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Who is Virgil Abloh? What you need to know about Louis Vuitton's latest designer

The argument behind Abloh's appointment isn't black and white.

How the Kanye West collaborator and former Fendi intern got one of the biggest jobs in fashion

Virgil Abloh, a designer, DJ and Kanye West's creative director, was recent appointed as the new menswear designer for Louis Vuitton. (Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Ketel One)

The flashy, hype-driven aura of multifaceted creative, Virgil Abloh, seems at odds with the enduring, luxurious image of Louis Vuitton, the fashion house founded in 1854. And yet yesterday, LVMH, French luxury goods conglomerate which operates Louis Vuitton, named Abloh as the brand's new menswear designer, a move that has been met with some resistance. Abloh is often criticized for lacking originality, citing recurring themes in the collections from his brand, Off—White c/o Virgil Abloh. One such critic is former creative director of Chritian Dior, Raf Simons.

Last year, GQ asked Simons which new labels and designers inspired or excited him. His answer began with "Not Off-White." 

Many on social media have balked at Abloh's appointment as a designer, accusing him iteration rather than innovation in the fashion space.

Others back the decision to hire one of fashion's hottest names, despite his lack of institutional pedigree. 

Abloh is the first person of colour to take the hot seat and he has few non-white contemporaries of similar stature at other brands; Olivier Rousteing is Balmain's creative director; Carol Lim and Humberto Leon are creative directors at Kenzo, another label owned by LVMH.

From Kanye to the runway

So who is Abloh, and why has his appointment caused a controversy in the fashion world? Some may know Abloh as a DJ or Kanye West's creative director, while others may know him through his streetwear brand, Off—White, or for his recently redesigned 10 classic Nike sneakers

Just a few years ago, however, the fashion world hardly knew him at all. In 2009, Abloh and West both interned at Fendi, the Italian luxury fashion house, where they performed tasks such as making photocopies and taking coffee orders.

In a radio interview with Zane Lowe, West said he and Abloh were ahead of their time. "Giving Fendi our designs and getting them knocked down. ... [I] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said no," West said. 

Michael Burke, CEO of Fendi at the time, confirmed he paid the pair $500 each per week, but knew their potential was beyond their pay grade.

"I was really impressed with how they brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way," Burke told the New York Times.

Today, Off—White is an institution among the streetwear circles of fashion, but why pick Abloh to steer Louis Vuitton's luxury men's line? The easiest accusation is that LVMH is simply tapping into the cultural capital of streetwear in order to sell already-popular clothing to those who associate Abloh's name with what's cool.

"I am very disappointed, though absolutely not surprised by Abloh's appointment. It was only a matter of time that a luxury brand that wants to capitalize on Abloh's hype machine would make such a move," said Eugene Rabkin, founder and editor-in-chief of Style Zeitgeist, to highsnobiety. "In terms of dollar signs, I envision a bright future for LV. Expect the same boring, easily-digestible menswear archetypes Abloh has been churning out at Off—White, only with Louis Vuitton logo on them."

Looking through Abloh's catalogue of offerings as a first time viewer, you'd be forgiven for asking why a t-shirt has "TEMPERATURE" printed on the front, or why knee-high boots worth a month's pay to the average Canadian has "FOR WALKING" stamped on the side.

The "FOR WALKING STILETTO" is a $1,110 high-heel, a part of the brand's spring/summer 2018 collection. Credit: Off-White (off-white.ca)

Sometimes, Abloh admits, his design choices are for irony's sake, but for others the message is more clear. The aforementioned t-shirt features a graphic of the earth laid out as a deconstructed globe, which can be seen as a commentary on global warming.

"Every time I'm annoying you guys with quotes all over everything, it's that I'm searching for a new tool to communicate in our post-American Apparel super ironic, post-Been Trill [a defunct streetwear brand founded in part by Abloh] world," Abloh said at a Nike event last September.

Perhaps Louis Vuitton is looking for a new way to communicate what its goods mean to consumers. Abloh is a black figurehead in the fashion world, which has long been shamed for its exploitation of minorities, copying traditional patterns and styles and plastering billboards with non-white models, all while turning away designers who are persons of colour.

The appointment of Abloh also seems commercially viable, seeing as how his name means a lot to young people who build their outfits on the base of thousand-dollar sneakers. But perhaps the true victory is putting a non-white fashion designer in a position to include and represent a wider demographic.

In a since deleted tweet from 2012, Abloh may have summed up his ethos best to those that doubt him.

"Design is the freshest scam. Quote me on that one," he wrote. 

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