It was an understandably overwhelming moment.
The models had just finished their walk, completing Virgil Abloh’s much-anticipated debut for Louis Vuitton menswear. Abloh came out to take his bow, and found Kanye West, his longtime friend and creative partner. As he embraced West in a hug, he buried his face in West’s shoulder, clearly overcome by emotion. It made for a poignant scene, however one may feel about West and his growing history of ill-considered remarks.
For Abloh, the response suggested that the moment—broadcast by Louis Vuitton in its live stream of the show and caught by those in the audience—was a long time coming, and marked an accomplishment that he would have hardly imagined a decade ago.
Abloh was an unorthodox choice to take over as men’s creative director for Louis Vuitton, which even in the rarefied world of luxury fashion stands apart as among the most successful and prestigious houses there is. He is a black American, born outside Chicago to Ghanaian immigrant parents, and has no high-fashion pedigree, in an industry with a storied reputation for being exclusive and largely European.
His entry into fashion happened in a roundabout way. Abloh, who studied civil engineering and architecture, got his foothold in the industry as West’s creative director (though he’s always been reticent about the job so his exact contributions have been hard to define), after the two struck up a partnership in the early 2000s. When he, West, and their crew went to the Paris shows in 2009, Abloh felt distinctly like an outsider. “We got into about 60 percent of the shows,” he recalled to W Magazine. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there.”
But he and West had already made names for themselves through music, and being young and eager to learn, were able to get internships at Fendi. “We ain’t get to do nothing,” West said of the experience in an interview earlier this year. ”We were just happy to have a key card.”
Abloh slowly kept working, creating the line Pyrex Vision, which sold things like screenprinted flannels, and ultimately establishing Off-White, which has become one of the world’s leading brands melding streetwear codes with conceptual fashion. As his profile has grown, he’s had many detractors who have criticized him for both being unoriginal—because of his at times obvious references to the work of designers he admires—or for embodying the triumph of marketing over design.
“The appointment is a perfect reflection of our hype—and communication—driven times,” menswear critic Angelo Flaccavento said of his hiring by Louis Vuitton in an interview with Hypebeast. “Abloh is not a design genius but he is a smart communicator. He is not the most cultured of designers but he can talk the system into believing so.”
Others, though, have praised the news, including Stavros Karelis, founder of London boutique Machine-A in that same interview. “I couldn’t imagine anyone better than Virgil to carry on the legacy that Mr. Kim Jones [Abloh’s predecessor] left and transforming the iconic brand and its logo through a wide range of mediums and ideas all connected to youth, street culture and social awareness,” he said.
Whatever Abloh’s critics think, he is now the head of menswear for one of the world’s most renowned fashion brands. Today (June 21), he presented a cool, confident start. Hoodies and washed denim—a favorite material of Abloh’s—mixed with tailoring that ran a range of proportions, and of course there were plenty of sneakers. It’s a wardrobe for a new generation of luxury shoppers.