LVMH Without Virgil: How The Conglomerate Can Speak To A New Generation

    The late designer bridged a necessary gap between youth culture and luxury traditions. Can LVMH maintain that connection without him?
    The late designer bridged a necessary gap between youth culture and luxury traditions. Can LVMH maintain that connection without him? Photo: Louis Vuitton
      Published   in Fashion

    Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) first recognized the Virgil Abloh-effect back in 2014. At the late designer’s first Off-White womenswear collection at Paris Fashion Week, he was selected as a finalist for the highly-coveted LVMH prize. Within a couple of years, zip ties, hazard tape, and quotation marks had become firm signifiers of young fashion-insiders. By 2018, Off-White was ranked as the hottest brand in the world.

    That same year, Abloh was named as Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of menswear, succeeding Kim Jones; he was not only the first Black designer to head the luxury fashion house, but he also generated a trend of unconventional talents taking the place of traditional designers, having entered fashion as a creative polymath juggling DJing, architecture, and fashion design. And just one year after Abloh joined Louis Vuitton, the conglomerate announced a 16 percent revenue increase during the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same financial period in 2018.

    Bridging across various disciplines, he ultimately elevated the fashion that streetwear kids understood — the clothes that were a product of the music they listened to and the art that they loved. As the late-icon told Style magazine after that 2014 Off-White show, “The zeitgeist is what inspires me, this sort of collective thought of trends and how they move to different cities — what kids in Paris are talking about or what music they’re listening to.” Every show and presentation for both Louis Vuitton and Off-White felt like a love letter to his loyal younger audiences, celebrating the beauty of subculture for those immersed in it.

    His presence within LVMH thus enabled it to engage immensely with Gen Z. Now, since his passing in late 2021, both the Louis Vuitton brand and its parent company LVMH face a void in filling his absence. Without his touch, LVMH stands to lose some of its hard-won approval of Gen Z. Consider that Kering-owned rival brands Gucci and Balenciaga have largely traded the top spots on Lyst’s Hottest Brands Index in recent quarters.

    To this day, Abloh represents a creative community of anti-fashion luxury consumers, which LVMH quickly recognized a valuable viewpoint to bring into its traditionalist luxury fold. Following his appointment at Louis Vuitton, the group bought a 60 percent stake in Off-White in 2021, shortly before his death. Brand strategy director Yolanda O’Leary noted that the conglomerate is credited among the traditional luxury industry for recognizing his talent, welcoming the re-interpretation of luxury codes. “Gen Z is better understood as a mindset, as a youth outlook, and what Abloh did so well was to capture the imaginations of a youthful and influential global audience,” O’Leary explained.

    Other LVMH brands have worked to appeal to Gen Z as well. 2018 also saw Kim Jones debut as LVMH-owned Dior mens’ creative director and launch the hypebeast-approved KAWS collaboration. In 2019, the French label also released their collaborative Air Jordan 1s — the stuff of luxe Gen Z dreams.

    In July 2020, Dior presented the Air Dior limited-edition collection at seven boutiques around China. Photo: Dior's Weibo
    In July 2020, Dior presented the Air Dior limited-edition collection at seven boutiques around China. Photo: Dior's Weibo

    By 2022, streetwear codes are integral to LVMH brands, which suggests that the group will manage to maintain a huge influence over Gen Z without Abloh, as fashion commentator Hanan Besovic noted to Jing Daily. “Don’t get me wrong, his approach to Gen Z had a huge impact, but LVMH as a conglomerate still has brands that are targeting the mentioned-demographic. If we look at a brand like Celine’s womenswear, it has a similar power over Gen Z. Or Matthew [M. Williams]’s Givenchy, which is trying to cater to that demographic in a completely different way.”

    Abloh helped spearhead the streetwear-luxury crossover, with blockbuster collaborations now a successful formula within LVMH and beyond. If it wasn’t for his influence, perhaps the group would not have had the confidence to launch Dior’s partnership with Travis Scott (2021) or see Tiffany & Co. collaborate with skate label Supreme (2021).

    Launched in November 2021, the Tiffany x Supreme range sold out in seconds. Photo: Supreme
    Launched in November 2021, the Tiffany x Supreme range sold out in seconds. Photo: Supreme

    “What inspired youth audiences was his energy, optimism and the values he championed — that reflected their own,” said O’Leary. “And I believe this impact can be sustained.” Of course, Abloh’s impact will literally live on through LVMH, thanks to his permanent projects such as the Black Database which he founded in 2020 — a database of Black talent for LVMH to work with. He also was reportedly behind the ongoing diversity panel to improve representation within the company.

    Despite these permanent fixtures in place that will live beyond Abloh, there is uncertainty as to how LVMH will evolve without his streetwear innovation and zeitgeist-approved runway shows. Editor-in-Chief of StyleZeitgeist Eugene Rabkin believes that the group is secure among Gen Z consumers due to its massive capital: “LVMH’s most potent weapon is its bottomless marketing budget. Which is not to say that the artistic directors that they hire don’t matter, but I think what matters more is how they market the brand.”

    In terms of Louis Vuitton, the question now is who will follow Abloh as creative director on the menswear side. Rumors currently favor independent designers Grace Wales Bonner and Martine Rose, who gained mainstream attention for their collaborations with Adidas and Nike, respectively.

    “My money was on Ib Kamara, and I was close — he went to Off-White instead,” said Rabkin, agreeing that LVMH should honor the legacy of Abloh by hiring another Black talent. “My next guess is that it will be either Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss or Samuel Ross of A-Cold-Wall*. I don’t think that Martine Rose has enough of a profile with the hypebeast clientele.”

    Louis Vuitton might now forever be associated with streetwear thanks to Abloh and his predecessor Jones, but as Besovic added, the brand still needs to innovate to remain relevant. “I think if they continue ‘the Virgil way’ it will not be authentic but it will feel like an attempt to keep the buzz and interest going,” he noted.

    The question right now is how such a seismic buzz as produced by Abloh will be maintained moving forward in his absence. There just might be another unconventional creative director with a Gen Z fanbase ready to take the reins, or perhaps they will surprise with an unsuspected move that bids farewell to the era of Abloh.

    Either way, thanks to Abloh, the scene has been set for LVMH to thrive in a new era of cross-industry collaboration and community-led creativity. But it’s up to the company to pursue new directions without him. He ultimately walked so streetwear-loving Gen Z could run to LVMH.

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