Virgil Abloh spells out new vision of luxury
Virgil Abloh no longer needs an introduction. The US designer of Off-White and Louis Vuitton’s menswear is full of confidence, brimming with ideas and always ahead of his time. Last Friday, in a room filled to capacity at the Potocki Palace in Paris for the Vogue Fashion Festival, Abloh shared his experience of the fashion industry with Alexandre Arnault, CEO of luggage manufacturer Rimowa and son of the owner of French luxury group LVMH. There is common ground between them, through their collaborations, their new vision of luxury, millennials and even Kanye West, who brought them together in Paris 10 years ago.
Off-White: from online success to retail boom
“Off-White is my personal diary, a conversation with myself,” said Abloh to the audience of journalists, industry professionals and fashion students, a good number of them fans of the global fashion industry's current star designer. Off-White was founded in 2014, “starting from scratch” and building a reputation as a household name in contemporary fashion. As for Abloh’s collaboration with Louis Vuitton, his challenge is to engineer a transformation of the existing style. “My relationship with Louis Vuitton is different. It's a conversation with the heritage of a maison founded in 1854. As with Off-White though, branding and visual image are very important. The [LV] monogram is a fascinating tool to work with,” said Abloh.
Off-White, with its 5.5 million Instagram followers, nevertheless remains Abloh’s creative laboratory. “Off-White means menswear and womenswear, and wedding dresses as well as sweatshirts,” said the designer, well-known for his multidisciplinary approach and his prolific creativity, expressed through dozens of high-profile collaborations. There are no cloud’s on Abloh's horizon, and Off-White was hailed as the most sought-after label of the year by the fashion e-aggregator Lyst. This doesn’t stop some critics from questioning Off-White’s 's price positioning, and whether it can be defined as a luxury label. “I’m often asked this question,” said Abloh, smiling, adding that “Off-White products are ethically manufactured and sourced, and the label has 40 well-paid employees working for it. In a way, this is the price of creativity.”
On October 25, Off-White opened a store in Dubai. While the label made a name for itself mostly through social media and the online fashion boom, brick-and-mortar stores remain essential for its founder, who started his working career in the architecture industry. “Off-White isn’t an e-shop,” he repeated, reminding the audience that his label currently operates about 20 monobrand stores, and is targeting 40 for next year. All of the label’s retail premises are different, following a rule introduced by Abloh, keen to add value to the customers’ shopping experience. “We must think about limited-edition items that will sell out, but also about how much room needs to be dedicated to all the other products that are the brand’s staples,” said Abloh, mentioning the Colette concept store as a benchmark. Alexandre Arnault instead prefers “the 360º customer experience [enjoyed] in Apple Stores.”
Products, luxury and collaborations
“Virgil wanted to collaborate with Rimowa even before it was bought by LVMH [in 2016],” said Arnault. He admitted that the idea for Rimowa’s famous transparent suitcases came from Virgil Abloh. This approach, according to Arnault, contrasts with the current societal trend, or obsession, for data privacy and confidentiality. “Transparency makes it possible to forge links with people. When we give a little more exposure to what customers are used to seeing, it establishes a personal connection with the collection,” said Abloh, emphasising the need to constantly update the range to stimulate purchases.
“Fashion design can be a very voracious industry,” admitted Abloh, while Arnault illustrated Rimowa’s market segment by referring again to Apple and the iPhone. “People don’t need more than three suitcases each, so we must come up with ideas to make them shop again. Not necessarily because they need a suitcase, but because they want one particular suitcase,” said Arnault, talking about the evolution of the luggage manufacturer based in Cologne, Germany. “When we bought Louis Vuitton in the 1980s, the company was the same size Rimowa is now. There is potential for growth, and I believe in positioning [Rimowa] within the ‘functional luxury’ market segment, as a sought-after luxury brand that fulfils a functional need consumers have,” he added. On the subject of collaborations, Abloh made his opinion crystal clear. “In the past, collaborations were labelled as mere marketing projects, but I think they are the driving force of change in fashion.”
Abloh has sometimes been criticised for his lack of formal training in fashion design, reducing his role to that of a new breed of creative director. He analysed the issue with detachment. “I believe that fashion design was different in the past. Nowadays, the most important thing for a designer is to understand the environment in which we live,” he said, talking about the creative process, the transformation of catwalk shows and the changes introduced by the e-tail boom. “Societal factors and social media are essential in this paradigmatic shift. Consumers don’t simply buy a product, they establish a relationship with it and create the message.” Arnault added: “In the past, it was brands that dictated what they wanted to sell. Nowadays, it’s impossible to control a message that can be responded to, retweeted and liked.”
According to Abloh, this contextual shift also implies an evolution in the concept of luxury. “We must question the meaning of terms like luxury, high and low fashion, and streetwear. The meaning of the word ‘luxury’ is rooted in past generations, while nowadays, it’s relevance that creates a connection,” said Abloh. An opinion shared by Arnault, who underlined he isn’t very keen on the automatic connection between price and luxury. According to him, the concept of luxury should be linked to the elements which make a product unique. The leader of a new generation that is willing to change the rules of the game, Abloh concluded: “As a designer, I want to offer consumers products they can be proud of. I want people to ask themselves where these products come from. The new meaning of luxury is the ability to create this kind of emotional connection with a product.”
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