Following recent allegations by Walter van Beirendonck of Virgil Abloh copying the Belgian designer's recognizable design aesthetic of wearable toys, Abloh today indirectly fired back at his latest Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2021 menswear show which was held in Tokyo.
At the show, part of his "international tour" to challenge the current fashion system, Abloh sent out a model who halfway down the runway started unpacking a crate that as seen on a video published by Louis Vuitton on its Instagram, had been sent all the way to Tokyo from Louis Vuitton's Paris archive. In it was a LV-monogrammed "Doudou" teddy bear – originally designed by Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton in 2005 in partnership with German toy company Steiff – as if to challenge the recent accusations and remind his critics that referencing and remixing has always been a part of his design language.
In the show's manifesto, Abloh also added another explanation, recounting how he was in a Parisian toy store shopping for his children, when he “caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror, his pockets stuffed with puppets of all shapes and colors. They made him think of the "carved masks, figurines and dolls he knew from Ghana, and the Maroquinaris Zoologicae series of small leather goods created for the house by Billie Achilleos in 2011."
The choice to show in Tokyo aligns with the opening of the brand's first-ever standalone menswear store in Shibuya and Abloh’s collaboration with Nigo. Titled "Message in a Bottle," the collection included 59 new looks exclusively for the Tokyo show including slender suiting, checkerboard patterning, Ghanaian flag-inspired sweaters, balaclavas, inflatable outerwear, and a reveal of 12 new LV x Nigo pieces.
In order to inject some sustainability into Louis Vuitton's fashion business, the collection contained 25 looks made from recycled materials, and 70 looks from the previous collection in Shanghai, re-shown. To quote Abloh, "No season is an old season. In a fast-paced and fleeting time, repetition equals documentation: gestures made and lessons learned." Among the socially distanced spectators was Takashi Murakami, AMBUSH founder Yoon Ahn and her business partner and DJ Verbal. Alongside them many members of the general public, who watched models walk the new pieces in a freestyle formation to music curated by Benji B with an overlay of a poem written and read by Caleb Femi.
Similar to the last show, there were giant inflatable characters animating the garments and crouching like sprites on the backs of models, dangling next to shipping containers on the Tokyo dock. These characters, first seen in the short movie ‘The adventures of Zoooom with friends", are inspired by people from Abloh's life – notably those who accompanied him on his journey with Louis Vuitton. It wouldn't be a stretch to assume one is based on Kanye West.
The show notes (which at 81 pages reads more like a manifesto) points to Abloh's uncharacteristic state of inertia as an entry point into thinking about his Ghanian roots to inspire the colors, shapes, and motifs in the collection.
"[Abloh] spent this time around his mother and father saturated in his Ghanaian heritage and childhood memories. He decided that moving forward, the creative premises of his work at Louis Vuitton would spring directly from his cultural heritage", the show notes state, "his work would visualize unapologetic Black Imagination in an autobiographical and deeply personal voice. A second generation African-American, Abloh’s Ghanaian-born parents draped his childhood in a cultural tapestry of Kente cloth, hand-carved figurines, wooden masks, and the iconography of spirituality."
The collection's most memorable component, teddy bear aside, was a psychedelic black-and-white checkerboard pattern that appeared on trousers, jackets, and suiting, was defined by Abloh in the show's accompanying glossary as "a pattern of infinite congruent squares... adopted by the Two-Tone scene of 1980s’ London as an illustration of its harmonious clash between Jamaican music and British subculture. Also: a conventional symbol of game, triumph and authority. When skewed, swirled or distorted, the rules of the conventional game change."
Some of the finesse from Spring/Summer 2021 is already becoming overshadowed on social media by the ongoing Van Beirendonck dispute. Yet #teddygate should not shy away from the fact that the fashion collection itself was arguably one of his strongest yet. Abloh is only starting to build out his narrative at Louis Vuitton; one of hybridization, rule-bending, and disruption. Plagiarism or not, it's something to keep a closer eye on.
Watch the full show below.