Ahhhhh, the magic of fashion week. One minute it feels like nothing is happening, the season is a snooze, and the next, Dior announces it’s collaborating with Travis Scott, then Rick Owens shows sexy speedos on the beach in Venice, GZA shows up the Louis Vuitton show—playing chess—and Virgil Abloh announces the brand is collaborating with Nike.
What an exciting day to be a man!
And what a Vuitton show that was. Here’s the thing about Virgil Abloh: he can post an Instagram story like this:
And you roll your eyes: sure. And then you see his collection and you think, GOOD AMBIANCE IS SO MUCH HARDER TO CREATE THAN OBJECTS THEMSELVES!!!
What does he mean by ambiance? (Abloh opted for the less common spelling, with two a’s.) I think it’s something that’s supplanting the vaguer, more diffuse concept of “vibes.” Designers have always been about world-building—well, at least since Ralph Lauren—but now it seems they want to create siloed universes, all-encompassing microcosms in which nothing is left untouched by the brand. There’s a Vuitton way of doing everything—coffee, clothes, music, magic. It’s not just an attitude or a lifestyle but a system of values. Not every brand has the financial fortitude to pull this off (though even modest brands can make a plate or open a coffee shop). But the ones that can swing it reap the rewards.
Increasingly, fashion followers seem to be thinking about their favorite brands like sports teams, or perhaps fashion overall like a religion. People like to romanticize the way fashion was once a subculture, particularly in the 1970s and 1990s, but what that implies is that it’s now its own culture, as popular as music or movies. Fashion has become ubiquitous. That might be unpleasant for the old heads, but it’s paradise for a true creative director like Virgil Abloh. Some designers thrive on changing the way we see everything (like Demna Gvasalia); Abloh, meanwhile, seems to get a charge from creating his own version of everything. That is probably why he is the most famous designer in the world.
That auteur mindset is also how Vuitton produced the first genuinely “Wow, you have to see this” fashion video, ever. The plot loosely followed Liquid Swords, the 1995 GZA album: a young swordsman wanders through the desert, enters a portal into an artificial birch forest, and then a kendo studio/nightclub/chess theater. Naturally, the real GZA played chess and rapped along to “4th Chamber,” while Lupe Fiasco officiated a kendo match. Benji B, the British DJ, handled the soundtrack, which also featured Goldie and El Michels Affair. (See? I told you it was going to be a crazy season for show soundtracks.) It was wiiiiiild.
Part of Abloh’s genius is that he’s taken a brand as big as Vuitton and made it seem really personal, like we’re all on his big journey. His invitations for the show reminded us that this was his seventh overall, rather than some particular season (Spring 2022, though there were hockey gloves and furs), and that every product and collaboration is the result of his own exploration. In his last two show videos, he’s plunged the viewer into a world where models wander in slow motion, like you’re an invisible interloper who can’t help but stare. These are his people (Lupe Fiasco, Benji B, and Goldie) plus his icons, like GZA and, in his last video, Mos Def. Abloh’s self-appointed role, as a sort of teacher-curator for young fans, works as a self-contained piece of entertainment, but also gives his work global resonance. If a designer like Miuccia Prada or Phoebe Philo gives us their diary, Abloh gives us his mixtape, though the ambition has become more like a biannual style bildungsroman.
And his clothes have gotten much stronger. This was a collection bursting with energy and ideas, but never scattered. His swishy skate-pant silhouette, which he’s been using since his first season, has only gotten stronger—here, as a bridge between the tracksuit and the business suit. Intriguingly, it went in the opposite direction of what everyone else is doing now, which is sexy and effusive. That’s never going to be Abloh’s thing—not even his womenswear is sensual—and it’s nice to see a designer refuse to stray from his beefy silhouette. His view of his role at Vuitton—as a corrective historian addressing or revising industry’s divisive relationship with its Black fans and customers—threads together his puffer gowns, knife pleat skirts, audacious furs, and rave colors. Look at the tracksuit he put Goldie in: a superhero silhouette, with a wildguy wrestling belt and cowboy-ish boots. It’s a look you’d see on the street in a great city, but you can’t put your finger on it as an archetype. It’s just fashionable.
One last point of intrigue about this show: the collection and film were meant as a metaphor for “the myth of ownership,” as his forty-something-page booklet of press notes highlighted. This is not the first time a luxury designer has stroked their beard over this issue of whether appropriation or copying should really be verboten; Balenciaga and Gucci have made a central feature of their hacker project. And yet no one outside of those designers have really been talking about whether a designer can really copy responsibly (yet). In this show, for example, Abloh took a TML Breakers pullover and put the Vuitton-ified graphic on a sweater. This is typical Abloh stuff (remember the three-percent approach?), but he’s now engulfed the controversy this kind of knock-off elicits and made it part of his practice. Now that he’s pushing the idea even further, shouldn’t we entertain it more? He’s one of the few designers who can actually ignite thoughtful controversy.