It’s time to say it: streetwear is taking men’s high fashion over. And this isn’t an exaggeration or some sort of pretense that the highest echelons of luxury brands are immune to the effects. Just think of the recent round-robin of moves and hirings at LVMH: Kim Jones to Dior Homme from Louis Vuitton; Kris Van Assche to Berluti from Dior Homme; Virgil Abloh to Louis Vuitton from… well, from Off-White; and Haider Ackermann’s exit from Berluti.
Let’s break it down from the bottom up. I was particularly upset by Ackermann’s exit from the house of Berluti. His three collections for the brand were subliminal in their mastery of lush luxury for men – with the polish, slick, and ageless style for whichever client the brand wanted to angle after. But one has to remember that Berluti is not a brand particularly known for its fashions. It’s a maker of luxury shoes widely considered to be some of the best in the world. And it’s even more interesting that the Berluti brand is led by Antoine Arnault – the 40 year old Arnault family scion who also heads up Loro Piana – a combination that should escape no one as being a bit fusty compared to the powerhouse, more fashionable names in the LVMH fashion stables.
So what does it say that a young CEO is so involved in old-school craft and quality names like Berluti and Loro Piana? Well, perhaps that beyond the mass appeal of a Vuitton or Dior, that there is real potential for development at these brands. A widening of a niche, as it were. But it thus confounds me that Ackermann should have left Berluti considering the appropriate elegance of his collections. It should escape no one that this brand is expensive: a pair of penny loafers easily rings up at close to SGD2,500. Elegance is not a tangential quality for a brand positioned like that – and its clothes have to rightly reflect that.
Which is where we round into Kris Van Assche. Now, Kris Van Assche is a terrific designer who gets terrible short shrift for his work primarily because he took Dior Homme over from Hedi Slimane 11 years ago. Slimane’s effect on menswear with Dior Homme was immense – the skinny drug-addled adolescent aesthetic rippled on throughout and came to bear even when he designed for Saint Laurent. Van Assche, meanwhile, was slowly developing his own visual and design signatures – first as a very spare and austere sort of purity, and then more comfortably as a great combiner of hauteur and sport, urbanity and bourgeoisie. When he shut down his namesake brand to focus on Dior Homme, I felt it not too great a loss: he had been essentially fragmenting a singular vision between the two labels – better to focus on one and get it right.
But that vision is, very often, urban and sporty. And while there is an inherent snobbery against those qualities, it remains that urban sportiness is a category defined by its accessibility, utility and technical know-how. Not so much the area of shoes priced at some people’s monthly salaries.
Kim Jones, meanwhile, is headed to Dior Homme post Vuitton. While I wouldn’t call Jones’ style particularly street – as in, skater – one of his great achievements at Louis Vuitton was definitely the collaboration with Supreme in the Fall/Winter 2017 season. That collection marked a real turning point in the luxury/street dichotomy and proved that both could comfortably intermingle and create some of the most desirable product in recent memory. Supreme has since continued to collaborate with a glut of brands: Lacoste, Rimowa, etc. That freight train of brand-borrowing collaborations seems like it won’t be stopping any time soon and the question now is who and when will Dior Homme be opening itself up to for a little pas de deux?
Which brings us to Virgil Abloh, a creative who has nigh-mastered creating desirable product in today’s luxury market. His stints, first with Pyrex and Been Trill, were runaway successes and spawned endless iterations of sweatshirts with slogans and motifs running down sleeves and plastered on backs. They were, at one point, markers of a certain in-the-know street cred. Then, he founded Off-White, a brand that has since collaborated with Jimmy Choo, Byredo, Nike, and even Ikea. When it comes to the art of the modern day blockbuster collaboration, Virgil Abloh has a handle it like no one else.
The primary criticism levelled at Abloh’s hiring at Louis Vuitton is his credentials as a designer – that is, to actually get down to it and design the product he will be selling. As much as I value that particular skill set, even I have to admit that today the role of Creative/Artistic Director has more to do with a curatorial knack for rounding up a coterie of celebrities, creative big names, and product all into one massively sell-able package. I think of the (admittedly short-lived) hiring of Justin O’Shea at Brioni who shook the brand’s image and messaging to its core in one season with a chinchilla coat and gangster attitude. I think, too, of Raf Simons, whose approach to fashion is more in line, perhaps, with a gallery curator who steers inspiration for his team of designers.
Anyway, this is a supremely interesting round of hires for the luxury menswear industry. I’m excited for the coming season’s shows when these designers will put forth their visions for these brands. My only concern might be that it is, after all, the same names on rotation at different brands. If they can get past the myopic blindness of zooming into streetwear as a cash grab and ending up doing the same things, I’m hopeful for some interesting fashion. Fashion that throws off pretense of archival deference and anchored instead in what we need and want now.