The cultural significance of Louis Vuitton's first black menswear designer

Designer Virgil Abloh at the Off-White show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2018/2019 on March 1. (Photo: Francois Durand/Getty Images)

After months of speculation, the legacy French fashion house Louis Vuitton has appointed the Ghanaian-American designer Virgil Abloh as its menswear artistic director.

The ups and downs of fashion’s revolving door of designers don’t normally resonate outside the industry itself, but Abloh’s appointment is being buzzed about in business sections, on menswear sites, and in culture magazines. Why, you ask? For starters, he’s the celebrated and au courant American designer who founded the high street brand Off-White, without a formal fashion education. More importantly, Abloh’s appointment makes him the first black artistic director at Louis Vuitton, the namesake brand of the world’s largest fashion conglomerate. This is a first among the heavy hitters in the industry, including Gucci and Chanel.

French fashion’s gatekeepers aren’t a racially diverse bunch, as evidenced by a state dinner in March where French President Emmanuel Macron hosted Paris-based designers. Aside from Abloh and a handful of others, the group of more than 50 designers was largely white. It’s a trend that is repeated across the globe. Abloh’s appointment brings hope for the future of diversity in the industry.

President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, center, host a group of fashion designers and industry executives at the Elysée Palace for a Paris Fashion Week dinner in early March. Abloh is in the second to last row on the right side of the photo. (Photo: Soazig de la Moissonnière/Présidence de la République)

Abloh cut his teeth as an intern at Fendi alongside Kanye West in 2006. West went on to found his Yeezy fashion line, with Abloh by his side as a creative director.  Even though Abloh has been around fashion for more than a decade, his ascent since qualifying as a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers in 2015, has been astronomical. In the last three years, Abloh has launched collaborations with brands high and low—Nike, Jimmy Choo, IKEA, Kith, Moncler, Warby Parker (to name a few); DJed Tom Ford’s fashion show after-parties; designed his own Off-White collections that show in Paris, attracting a veritable mob scene outside his shows, with fans and hypebeasts clamoring to get in.

Virgil Abloh attends the Fashion Awards 2017 in partnership with Swarovski at the Royal Albert Hall on Dec. 4 last year in London. (Photo by Mike Marsland/BFC/Getty Images)

Abloh did not need the Louis Vuitton job to legitimize him in the fashion world, as some on Twitter have pointed out. In fact, Abloh brings something to the brand that they’re in desperate need of: the cachet of cool.

The fashion industry has a complicated relationship with race, with gaffes occurring far too often, and people of color in all facets of the industry not getting the credit they deserve. Having Abloh at the helm of the brand will help craft larger conversations about representation and what’s distilled through media and advertising. It will diversify the business of fashion from within.  

Abloh, the streetwear savant, follows Kim Jones in the men’s artistic director role at Louis Vuitton, a fitting continuation of the work Jones put in to attract younger buyers. The youth market is the holy grail for a luxury fashion industry hellbent on catering to the Instagram generation. Jones, for his part, ran LV men’s at the time the company launched its hypersuccessful Louis Vuitton x Supreme collaboration.

Abloh is among fashion’s busiest and most beloved. It’s an added bonus that this is a win for fashion diversity too.

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