By Harry Steer.
When Louis Vuitton named Virgil Abloh their new Artistic Director for Menswear in March, the announcement was met with mixed reactions, from the fashion world and beyond. The American designer’s appointment represents the peak of a relatively quick rise through the fashion ranks. Critics pointed to the fact that he lacks any classical fashion qualifications, which they suggested means he is not qualified to move the luxury brand forward. Some of the strongest criticism came from Raf Simons, Calvin Klein’s Chief Creative Officer, who accused Abloh of lacking originality. Saying: “He’s a sweet guy… but I’m inspired by people who bring something that I think has not been seen, that is original.”
I believe that Raf Simons is looking at luxury fashion through a traditional lens, predominantly focusing on the apparel produced and ignoring the wider positioning of the brand – specifically, how Louis Vuitton is using brand communication to engage its customers and alter their perceptions.
Over the past couple of years Gucci and Louis Vuitton have become two of the fastest-growing brands in the world, helping the luxury fashion and accessories sector grow by 42% since 2017 (Source: Interbrand). However, when you look closely at this growth, it becomes clear that while both brands are growing, it is Gucci who are winning with the younger audience. At Keko London, we define this younger audience as a ‘Modern Affluent Consumer’. This audience is of increasing importance and now accounts for 85% of the growth in the luxury sector (Bain). Furthermore, as this audience matures, they will increase their share of the audience and their value contribution to the luxury market. For Gucci, the benefits of engaging this audience are already clear, with the brand reporting revenue up 49% in the first quarter of this year. Half of that revenue is attributed to consumers aged 18 to 35.
Gucci kick-started their efforts to appeal to the modern affluent audience when they appointed Alessandro Michele as Creative Director in 2015. Since taking his position, Michele has transformed Gucci from traditional luxury to a culturally relevant brand that appeals to the modern affluent consumer. Considering this alongside Vuitton’s success last year with Kim Jones’ Vuitton Supreme collaboration, Abloh’s appeal to Vuitton is in his ability to continually tap into the modern affluent zeitgeist, whether through his 3.2 million Instagram followers, his label Off-White, his numerous brand collaborations or his DJing.
To appeal to the modern affluent audience, both Gucci and Vuitton have set out to move away from traditional luxury brand behaviour, using exclusivity and high price points to create demand. Instead, each aspires to tap into modern affluent values and aspirations. Abloh explicitly referenced this when he stated that the first thing he was going to do in his new role was define the ‘new codes’ for the brand and fashion in general. He explained that they would come from his interest in what people wear – and to achieve this he would develop a luxury version of that reality. This will involve focusing not just on design but on how the brand communicates with its consumers, including the release of products, the runway shows and the way it interacts with the global political mood.
This is not new territory for Abloh. When he launched Off-White in 2013, he stated his ambition as “to give my point of view and merge street sensibilities in a proper fashion context. I think that if I can merge the two, it’ll make something interesting.” Since starting his new role, Virgil has managed to carry this over, with much of what has been produced being defined as street wear. However, this has not come at the cost of traditional luxury codes: craftsmanship, focus, origin and rarity. Instead of casting these values aside, it sees them demonstrated in a manner that appeals better to the modern affluent audience. One of the best demonstrations is found in craftsmanship. For the latest range, he claims, “…a number of garments in the collection are laser-precise studies of the most normal, basic things that men wear today,” he says. “We’re making a double-faced hoodie that [has] the same hand-stitching that you would find on a handmade tailored suit.” Another take on a fashion basic is a crew-neck T-shirt in leather, or a jean jacket in mink.
At Abloh’s recent Paris fashion show, he went on to elaborate more on his new codes, stating: “the people have changed, and so fashion had to.” However, it would be cheapening his work to suggest that Abloh’s new codes are solely based on street fashion. His Vuitton Paris Fashion Show was centred around a spray-painted rainbow catwalk, matching the palette of the collection and lined by 1,000 students from Paris. The models had representatives from every continent in the world (bar Antarctica) – a fact highlighted on a map that read “We are the world”. By creating an inclusive and diverse show, Virgil demonstrated his understanding of millennials beyond street wear. He tapped into their values while aligning them to the traditional rules of luxury, in an effort to empower the next generation.
When you consider Virgil’s work since joining Vuitton, it could be argued that he hasn’t completely rewritten the codes of luxury. Indeed, a more honest description would be that he has simply reinterpreted them for a modern affluent audience. To his credit, Abloh admits as much, stating that his “premier position is just to translate brand into current culture…”
“The brands that I choose to work with are usually best in category and they also have some heritage to them,” he continues. “And my goal is to sort of articulate that heritage in a new, refreshing way, to a younger consumer.” At Vuitton, he has achieved this through what he calls “a global view on diversity linked to the travel DNA of the brand.”
Virgil Abloh has identified modern affluent expectations and he has responded. But already, it’s apparent that he is not going to let Vuitton rest there. He has recently stated that he’s already thinking about what an even younger generation will want from brands like Vuitton. (New York Times). One thing’s for sure: we’ll be watching with interest.