Louis Vuitton after Virgil Abloh: A ship without a captain?
A year ago, the fashion world bade farewell to Virgil Abloh. His creative legacy is a powerful one - full of hope, inclusion and streetwear. Abloh was considered multi-talented, a designer, DJ and master of collaboration. He never much liked the title of a designer, referring to himself as a "maker" instead - for his work was about more than fashion. Nonetheless, it is his legacy in fashion that is currently causing debate. Why has Abloh's creative director role at Louis Vuitton officially remained vacant since his death?
Louis Vuitton’s future without Abloh remains unknown
In January, a few weeks after Abloh's death, the fashion world gathered in Paris to pay their respects at the designer's final fashion show for Louis Vuitton. The collection was reportedly nearing completion when he died and was completed by the in-house menswear design team. The same team has since put together three other collections – Resort 2023, Spring 2023 and Pre-Fall 2023 – for the French fashion house, which has officially remained without creative direction. One could speculate that Vuitton is working towards a future without a creative director entirely, but if one assumes that there is a succession plan for Abloh, then Louis Vuitton is taking an unusually long time to establish it. When designer Kim Jones left the fashion house in January 2018 after a seven-year era, only two months went by before Abloh was officially named as his successor.
In many ways, it was Jones who introduced Louis Vuitton – a luxury brand established in 1854 that subsequently added ready-to-wear in 1997 – to streetwear, paving the way for Abloh. When the designer took over Vuitton's men's collection in 2011, sneakers, t-shirts and tracksuits were no longer a rarity, but complemented modern tailoring and casual wear. His penchant for streetwear culminated in the French brand's collaboration with the hype label Supreme. It was unveiled in January 2017, a year before Jones' departure. With the appointment of Abloh, Louis Vuitton ultimately seemed to cement its newfound fondness for streetwear.
At a conference hosted by Women's Wear Daily in early November, Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke confirmed that the French luxury brand is in no hurry to find a successor for Abloh. “We are not trying to replace Virgil, not because he is irreplaceable but because he is unique”, said Burke. The 65-year-old previously worked with Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi, a designer whose successor was announced on the day of his death, and emphasised that time can heal some wounds, including the creative future of a fashion house. “Trust me, succeeding Virgil, Karl [Lagerfeld] or anyone of that stature is extremely difficult, but with the passage of time it makes it less difficult for the successor to establish what they want to say and that requires some space.”
Thus, the succession for the man who urged the industry to "question everything" – especially the foundation upon which it stands – is not yet settled, though the Louis Vuitton CEO did offer insights into one possible deciding factor: “When I hired Virgil, he was a baby in our business, yet, he filled out that sweater. I like to hire someone that has to fill the sweater and shoes over time.”
Two Brands, one legacy?
Off-White, the streetwear brand that Abloh launched in 2013, appointed Ibrahim Kamara, Editor-in-Chief of Dazed Magazine and above all, friend and confidant of Abloh's as its new art and image director at the end of April. Off-White and Abloh are synonymous. The designer was the figurehead of his brand, which now carries on his life's work. "We have proven that the death of a designer is traumatic, but it is not the death of the brand. Not at Vuitton," Burke told WWD at a shop opening in Miami in December 2021, just days after Abloh's death. It seems Louis Vuitton faces the task of preserving not only the late designer's legacy but the brands.
Virgil Abloh was appointed Artistic Director of Menswear at Louis Vuitton in March 2018, setting a new precedent as the first Black creative director at the helm of the prestigious fashion house. Under Abloh's direction, the French brand embraced streetwear, combined it with classic tailoring and led a transformation in the world of luxury fashion. However, Abloh changed the industry not only visually, but above all, systematically.
The son of Ghanaian immigrants was trained as a civil engineer and architect, and had no formal design training, aside from an internship at Fendi. He inspired frequent comparisons to the character of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz – the Midwestern girl who goes on adventures that defy the imagination in the fanciful world of Oz was also referenced in Abloh's first collection for Louis Vuitton – and entered spaces that had been denied to "outsiders" like him for far too long. Abloh became part of fashion's epicentre but did not rest on his laurels, for it was something he wanted to share with other creatives.
“To me, there's one level of the work that’s designing at Louis, but my real job is to make sure that there’s, like, six young Black kids that take my job after me“, Abloh said in an episode of the Othertone podcast about the significance of his work and his possible legacy at Louis Vuitton. It is a wish Louis Vuitton could turn into a reality now.
Will Vuitton commit to Virgil Abloh's legacy?
However, it is precisely the aforementioned precedent that could complicate the situation for the brand and Abloh's potential successor. Any appointment could either be seen as a genuine commitment to Abloh's legacy of change and progress or ultimately highlight his "otherness". That is not to say that only another Person of Color should be chosen for the role. However, there are many diverse, often overlooked talents who could prove to be worthy successors to Abloh – and ever since Michael Burke sat front-row at designer Martine Rose's Spring/Summer 2023 show, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive.
Abloh opened the doors, but who is going to walk through them?
Menswear designer Martine Rose is by no means a stranger to Louis Vuitton's parent company LVMH. In 2018 she was nominated for the luxury group's prestigious prize for young designers. Grace Wales Bonner, like Rose, designs menswear, and designer Telfar Clemens, who focuses on unisex designs, were also rumoured to be top contenders for the vacant creative position by various media outlets. Both Wales Bonner and Rose would set a similar precedent as Abloh once did as the first Black and female creative director for menswear for the brand, but that is by no means the only reason behind the speculation surrounding their possible ascension to the top of Louis Vuitton.
In 2016 Grace Wales Bonner won the same prize, for which Rose was later nominated. Both have previously collaborated with sports and sneaker giants: Rose with Nike and Wales Bonner with Adidas. It is a factor that could well be significant for Vuitton, as it was Abloh who solidified the bridge between luxury fashion and the vast world of sneakerheads and streetwear fans. While both designers hail from England, Telfar Clemens made his name in the U.S. before being catapulted into the global spotlight with his "Bushwick Birkin" a moderately priced vegan leather bag. His penchant for covetable bags and accessories may be of particular interest to the French luxury brand, whose main focus has always been leather goods.
Regardless of who will eventually follow in Virgil Abloh's footsteps at Louis Vuitton, the influence that the "Maker" had on the world of fashion will most likely be felt for a long time to come. Aurora James, designer and founder of the non-profit organisation Fifteen Percent Pledge, honoured Virgil Abloh posthumously with the Board of Trustee's Award at the CFDA Awards in early November and addressed her friend and mentor with the following words: “You have left shoes impossibly too big to fill, but in your honour, we will do what you’ve taught us and not try to fill those impossibly big shoes, but instead to reimagine walking completely”
To date, Louis Vuitton has not responded to an inquiry from FashionUnited.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de