Modern Collectibles is analyzing the Virgil Abloh’s impact on fashion in partnership with Sotheby’s. Visit Sotheby’s to purchase pieces made by the late designer for Louis Vuitton.
One of the late, great Virgil Abloh’s most underappreciated talents was a chameleon-like knack for changing what a brand could be. Abloh was named the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear in March 2018, and by June of that year, he’d presented his first collection with the brand — a Wizard of Oz-inspired cornucopia of bright colors, bold patterns and attention-demanding materials unlike anything LV had sent down the runway before. In a single show, he completely shifted the brand’s aesthetic, moving away from the pillars of travel, exploration and past-meets-present it stood on during former artistic director Kim Jones’ seven-year tenure. There was an air of whimsy, wonder, and streetwise newness in the items that only someone with Abloh’s experience could bring to the table. The footwear was no exception.
During the three years Abloh spent at Louis Vuitton before his tragic passing, he brought an entirely new design language to the brand’s footwear, building on the inclusive visual style he’d already established through his rolodex of Off-White x Nike collabs. Louis Vuitton footwear under Abloh was a simmering stew of street and pop culture, drawing decidedly diasporic elements together – skateboarding, basketball, work boots, high-end running shoes – to show his myriad of influences. Hit after hit came out of LV’s Italian footwear atelier in Fesso d’Artico as Abloh worked with the brand’s footwear team to create modern-day classics like the LV 408 Trainer, a high and low-top model that bore resemblance to ’80s basketball shoes, or the LV A View, a chunky skate shoe with ’00s design language that was a signature model for pro skater Lucien Clarke. That’s not even mentioning Abloh’s crowning footwear achievement, the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 collection, released posthumously.
Now without Abloh, Louis Vuitton finds itself at a crossroads. The streetwear-infused ethos and cultural references he popularized have become par for the course among high fashion brands. Even sportswear brands linking up with high fashion houses isn’t the bombshell news it used to be. In the last year and a half alone, Adidas has worked with Prada, Gucci, and Balenciaga on co-created footwear, and though the concept of “high-end sportswear” still has plenty of juice left to be squeezed out of it, Louis Vuitton will need to take a new angle when naming Abloh’s successor.
No matter if Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, Samuel Ross or a dark horse candidate takes the helm, they’ll have to combat a saturated sneaker space where seemingly everyone is trying to catch a little of that Virgil magic. Thankfully, a few avenues appear to be open.
Louis Vuitton could cut back on collabs, opting instead to focus on their in-house footwear designs — a “silver lining” route of sorts, as Abloh’s seismic collaborative designs could unintentionally overshadow the quite good in-line footwear that the Louis Vuitton team was creating. Models like these were a far cry from the plain, pricy silhouettes like the LV Passenger and LV Frontrow that the brand had pushed before Abloh’s tenure: simple sneakers with no defining features besides their monogrammed patterns and sky-high price points.
The LV 408 Trainer, produced under Abloh, was instead a completely original silhouette that enjoyed a level of prestige normally attached to Air Jordans or high-heat collabs, reminiscent of the hype afforded the Balenciaga Triple-S, Gucci Rython, or Dior B23.
A second solution for Louis Vuitton would be ramping up their collaborative efforts with Nike or another party, betting that viral moments, co-signs, familiarity, and hype will be enough to keep them on top of the pile. However, with what feels like dozens of new collabs dropping every week, the market is more saturated than ever before — and this approach would likely rest more on logomania and earned prestige instead of intricate, original designs.
Not to mention that topping something as omnipresent as the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 collection is a tall (read: impossible) task. A 47-style lineup that served as Virgil Abloh’s swan song, the collection was a deeply reverential nod to Louis Vuitton’s unparalleled craftsmanship, the Air Force 1’s enduring cultural cachet and the bootleggers and customizers who first brought the two worlds together in the ’80s and ’90s.
However, its immense success begs the question: what silhouettes of that stature are even left to use? The Air Jordan 1 has already had its moment with 2020’s Air Dior collaboration, and LV using it would run the risk of feeling like a cheap — figuratively, not literally — cash grab. Other Nike classics like Dunks and Air Maxes aren’t afforded quite the same level of ubiquity. Adidas appears to be in Kering’s pocket, so their icons are off the table as well. If LV were to take this approach, they’d need to dig a little deeper and find an icon of their own, but elevating another silhouette that customers are already familiar with to the highest possible level would be a move that’s full of Abloh’s reinventive spirit.
Other options include bringing on a tenured footwear designer with a big name of their own to garner excitement and create original silhouettes. Salehe Bembury comes to mind: he’s currently working as a freelance designer under his own Spunge brand and has extensive experience in the luxury sector thanks to his time at Versace — where he created the Chain Reaction and Trigreca, models that reinterpreted house codes in a fresh fashion. Hiring a figure like Bembury, who’s gained a high level of individual prestige and built a strong personal brand, could give LV a chance to bring the benefits of third-party collaboration — authenticity, an expanded and engaged audience — to their in-line footwear, making their internal machinations more engaging to the general public instead of using outside partners to boost their value and cultural cachet.
Of course, Louis Vuitton could also remove sneakers from their menswear strategy entirely, betting on the trend pendulum swinging back towards more classical formalwear. That’s not a likely outcome, but a brand doesn’t stay at the top by doing the expected.
The core footwear question that Louis Vuitton’s next menswear lead needs to answer is what makes a luxury sneaker take off. Virgil Abloh understood how to answer that question — and now it’s on his replacement to figure it out for themselves. Any way it goes, it’s a story worth watching.