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Will Virgil Abloh Change the Fashion System, or Should We Scrap It All Together?

Many designers hope Virgil Abloh will open the doors of the fashion industry to black designers.

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Jun 21 2018, 11:03pm

Photograph by Pascal Le Segretain for Getty Images.

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This week at Paris Men’s Fashion Week, Virgil Abloh debuted his first Louis Vuitton menswear collection which, since the announcement of his post there, has been one of the most polarizing subjects in fashion. The significance of his appointment is undeniable: Abloh is Louis Vuitton’s first African-American creative director, and only the third black designer in history to helm a heritage brand. And he got to the highest rung of the industry without a traditional design background: he studied architecture and engineering. Abloh has not only stepped over the gatekeepers, but has jacked the keys.

Black creators have repeatedly had to defend and justify their presence in fashion. As designer and writer Kibwe Chase-Marshall wrote in the Business of Fashion in January, “Let me be clear: the established, mainstream fashion design community does not have a diversity problem, it has a ‘Black people problem.’ Within the majority of luxury, contemporary-level and mass-market design studios, talented Black designers are seldom equitably afforded opportunities to attain senior designer, design director, creative director or vice president of design titles.” The current politics of the fashion industry require stamps of approval from institutions like Vogue and the CFDA, and they function as judges through which brands are legitimized. The problem is that much of the resources that these institutions provide are inaccessible to lesser known black designers working towards visibility in the mainstream.

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Social media now provides more opportunities to craft our own, or alternative, narratives. Last year, Abloh told the New York Times, “I feel like Off-White might be one of the truly first sort of like luxury brands that’s just been built from social media.” And he’s right. Off-White became ubiquitous outside of fashion’s establishment, and now that Abloh has infiltrated one of the most well-known, storied-brands, his visibility will reach new heights. Rather than discounting streetwear merely as “trend,” or “niche culture,” Abloh sets out to challenge the industry to receive it as it would receive the brands on Rodeo Drive or Madison Avenue.

The Off-White ethos is a literal representation of the trickle up effect, where trends and ideas start at the street level and rise into fashion’s zeitgeist (where it legitimizes) and can then turn an incredible profit. Off-White’s model also includes the re-purposing of the already existing shapes and fashion staples, packaged to appeal to a base while simultaneously working to impress fashion’s old guard.

History has its eyes on him, and industry observers and insiders alike are now wondering whether, if Abloh proves to be successful during his tenure at LV, maybe the industry will finally, sincerely, open its arms to black design talent.

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During this last round of fashion weeks there was an inspiring presence of black designers. Telfar Clemens, the recipient of the 2017 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award, staged a concert instead of a traditional runway presentation, showing clothes on a number of black artists including Kelela, Dev Hynes, and Ian Isaiah to create a communal experience that disrupted the barriers between audience and art. Simultaneously, Clemens displayed his clothing at Century 21’s concept shop and invited visitors to vote on which items from his collection should be produced—an atypical sales strategy in an atypical retail location (especially for high fashion). Clemens’s brand is a radical counterpoint to the designers that are typically embraced by institutions like Vogue and the CFDA—the 2016 winner, for instance, was the serene, prairie dress brand Brock Collection.

I asked Clemens about how Abloh’s impact will affect the future of black design. “The fact that we have to ask this question — about whether Virgil at LV opens a path for black designers is basically the problem,” Clemens said. “I think fashion will hedge your race against your sales—but in any case your race still comes before your work. There’s not a strong formal connection between what we do and what Virgil does—but we are both black so we are grouped together. For that reason and more I hope he is a huge, huge success.”

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But is success in the “mainstream” even necessary? I asked Chase-Marshall, who, in his Business of Fashion story, called on the CFDA and Vogue to launch “a comprehensive industry initiative that creates equitable employment inroads for black designers.” “Though the notion that Black designers will most effectively explore engaging their culture within their work when they helm their own brands is a fair assumption, it can set up some false hopes and excuse the manners in which the industry handicaps Black creatives via denying them equal access to opportunities within mainstream brands,” Chase-Marshall says. “I am passionately supportive of Black entrepreneurial efforts within the design space but I (and over 24,000 petition signers) insist that the industry set Black creatives up for success in the same manner that it does for their non-Black counterparts.” The skills required to run a design house, or even ascend the ranks of the fashion industry, are ones that are often acquired in internships or roles secured by a deeply connected network, opportunities which are not readily available to black talent, he explains. He continues, “When black designers are denied access to this sort of professional growth and grooming, it makes the goal of entrepreneurial success, devoid of opportunities to master industry best-practices, and a develop networks of influential colleagues, highly unlikely.”

Other brands are finding success purposefully distancing themselves from the systems that fashion so notoriously relies on, with help from social media. Recho Omondi, who designs the brand Omondi, has a “for us by us” mentality, in which blackness is at the forefront of the identity of the brand, which fuses elements of her Kenyan heritage and Western lifestyle. She’s received very little “traditional” media coverage—instead, she seems to have built her following primarily on Instagram, growing a fandom around her hand-stitched graphic shirts, and her bold, oversized silhouettes that pop well on the platform. Yet she’s open about insisting that she belongs in fashion’s elite realms, even if she isn’t climbing the prescribed ladder: just check out her “up next” tee.

As Abloh solidifies his space in the trajectory of high fashion, this could be an introspective moment for the industry to reflect on the decades of exclusion of black design talent—and the process by which it welcomes new talent into its fold. Regardless of whether Abloh’s clothing will usher in fashion’s new guard, his role can be a catalyst for a seismic shift in fashion. His practice is emblematic of the kinds of evocative stories that can unfold on the runway, in editorial spreads, in advertising—and beyond.

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