ghanaian-American’s perspectives on trends. Beyond streetwear, Abloh’s brand also offers a complete lifestyle symbolic of his vision – furniture and ready made goods, all made in Milan with products which differ from season to season.
Considered by his peers as a visionary for cool, pop cultural references which contextualise the moment into garments of zeitgeist. Abloh not only became a finalist of the LVMH Young Designer Awards in 2015 through Off-White, he is also the first LVMH Young Designer finalist to take a major design role at an LVMH brand.
Impressively, the multi-hyphenate is not a formally trained designer, Virgil Abloh was an architectural and civil engineer by training taught the basics only by his mother, a seamstress. Incidentally, Abloh is also among a handful of black designers. He joins Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain and Ozwald Boateng, a tailor turned designer for Givenchy menswear from 2003 to 2007.
Speaking to NYT, Abloh said, “This opportunity to think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean at a brand that represents the pinnacle of luxury was always a goal in my wildest dreams. 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.”
Louis Vuitton’s new artistic director met Louis Vuitton’s Chief Executive Michael Burke 12 years ago during a six month internship with Kanye West at Fendi where Burke was then Fendi Chief, impressing Burke enough to keep track of his nascent career.
Virgil Abloh’s appointment was widely rumoured following a shakeup in the Louis Vuitton menswear department when Kim Jones, his predecessor artistic director left in January. Abloh’s appointment is also a reflection of the increasing consumer driven intermingling of luxury and streetwear like the Louis Vuitton Supreme and Gucci Dapper Dan collaborations which helped rocket global sales of luxury goods by US4325 billion according to Bain & Company.
“Virgil creates hype and no brand can argue in this current climate that they don’t need hype,” says Ellie Pithers, British Vogue fashion features editor to The Guardian
A new direction for Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton: Relatable Luxury
Abloh’s experience has spanned multiple brands including Nike, Jimmy Choo, Moncler and even an upcoming collaboration with IKEA. Given the commercial success of Louis Vuitton Supreme, it is almost a given that the new Artistic Director is there to inject a millennial flavour to Louis Vuitton menswear. Where Jones developed an air of classicism with Louis Vuitton menswear, the brand’s latest Artistic Director is sure to take Louis Vuittons savoir faire as a classical luggage expert and give it a refreshing new urban feel. More importantly, Abloh’s brand of relatable luxury, so deftly tapping on zeitgeist, is bound to further entrench the Louis Vuitton brand in China (including Hong Kong) where competition with Kering Group’s Gucci is especially fierce.
In 2016, Burke talked to the South China Morning Post about the slowing growth in sales of the brand, in the wake of a Chinese government crackdown on excessive gift giving and corruption. It was a slowdown which also affected Hong Kong, where a loss of confidence on the part of local shoppers and a fall in the number of high-spending visitors from China hit the French luxury house hardest. By August 2017, after closing 8 stores and streamlining operations, the brand made an explosive recovery and has not looked back since.
On 25 January 2018, CNBC reported Louis Vuitton holding company LVMH posted 18% operating profit growth and higher than expected Q4 like-for-like sales on the backs of rising Chinese demand and increased online sales; boosted largely by Louis Vuitton brand which accounts for more than half of group profits.
In many ways, beginning with its first treated canvas luggage trunks, Louis Vuitton has always been counter-culture, designed to serve the new affluent rather than the traditional aristocrat. Louis Vuitton menswear is currently carried in only 150 of the brand’s 450 boutiques. Expectation is that with Abloh as new Louis Vuitton Artistic Director, the maison will expand that number to 180 with close to 20 standalone Louis Vuitton menswear stores exemplifying the growing importance of the segment to the brand.
Once considered for lead designer positions at Burberry and Versace, Abloh is notable for making political statements in an industry that rarely takes a stand for commercial reasons. Abloh has conceived fashion commentary on the immigrant crisis with artist Jenny Holzer.
As new Artistic Director, Abloh will debut his first Louis Vuitton menswear collection in June 2018 for Paris Men’s Fashion Week. Louis Vuitton is estimated to be LVMH’s top-money maker with annual sales of more than €9bn (£7.9bn), the largest in the luxury industry.