There was no show in this Spring/Summer 2019 Paris circuit more important or hotly awaited than Virgil Abloh's debut menswear for Louis Vuitton. It is uncontested, and the attention, hype and eyeballs it drew put it firmly beyond a fashion moment – it was a cultural moment. Apt then, that Abloh titled the collection 'We Are the World' calling back to the charity single by Michael Jackson. It wasn't hard to link those parallel emotions: hope, inclusivity, a kind of optimism. Perhaps more than anything, what this show represented was a plain and simple success story.
In writing this, I attempted the mental gymnastics of divorcing ethnicity and race from the event but the truth is, quite plainly, that it is impossible. Abloh's position now as an African American designer heading up the menswear of arguably the world's biggest luxury brand is something no one within the spheres of the luxury fashion business would have imagined a decade ago. Paris has always remained the center of the world's fashions, and with it comes a very long history of Eurocentrism, rampant racism and whitewashing, and elitism that we've only recently started to combat. Abloh cited the prismatic effect of light splitting into its constituents, and an approach through colour. It's not far from his explanation of Off-White, and it would take a fool to ignore the obvious political implications of 'colour'.
I will gamble and say that the point of this show, if one had to boil it down to an essence, is a sort of opening of the doors. Abloh printed maps of the world with his global lineup of models' places of birth marked out, along with their parents' places of birth. The dots span the globe. And really, if that isn't demonstrative of travel, then what is? What this collection looked like was Abloh blowing the doors open to proclaim and celebrate that a black man can and has made it to this pinnacle of European luxury fashion.
Which is exactly why talking about this collection is hard. Because symbolically it holds immense value – we're now being forced to rethink and reconsider what a creative tour de force is today. It's no longer the style dictums of Yves Saint Laurent, Karl Lagerfeld, or any of those old guard names. Rather, the creative director today must be keenly aware of the democratic access the world has to his work – and indeed with luxury brands like Louis Vuitton, how that often speaks more to aspirants than existing clients. Louis Vuitton is so powerful only because it represents something. Its social cachet and associated brand values are success and wealth. The very goals that drive this market and industry to begin with. But when we move past the rhetoric, I struggle to find value in Abloh's designs.
Start to finish, the clothes did not speak the same message as his set design, fringe marketing activities (handing out coloured tee shirts for design students to pack the seats and stands) or really even the symbolism that the event – not the fashion – held. It was a disjointed collection stringed together by overt references and commendably diverse casting. Helmut Lang's pouched garments appeared here, there and everywhere. Most frustratingly, international fashion critics seemed content to acknowledge its presence, but not that it offered nothing new. There was no interpretation, and the idea was used wholesale as harnesses, slapped onto sleeves. We can also address the Raf Simons, Jil Sander, Prada and Jonathan Anderson references but really, there isn't a point.
Because what we've all come to expect from Virgil Abloh isn't original design. I hesitate to even call it a remixed interpretation of those designs, but that is in a sense what he does so incredibly well. His finger is firmly on the pulse of what people want – and his work at Off-White easily constitutes a modern aspirant niche for teenagers growing up surrounded by streetwear and urban design culture.
So, where do we go from here? I have incredible respect for the man and his success story. But you have to wonder how long he can go without offering up anything new. Forget this collection – he could have put anything on the runway and the fact of the matter is that Virgil Abloh is the product. What Louis Vuitton is trying to do now is to sell itself alongside the Abloh association. It's undeniably powerful, and it draws people in like nothing else. And so maybe the same way James Jebbia of Supreme – patently not a fashion designer – won the 2018 CFDA award for menswear designer of the year, Abloh too is simply designing desire.