In an era of ‘fashion musical chairs,’ Virgil Abloh is redefining artistic director

In a historic move for the nearly 170-year-old brand, Louis Vuitton announced that Off-White designer Virgil Abloh will take the role of artistic director of menswear, becoming the first African American man to hold the position at any French fashion house.

The transition is the latest in a series of leadership shakeups at top luxury brands, as designers continue to move in and out of top positions. While aspiring designers have traditionally cut their teeth at major fashion houses before pursuing their own labels, Abloh is part of the movement subverting that trajectory as fashion houses seek fresh perspectives. Following in the footsteps of peers like Raf Simons at Calvin Klein and Olivier Rousteing at Balmain, Abloh will be tasked with breathing life into a storied yet stale brand.

The rise of designers like Abloh and Simons — who eschewed traditional fashion education in favor of architecture and furniture design, respectively — signals a demand within luxury to embrace unique sensibilities in an effort to stay relevant.

“The musical chairs game keeps going on in fashion,” said Rony Zeidan, founder of the luxury agency RO NY. “Kim Jones moves on to Dior Homme, and soon after, the appointment of Virgil Abloh is announced. Is it surprising? Not at all. Every luxury fashion house is looking to replicate the Balenciaga effect or the Gucci effect.”

Zeidan said Abloh’s trajectory mirrors that of fellow streetwear leaders like Vetements founder Demna Gvasalia, who was appointed as creative director of Balenciaga in 2015. As both gained traction in the evolving luxury streetwear market, they became hot commodities for traditional fashion houses desperately seeking to evolve.

“Those appointments have a very positive influence on [designers’] own labels, since their names are very synonymous with their respective labels. We can only expect the continuous rise of the Off-White label, same as Vetements has had an uplift since Demna became the artistic director of Balenciaga.”

The announcement is the culmination of many months-long rumors about Abloh’s next move, beginning with murmurings in August 2017 that he was eyeing a deal with Versace. In choosing Louis Vuitton, Abloh can continue to foster his existing relationship with Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH; he was a finalist for the company’s prestigious Young Designers Prize in 2015.  The accolade came two years after starting his high-end streetwear company Off-White and four years after first gaining prominence for his work with Kanye West.

“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,” Abloh told The New York Times.

In the five years since Off-White’s debut, Abloh’s meteoric rise positioned him as a major player in the fashion industry. His success can be attributed to a mix of design acumen, savvy parterships and social media prowess, wrote HighSnobiety writer Gregk Foley last year in a clairvoyant piece about why Abloh should run a fashion house. He argued that all of these traits made Abloh a “master of modern fashion marketing” at a time when luxury fashion brands were seeking ways to revitalize dull, antiquated strategies that shirked digital.

“He emerged at a time when fashion designers were just beginning to be celebrated as rock stars (in the broader mainstream, at least) and, by accident or design, rode that wave,” Foley wrote. “He understands that social media means that consumers increasingly view brand and designer as one, and seemingly invites people behind the curtain, making them co-conspirators in his ongoing creative project.

Despite his success, some have taken to social media to express concern with his ascendancy given his lack of formal fashion training, prompting debate about what it takes to become a creative director.

Dissenters aside, Zeidan said, ultimately, he believes Abloh can be successful at the helm of both Louis Vuitton and Off-White, though it will require significant focus.

“Such an appointment at the helm of fashion and luxury as the artistic director of one of the most important brands in the industry will solidify Abloh as it did Marc Jacobs at the time he spearheaded the house in 1997,” he said. “The trick is to remain even more focused now than ever before on the true DNA of Off-White, without allowing distractions from the new role at Louis Vuitton.”

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