How Virgil Abloh's Louis Vuitton Menswear Could Change Women's Fashion
Menswear has been flourishing creatively while womenswear picks up the business slack. Now it's time for that to change.
Virgil Abloh and Naomi Campbell at his October 2017 womenswear show. Photograph by Richard Bord for Getty Images.
On Monday morning, fashion designer, artist, Kanye West creative director, sneaker dreamweaver, DJ, prolific collaborator (most recently, with Takashi Murakami), devotee of Princess Diana and Phoebe Philo, friend to Naomi and Bella, future subject and curator of a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, sole client of apparent attorney-at-law Marcel Duchamp, all-around arbiter of cool, trained engineer and architect, world traveler—oh, and fantasy dinner party host, phew!—Virgil Abloh was named artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton.
This is a major moment in fashion history: Abloh will be the first black designer at a European powerhouse. As the Times points out, Olivier Rousteing heads Balmain, but Louis Vuitton is at another level: an unshakable force in fashion worldwide, one of the most dominant brands in the luxury landscape, making up the holy trinity with Dior and Chanel. Vuitton carries menswear in only about a third of its stores; it doesn’t have the reach of Ghesquiére’s womenswear, which has Oscar-winning actresses as brand faces and an ironclad hold over the accessories market. (The Times reports that the brand plans to bring menswear to twenty-some more stores and open more men’s stores, as well.) But Abloh is not traditionally trained as a fashion designer; he came up through the system through tireless work and savvy connections. He is one of the few American designers to head a European brand. He is an embodiment of the American dream.
The news comes on the heels of another LVMH shakeup: Kim Jones, Abloh’s beloved predecessor at Vuitton, who departed in January, was named artistic director of Dior Homme last week. Again, this isn’t the niche news it may seem: this was the post that first snapped the fashion world’s attention to Hedi Slimane, who went on to jolt Saint Laurent into a 21st century megabrand, and, after a few years hanging loose as a photographer in Los Angeles, will now run Céline. Kris Van Assche, Jones’s predecessor at Dior Homme—wow, this is more complicated than recapping Game of Thrones!—will take on an as-yet-unannounced post within LVMH.
It’s worth noting, too, that 2017’s biggest fashion news story was also a menswear one: the one-billion dollar valuation of streetwear brand Supreme. It left retail and design brands eagerly wondering what they could learn from…skateboarders.
All this shuffling is the kind of stuff that, in womenswear, is met with eye rolls and declarations of “fashion musical chairs,” which is not at all a game and doesn’t even have cool music. (Menswear, on the other hand, got its own Drake song.) Instead, these appointments have been rightfully lauded in the Times and Business of Fashion. Jones even posted a touching Instagram tribute to Abloh, to which Abloh responded that Jones was “my mentor for life.” Jones wrote back, “At least we get to see each other more!”
So why is all the fun stuff happening in menswear?
Over the past several years, several shifts have made fashion—by which I mean womenswear—as much an entertainment force as a business one. The new red carpet economy, the churn of social media, and the “off-duty” style boom have brought fashion front and center in pop culture, which means that the average person is often as familiar with the latest Vetements show and designer shakeups as they are with the Academy Award nominees and new Drake single. But that’s also put a lot of pressure on the world of women’s fashion—to develop social media moments, to dress celebrities who aren’t just at events but merely hanging out, to create “viral” clothing and accessories like platform Crocs. This is a phenomenon that Abloh himself knows well; the police had to be called to control the crowds at his most recent Off-White womenswear show.
Menswear, meanwhile, has been allowed to flourish under the radar. There may be an entire song dedicated to Raf Simons, but that’s no match for the pop cultural thwack of Cardi B namedropping Christian Louboutins as a hook. This has allowed menswear to blossom creatively, with less pressure on sales and public relations, particularly as men become more comfortable wearing weird clothing. It’s almost like men were given—or at least permitted—the directive: the more creative the clothes, the better.
But it’s also a troubling dynamic for womenswear, mirroring, say, the kinds of relationships that prop up Judd Apatow movies: women do the heavy lifting, making sure everything is going okay, so men can do all the “fun” stuff, like play video games or go to Grateful Dead concerts in Mexico in head-to-toe Visvim.
Phoebe Philo’s departure from Céline (replaced with a male designer, no less) has left many women’s fashion enthusiasts wondering about the state of clothing for and by women in an art form that has traditionally been our own creative province. But with these major appointments at Dior and Louis Vuitton, and the inevitable business expansion that will follow, the spotlight is now firmly on menswear. Enjoy it, guys. Men may have Jonah and Shia, but we have Tracee Ellis-Ross, Cardi B, Tilda Swinton, Solange, Rihanna—the list goes on. Now is the time for The Row to flourish, for brands like Ashley Williams and MadeMe to bring the women’s streetwear game to the forefront, and for designers like Natacha Ramsay-Levi and Clare Waight Keller to show us a feminine world beyond t-shirts and sneakers.