Photography Mitchell Sams

7 fashion industry insiders discuss virgil abloh’s appointment

As he becomes Louis Vuitton’s first African American artistic director, has Virgil Abloh forever torn down fashion’s walls? We asked a cross section of industry figures.

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Mar 29 2018, 12:33pm

Photography Mitchell Sams

From the moment he launched Pyrex Vision in 2012 with a collection of Champion tees, hoodies, basketball shorts and flannel shirts, reimagined and repurposed through collegiate lettering and Renaissance artwork, Virgil Abloh has shaken the fashion industry up. Why? Because after interning at Fendi with Kanye West for just $500-a-month, the Illinois-born creative has carved out his own path. From Kanye West to Been Trill, Pyrex Vision to OFF-White and now Louis Vuitton, he has fought, pushed and broken down walls because this is how you break the establishment as an outsider. In challenging the status quo, he has divided the industry. So, after his radical appointment as Louis Vuitton’s first African American artistic director, we hear from a cross-section of industry insiders to discuss the potential impact on luxury fashion and the wider industry.

1. Eugene Kan, founder of MAEKAN, former editorial director of Hypebeast
“Fashion's purpose and role within culture has changed significantly and Virgil's usage of it, in a streetwear and relatively high(er)-fashion context is far more purposeful. We live in a new age where the previous positioning of fashion is no longer valid but the old guard will try their best to hold onto it. The power has now shifted to those who can take whatever culture's definition of fashion is, and now work it and connect it with everything else.

The two polarizing opinions I'm seeing on the Virgil/LV appointment:
1. Groundbreaking to see a black designer at the helm.
2. He's not qualified from a designer standpoint and it represents a hype-driven fashion world.

Given the two warring factions, purity in fashion vs. marginalized people of culture, I think the bigger issue discounting the fact I'm a (model) minority is the latter. Virgil's appointment is already a forced lesson in diversity. You're going to start seeing people that maybe traditionally weren't provided a spot at the table, now have a sense of place. A whole lot of kids will now see what's possible and that the doors have been opened for a part of culture that was previously very closed off. A good question that I'm in no position to answer is, how does Virgil's appointment by LV compare with Obama taking office? Both entered a place that was seemingly previously off limits. To me, truly breaking down the walls is when we no longer need to highlight race as an issue in the industry. We no longer need to see the seasonal articles that are along the lines of "XYZ had no black models on the runway." That to me is when the walls have been eradicated.”

2. Mandi Lennard, fashion PR and consultant
“Virgil Abloh’s touchstones speak the language of now. It's a natural conclusion, given the momentum of his output.”

3. Carri Munden, fashion designer, stylist, art director
“I can't think of a better man or woman to continue the legacy that Kim Jones -- who in my opinion is the most important menswear designer of our generation -- has started. Kim with his own label and then at LV redefined both luxury and streetwear. Like Kim, Virgil understands what modern menswear should be, how real men dress and also the currency and influence of subcultures. Virgil is incredibly hardworking and driven but the qualities I most respect in him is that he is interested in youth, in whatever currently inspires him, and he is humble. Diversity is not a trend, it's not a casting look for a season or a business strategy, it's the world we live in and the only future I want to be a part of. Diversity is a culture and industry where multiple stories are told at all levels and where there are multiple pathways to the top. Virgil’s career and appointment is the truth and proof of this.”

4. Stavros Karelis, founder and buying director of MACHINE-A
“Virgil has been working for this position for years. He has produced a vast amount of work through so many different mediums and has engaged with young generations of consumer in ways that very few have done in recent times. His audience adores him and the older generation cannot help but admire the amount of work and the political and social connections attached to it. This combination can become a real force of change in connection with a fashion powerhouse like Louis Vuitton. Together, they can bring great change and be a force of diversity and inclusion, individuality and freedom. Hopefully many other brands will follow.

This appointment is a hopeful message for the next generation wishing to follow in his footsteps. And hope is the most important weapon against these turbulent times. Hope and being fearless. It’s easier said than done but it is so liberating as well. People need to build a new system in order for the current system to seem obsolete. The only way to build something new is through creation and being brave.”

5. Bianca Saunders, recent RCA-graduate and menswear designer
“Coming from an architectural background, Virgil has a very similar career path to Raf Simons so it comes to no surprise to me that Virgil has been appointed artistic director at Louis Vuitton men’s. Why? He’s already made a lucrative brand with Off-White and he’s connected to the youth and brings a diverse audience with me.

This is a great moment but someone like Dapper Dan should of had a spot as creative director for a brand like Louis Vuitton or Gucci years ago. His input to fashion for bringing in more creativity, celebrity culture and people of colour to buying the brands, have benefited brands like Louis Vuitton and Gucci. I feel like Virgil does near enough the same when we are talking about designers of colour influencing the youth, celebrities and culture and bring in a diverse customer of all ages to wear the brand. He’s great at branding and knowing what is cool. I think he will do great continuing to lift Louis Vuitton into the millennial customer base. I think people will buy the brand more just knowing the fact that it’s Virgil.

Ultimately, his appointment is great for the culture as it shifts the visibility of black designers/designers of colour in fashion. It is very encouraging for me, being a young designer, who is black. It’s showing that it is possible for me or someone who look like me to be a head of a heritage French brand. Virgil's visibility of being there will encourage more people of colour and young guys to study fashion. In the top fashion schools, as I have experienced there is a real problem with diversity; regarding class and race. Visibility is important, if you don't see people who look like you at the top you think it’s disheartening.”

6. Tremaine Emory, co-founder of No Vacancy Inn, consultant and creative
“Inclusiveness as far as race, gender and class has yet to be truly adopted by the powers that be in all industries and government so it should come as little surprise that Virgil Abloh is only one of two black designers to hold a high-profile position at a major fashion brand. Today, we all have a chance to get through the door that Pharrell and Kanye West kicked down for us in the fashion world...BUT ONLY IF WE PUT IN THE WORK. Now, the next generation of can take the elevator instead of the back staircase.

Rather than a game changing moment, it’s another amazing step towards that but there’s much more to do. Game changing is when we own our own conglomerates. In the meantime, it's about money and the bottom line for these brands. If these brands want to stay in the black fiscally speaking they have to work with 'US'.”

7. Joshua Kissi, co-founder of TONL and Street Etiquette , creative director and photographer
“If you follow Virgil Abloh’s fashion career moves he pretty much mirrored it to the way music is consumed. He basically creates various albums/projects -- Pyrex, Been Trill, Off-White -- and spreads out the content and attention for each entity before moving on to the next one.

Has he forever torn down fashion’s walls? Virgil has knocked down a good amount of bricks but fashion’s wall still stands pretty strong in my opinion. It takes more than his appointment to find solutions to many of the issues within the diversity and inclusion sectors concerning the fashion world. To think an industry as expressive and rebellious as “fashion”, isn’t it quite ironic we’re presently discussing Virgil Abloh as one of the first African-American designers of a luxury brand like Louis Vuitton? For young creatives of colour, especially in the African-American community, there’s this notion that there isn’t a position or place for you within the high fashion luxury brands even though most of the “trends” originate in the street and don’t become “fashion” or “trendy” until they’re consumable by the mass markets. I think what Virgil has done has evened the playground a bit more, there are still ways to go with diversity and inclusion but his appointment is one of many steps ahead.”