Louis Vuitton: according to Virgil Abloh, the atmosphere is the new vibration
Ahhhhh, the magic of fashion week. One minute it feels like nothing is happening, the season is a nap, and the next, Dior announces his collaboration with Travis Scott, then Rick Owens shows off sexy speedos on the beach in Venice, GZA shows the Louis show Vuitton playing chess– and Virgil Abloh announces that the brand is collaborating with Nike.
What an exciting day to be a man!
And what a Vuitton parade it was. Here’s the thing about Virgil Abloh: he can post an Instagram story like this:
And you roll your eyes: Of course. And then you see his collection and you say to yourself, GOOD AMBIANCE IS THEREFORE MUCH MORE DIFFICULT TO CREATE THAN THE OBJECTS ITSELF !!!
What does he mean by atmosphere? (Abloh opted for the less common spelling, with two a’s.) I think this is something that supplants the more vague and diffuse concept of “vibes”. Designers have always aimed to build the world – well, at least since Ralph Lauren – but now it seems that they want to create universes in silos, encompassing microcosms in which nothing is spared by the brand. There is a Vuitton path to do everything: coffee, clothes, music, magic. It is not just an attitude or a lifestyle, but a system of values. Not all brands have the financial strength to do this (although even modest brands can whip up a plate or open a cafe). But those who can swing it reap the rewards.
More and more, fashion enthusiasts seem to think of their favorite brands as sports teams, or perhaps fashionable in general as a religion. People love to romanticize the way fashion was once a subculture, especially in the 1970s and 1990s, but that implies that now is its clean culture, as popular as music or movies. Fashion has become ubiquitous. It might be unpleasant for old chefs, but it’s heaven for a true creative director like Virgil Abloh. Some designers are trying to change the way we see things (like Demna Gvasalia); Abloh, meanwhile, seems to be getting paid to create his own version of everything. This is probably why he is the most famous designer in the world.
This authoring mindset is also how Vuitton produced the first truly ‘Wow, you got to see this’ fashion video. The plot vaguely followed Liquid swords, the 1995 GZA album: a young swordsman wanders in the desert, enters through a portal into an artificial birch forest, then into a kendo studio / nightclub / chess theater. Naturally, the real GZA played chess and rapped until “4th Chamber”, while Lupe Fiasco officiated a kendo match. British DJ Benji B took care of the soundtrack, which also included Goldie and El Michels Affair. (See? I told you it was gonna be a crazy season for the original soundtracks.) It was wiiiiiild.
Part of Abloh’s genius is that he took a brand as big as Vuitton and made it truly personal, like we were all on his big journey. His invitations to the show reminded us that this was his seventh season overall, rather than a specific season (spring 2022, although there were hockey gloves and furs), and that each product and collaboration is the result of its own exploration. In his last two show videos, he has plunged the viewer into a world where models wander in slow motion, as if you are an invisible intruder who can’t help but stare. It’s her people (Lupe Fiasco, Benji B and Goldie) plus her icons, like GZA and, in her latest video, Mos Def. Abloh’s self-proclaimed role as a sort of teacher-curator for young fans works as a standalone entertainment, but also gives his work a global resonance. If a designer like Miuccia Prada or Phoebe Philo gives us her diary, Abloh gives us her mixtape, even if the ambition is more akin to a biennial bildungsroman style.
And his clothes have become much stronger. It was a collection brimming with energy and ideas, but never dispersed. His swishy skate pant silhouette, which he has been using since his first season, has only gotten stronger, here, like a bridge between the tracksuit and the business suit. Oddly enough, it’s gone in the opposite direction to what everyone else is doing now, which is sexy and demonstrative. It’ll never be Abloh’s thing – even her women’s clothes aren’t sultry – and it’s nice to see a designer refuse to stray away from her muscular figure. Her take on her role at Vuitton – as a corrective historian addressing or revising the industry-dividing relationship with its black fans and clients – combines her puffy dresses, pleated skirts, bold furs and rave colors. Look at the tracksuit he put Goldie in: a superhero silhouette, complete with a savage wrestling belt and cowboy boots. It’s a look you’d see on the street in a big city, but you can’t quite put your finger on it like an archetype. It’s just trendy.
A final point of intrigue about this show: the collection and the film are intended as a metaphor for the “myth of property”, as its forty-page booklet of press notes underlines. This is not the first time that a luxury designer has rubbed his beard on the question of whether the appropriation or the copy should really be verboten; Balenciaga and Gucci have made it a central part of their hacker project. And yet, no one outside of these designers has really questioned whether a designer can really copy responsibly (yet). In this show, for example, Abloh took a TML Breakers sweater and put the Vuitton-ified graphic on a sweater. It’s a typical Abloh thing (remember the three percent approach?), But he has now engulfed the controversy that this kind of counterfeiting generates and made it part of his practice. Now that he’s pushing the idea even further, shouldn’t we be entertaining him more? He is one of the few designers who can really spark serious controversy.
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