Virgil Abloh has been named as the next artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. While rumors of the move have been circulating for a while, the confirmation is a huge moment that further blurs the line between streetwear and high-fashion — and it also marks the first time Louis Vuitton has had a black artistic director.
As The New York Times noted in its article announcing the news, French fashion houses have had very few black designers. Abloh will be just the third black designer to head up a luxury heritage house, alongside Olivier Rousteing, the creative director of Balmain, and Ozwald Boateng who headed up Givenchy menswear from 2003 to 2007.
But it’s not just France’s fashion industry that has a disappointing relationship with diversity. Across Europe and the U.S., the majority of the people in charge of the major fashion houses or heritage brands — think Gucci, Burberry, Balenciaga or Calvin Klein — are white men. It might seem shocking that in 2018 Louis Vuitton has just hired its first black artistic director, but as things stand currently, Abloh’s appointment has put Louis Vuitton miles ahead of a lot of heritage fashion brands — which speaks to the dismal lack of diversity in the industry.
As Highsnobiety contributor Jon Moy explained in his piece about H&M’s recent hoodie controversy, “A lack of diversity amongst positions of power within an industry leads to an industry that lacks empathy for communities of color.” He points to instances of racism — like the aforementioned hoodie, Miroslava Duma and Ulyana Sergeenko‘s casual relationship with the n-word or APC’s Jean Touitout’s diatribe against China and his use of the n-word — and tells us that these are not merely mistakes but that “one must see these repeated racial insensitivities as part and parcel of a culture that up until very recently, publicly eschewed notions of diversity or even a base level of sensitivity to these issues.”
This rings true at Louis Vuitton, which under white creative directors, has been accused of cultural appropriation both in 2012 and 2017 for using traditional Basotho patterns in its menswear show. While not involved in any racial controversies while at Louis Vuitton, the brand’s former creative director Marc Jacobs, drew criticism for his own SS17 show where he sent white models down the runway sporting pastel-colored dreadlocks.
In response, the designer went on an Instagram tirade, writing “All who cry ‘cultural appropriation’ or whatever nonsense about any race of skin color wearing their hair in a particular style or manner – funny how you don’t criticize women of color for straightening their hair.” In the same comment, Jacobs wrote: “I don’t see color or race – I see people.” While the designer has now apologized for his reaction, telling InStyle that “Maybe I’ve been insensitive,” Jacobs’ viewpoint is emblematic of the wider industry that often — unless directly challenged — refuses to acknowledge its structural racism.
That’s not to say the fashion industry isn’t making significant improvements, just that there’s still a lot more work to be done. After Bethann Hardison launched her Diversity Coalition campaign back in 2013, model diversity on the fashion week runways has significantly improved. However, as we recently pointed out, it’s the heritage brands like Louis Vuitton that have the furthest to go (for reference, last year American model Janaye Furman became the first black model to open a Louis Vuitton show ever, for the brand’s Spring/Summer 2018 collection).
In a recent interview with The Guardian, the interviewer was “told Abloh will not talk about race or politics.” But Abloh makes political work, even if he often avoids candidly talking about race. For his SS18 Pitti Uomo menswear show, Abloh tapped artist Jenny Holzer for a series of projections focused on immigration, later that year collaborating again on a series of T-shirts in aid of Planned Parenthood. Abloh’s democratizing approach to the fashion industry can also be read both a savvy business strategy to attract a young fan base (one that has clearly worked) and a barrier-breaking revolutionary political move in an elitist industry.
In the same The Guardian interview, Abloh was asked about Edward Enniful’s recent appointment at British Vogue. Enniful is the publication’s first black editor-in-chief, a move that Abloh described as “super exciting” and a sign of “the actual tectonic plates of new land being formed.” To borrow Abloh’s phrasing, Enniful’s appointment broke new ground at British Vogue, a publication that before his first issue featured just eight covers with black women on them — and five of those covers were Naomi Campell. While we don’t know what Abloh’s Louis Vuitton’s tenure will bring, his move certainly breaks the all-white status quo at the brand, much like Enniful’s British Vogue move did.
Kanye West, Abloh’s friend and collaborator, has previously railed against racism in the fashion industry. During an interview with BBC Radio 1’s Zane Lowe in 2013, West spoke about what he perceived as a glass ceiling for black designers. “That’s the most we can make,” he said. “We can have our best perspective on T-shirts, but if it’s anything else, your Truman Show boat is hitting the wall.” In the same year, during an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, West announced (incorrectly as Olivier Rousteing was at Balmain) that “There is no black guy at the end of the runway in Paris.” It’s incredibly meaningful both that Louis Vuitton has a black man at its helm, and that Abloh rose to the position from a streetwear background — he literally transitioned from making T-shirts to leading the menswear department of one of the world’s most prestigious luxury brands.
Whatever you personally think of Abloh’s work, becoming the next artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton is a watershed moment for the fashion industry and bodes well for increased diversity in the luxury sector. As the designer told The New York Times, his appointment will “show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look.” That can only be a good thing, but we also can’t place the burden of fixing fashion’s racism problem on Abloh’s shoulders. More progress needs to be done, but Abloh’s move to Louis Vuitton is certainly a step in the right direction.
In other news, here’s how celebrities are reacting to Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton move.
- Main & Featured Image: Keith Hui / Highsnobiety