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Virgil Abloh and Louis Vuitton: who is scamming whom?

Virgil Abloh may not bring radical new design ideas to Louis Vuitton, but I guess he brings some cultural capital.

March 26, 2018

Six years ago, Virgil Abloh tweeted an improbably prescient thought: "Design is the freshest scam. Quote me on that one." The exact context of the post is unknown to me, but it was one of those perfectly relevant archival tweets to have been dug up this morning, following the news that he, of Pyrex Vision, Been Trill, Off-White fame, had been named the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear. In group chats and across social media was a consensus that he, a dilettante designer obsessed with shallow iconography and Raf Simons, being rewarded with such high post, was a manifestation of that tweet. A scam, if you will.

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And it's true that there are a lot of ways in which Virgil's hiring was unlikely: he does not have a traditional fashion background; much of his “work” in “fashion” has rested on the “concept” of “zipties” as a design “element” and also on putting “nouns” in “quotation marks”; his logo-led aesthetic is hardly defined and a little cliché.

But there are other ways in which it makes perfect sense for Louis Vuitton, which, like other traditional fashion houses, must protect the space it has carved out for itself in the zeitgeist while entering new lanes. Whether or not Virgil's work itself merits the adulation does not mean he hasn't earned it: Off-White is hugely, eye-rollingly successful, a rare new brand to reach ubiquity in just a matter of years. That the announcement of his hiring circulated beyond the reaches of the fashion world was proof of its being something of a sound investment.

Consider that Virgil’s job isn’t to introduce some radical new design concept or to add gravitas to Louis Vuitton's 160-year legacy — it's to raise the brand's visibility and cultural capital, to translate some of the energy that surrounds Virgil into energy of its own, and to help it claim for itself some of the cool it sought when it teamed up with Supreme for a capsule collection designed last year. And, having leveraged his affiliation and collaboration with Kanye into a celebrity of his own, Virgil has proven that although he may not have an original idea about fashion, he’s certainly good at brand- and hype-building. (When asked by GQ last year which young designers he found inspiring, Raf Simons answered, “Not Off-White. He’s a sweet guy. I like him a lot actually. But I’m inspired by people who bring something that I think has not been seen, that is original.”)

For decades, European fashion institutions like Louis Vuitton have been championed by young black trendsetters, often without being in direct conversation with those people. Think, for example, about the cachet — and, as a result, cash — given to Gucci by any given rapper on the Hot 100 charts, and the about-face the Italian house made when it launched an official collaboration with the Harlem designer Dapper Dan. It’s unlikely that the by-appointment-only atelier was a pure sales ploy, but the positive attention that move generated was priceless.

Similarly, Louis Vuitton is already a $12 billion juggernaut as it stands, with an unrivaled premium leather goods business. Adding a fashion outsider with cultural legitimacy to that mix may be as smart as it is cynical, I guess.

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