Virgil Abloh is a force of nature. His Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 collection, which is believed to consist of 100 colorways and designs, dominated headlines and was the biggest story in fashion yesterday, even moreso than the actual runway show. But as loud of a bang as the collection made, and as unprecedented and “game-changing” as it was described, the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 is actually just the latest evolution in the legacy of sneaker bootlegs.
Abloh's collection comprises a range of Louis Vuitton Air Force 1s, all made in Italy and featuring various materials that are either synonymous with Louis Vuitton or at least Abloh’s tenure as creative director men’s. LV’s iconic monogrammed canvas can’t be missed, as it’s splashed across a vast majority of the colorways unveiled at the presentation in contrasting hues.
It’s the integration of the monogram that’s most noteworthy. The design and many of the colorways remind strongly of old custom or bootleg Air Force 1s. As surprising as this collection was, slapping a luxury monogram on a Swoosh is nothing new, in fact, it’s a practice that has been around for several decades.
The earliest instance of Nike Air Force 1s being customized with monogrammed fabrics from luxury brands’ products can be traced to Dapper Dan’s trailblazing work in the ’80s and ’90s. Dapper Dan’s work extended far beyond the Air Force 1, of course, as he often remixed luxury brands’ products into proto-streetwear statement pieces that fit his clients' tastes better than the garments being produced by the actual luxury houses. Dan’s own work was finally cosigned by Gucci in 2018, decades after it litigated Dan in the ’80s and forced him to partially shut down operations.
In the early ’00s, it was multi-hyphenate Vancouver, BC native Raif Adelberg who made a name for himself by cutting up authentic Louis Vuitton bags and using the scraps to replace the swooshes on general release, all-white Air Force 1s. Adelberg would initially sell the customs at the Twenty4 boutique in Vancouver for $300, before sending them to Eddie Cruz and Mary Ann Fusco in New York, to be sold at the now-closed UNION store. They sold like hotcakes.
In an interview with Highsnobiety in 2018, Adelberg admitted to being influenced by Dapper Dan’s work. “I don’t claim to be the first, Dapper Dan and all those guys were the first, they influenced me, and I just kind of brought it back,” he said.
The point is, bootleg luxury Air Force 1s are not new nor original, but they are deeply ingrained in sneaker culture. Abloh is no stranger to flashes of brilliance. But he’s also no stranger to controversy, having been accused on multiple occasions for borrowing other artist’s work or rehashing existing designs. It’s key to note that Abloh’s approach is well-documented and, while his work sometimes has clear inspirations, it’s never a complete copy but rather an evolution of an idea.
It still begs the question where the official Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 sneaker collection lies on the bootleg spectrum. Is it a stroke of genius? Or is it an uninspired, rehashed design?
On the one hand, reactions from the community have been overwhelmingly positive. Instagram's sneakerheads recognize the similarities to past work but are choosing to celebrate the collection as an homage to those that walked so Louis Vuitton x Nike could run.
Following Prada x adidas, Jordan Brand x Dior, and Maison Margiela x Reebok, one could argue that it was merely a matter of time before streetwear’s most famous man would invite Louis Vuitton and Nike to join the fray. Considering previous luxury collaborations, the LV x Nike collection fits the current zeitgeist. If there’s one thing Abloh cannot be accused of, it’s not knowing the history of sneakers, streetwear, or the people that shaped the culture, such as Dapper Dan.
Is it likely that Abloh has used his position at Louis Vuitton to shout out all the creators and independents that came before him, repackaging a tried and trusted bootleg classic through the LV lens? Very much so.
Still, there remain doubts about whether a luxury powerhouse like Louis Vuitton should be appropriating designs that were made iconic by independents. With Virgil at the helm, the answer to whether Louis Vuitton has any business appropriating street culture gets even murkier.
On the other side of the aisle, Nike has fought tooth and nail recently to stop bootlegging on some of its most popular designs, taking Warren Lotas to court for his “Reaper” Dunk Lows and recently receiving a federal trademark for the Air Jordan 1 High, Low, and Low SE.
To then turn around and make a (presumably) very lucrative collection with Louis Vuitton is questionable to say the least. Nike owns the Air Force 1 design, after all, so it's not a matter of legality but ethicality; another case of the culture being ripped off and the big players dividing up all the money.
Bootlegs in sneakers have always been a touchy issue from a legal standpoint. Creatively, though, I would argue that it’s pretty clear who has ownership of the designs.
What exactly Abloh, Louis Vuitton, and Nike’s motivations were, will likely remain unclear. However, judging by the reactions of industry insiders and Abloh’s track record of paying respects to streetwear greats, it's not unfair to say that the LV x Nike Air Force 1 collection leans more towards homage and legitimization of an age-old bootleg design than corporate cash-grab.
Moral quibbles aside, there's an objective truth at this partnership's core. The Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 is, objectively, another major feather in Abloh’s cap and a milestone in the history of streetwear for decades to come.