Luxury fashion is undergoing a major shift. Logo tees, hoodies, and other streetwear are no longer separate from high fashion—in fact, they have become some of its main ingredients.
The latest signal of this evolution comes from Louis Vuitton. The namesake fashion brand of LVMH, the world’s largest luxury house, just announced the new designer of its menswear collection: Virgil Abloh. Instead of coming from a heritage pedigree, however, the founder of fashion label Off-White is know for his affiliation with streetwear and for being Kanye West’s creative director.
It’s a historic move for other reasons, too. Abloh joins a very short list of black designers to head prestigious fashion houses, including Olivier Rousteing, who is currently at Balmain, and Ozwald Boateng, who designed Givenchy menswear from 2003 to 2007.
Louis Vuitton is by far the biggest of these brands, and its choice of Abloh also reveals how the house is planning for its future.
A new generation of consumers is emerging with different values and desires than previous buyers of high-end goods. Instead of spending their money on fancy suits, young shoppers are dropping hundreds of dollars on items like logo tees and sock sneakers. As clothes continue to move away from formality, brands from Berluti to Balenciaga are adjusting their wares accordingly.
One of Abloh’s most successful products exemplifies this change: a yellow nylon belt that retails for about $210. Actually, “belt” may be too defined a term: It’s an industrial strap printed with text like “weight securing system”—something you might buy at the hardware store. But instead of holding together planks of plywood, it’s easy to spot on the streets of fashion capitals and in influencers’ Instagram photos.
Young shoppers are now putting more value on items that make them stand out than ones with a storied heritage. In the case of Abloh’s belt, the low-end material isn’t what you might traditionally associate with high fashion, but customers aren’t shelling out hundreds for the fabric—they’re buying entrance into a fashion club that only in-the-know insiders can access. ”The emphasis has gone from quality and craftsmanship into the uniqueness of the product,” Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, recently told the Financial Times (paywall).
Abloh, who was trained as an architect and civil engineer, often toys with industrial references. His recent collaboration with Nike deconstructed their classic sneakers and then fused them back together in new ways. Self-reference is another of his favorite themes: Off-White sells boots labeled “for walking,” and labels in the clothes read “Main Label.” His designs are youthful and street-ready, often involving bold graphic designs as seen on the brand’s coveted t-shirts.
Though Off-White (which is technically called Off—White c/o Virgil Abloh™) doesn’t share its sales figures, other indications suggest that they’re thriving. When Vogue asked leading e-commerce sites what their top brands were in 2017, Off-White was among the most frequently mentioned, alongside traditional luxury brands such as Gucci.
Abloh has a knack for distilling various cultural references into his work, and he’s also a skilled marketer and communicator. In fact, some critics feel he’s too much about those things (not to mention also a DJ, artist, and serial collaborator of all sorts), and not enough about engineering original designs. But creative directors are now expected to do more than just create clothes. The fact that Louis Vuitton has chosen such a multifaceted leader is a sign the brand is looking to appease a new generation of shoppers: ones who want to buy the next hot pair of sneakers as much as—or more than—a hand-tailored jacket.