Virgil Abloh Is The King Of Culture. Luxury Wants In.


Limei Hoang | August 11, 2021

Virgil AblohCredit: Courtesy of LVMH.

LVMH’s investment in the star designer is representative of the wider shift happening in the luxury industry towards how brands connect and engage with their consumers and how companies should aim to maintain their cultural relevance with a younger audience.

When LVMH announced that it would become a majority investor in Off-White, the luxury streetwear label founded by Virgil Abloh, the move came as little surprise to those who had been watching the designer’s ascent in the luxury world. In fact, it came as a sign of that finally, one of the new guard was getting a long-awaited seat at the table.

The appointment of Abloh, a multi-hyphenate whose roles include artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, founder and creative director of Off-White, DJ and artist, is indicative of the wider shift happening within the luxury industry, one where brands must shift their focus beyond just product and towards gaining further cultural significance with younger consumers, who are expected to make up the majority of the luxury market in the coming years.

The deal will see LVMH acquire a 60 percent stake in Off-White, which will continue to be operated through a licensing agreement by the New Guards Group with Abloh retaining the remaining 40 percent and continuing his role as creative director. But more importantly, it allows the world’s largest luxury conglomerate to strengthen its union with Abloh, who with the group, will pursue new products across multiple luxury categories like Hospitality and Wine and Spirits.

Off-White's Spring Summer 2021 collection.Credit: Courtesy of Off-White

Many in the industry see the move from LVMH as a sign of things to come. When it comes to capturing the zeitgeist of the current changes that the luxury industry is facing, no other individual represents the present or indeed the future quite like Abloh.

“The biggest impact that Virgil Abloh has had on the luxury industry, is not only has he connected luxury products to youth culture, but he has also extended the reach of what luxury fashion can be, whatever you decide,” said Christopher Morency, Editorial Director at High Snobiety.

“For him, a T-shirt isn't just a T-shirt in his eyes,” he continued. “The shirt represents something, whether that's through a graphic, or through a fabric, or through who wears it, it means something to have that specific shirt. He understands that what you're selling isn't the dream of craft and luxury and heritage anymore, even though those are still the table stakes of luxury, but what he's actually selling is what that shirt means and represents, and he does it through visuals, through what he puts into clothing, through creating that bigger universe around a product and a brand essentially, that stretches far beyond a simple product.”

“Not a lot of traditional luxury brands think like that, they still think if you can sell product, then that's the job well done,” added Morency. “It's not a job well done, it shouldn't stop there, that dialogue with your consumer.”

Indeed, for many, Abloh represents the wider cultural shift that is being driven by younger consumers like millennials and Gen-Z towards inspiration, experiences and the creation of a more inclusive brand universe, one that is lead from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, and more importantly, an unwillingness to be defined into one category.

“This is what Gen-Z, and the next generation of consumers is looking for,” said Hana Ben Shabat, founder of research firm Gen Z Planet and author of the recently published book Gen Z 360: Preparing for the Inevitable Change in Culture, Work, and Commerce.

"If you talk to Gen-Z, one thing you're going to hear constantly is: ‘I don't want to be placed in a box. I want to be what I want to be. I don't want to be one thing. I want to be different things.’ It's about having a multi-dimensional identity. And if you look at him, he's just that. He is a DJ, he's an architect, he's a fashion designer, he's a tastemaker. He's an artist. He represents who these young people are aspiring to be.”

"Gen Zers are looking for inspiration,” said Ben Shabat. “They’re not just looking to buy an item, transact, move on. They want to be inspired, and once they purchase the product, they want to inspire other people, because they can, because they have access to social media and other tools that allow them to do that. You can only be inspired, to an extent, by a handbag. You need much more around the item to truly inspire and be inspired, which is where things are heading, by starting to expand into art and experiences.”

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For certain, if there was ever a poster child for the new generation of consumers and the shift in mindset in luxury, Abloh would be it. Having redefined the role of a creative director, Abloh’s inclusive and collaborative approach to his followers, his mixing of different ideas and creative worlds, and his mastery of storytelling, messaging and communication across multiple platforms has helped define a new chapter in the luxury industry, one that is widely seen as best practice today.

“If you look back even recently, the path for a designer was very, very clearly written, and rarely deviated from: You worked for a big house. You trained under a big name. You got a job with a big house, and then perhaps started your own label. There were very few people who entered into the luxury fashion world that didn't have an exclusively design background,” said Robert Burke, CEO and Chairman of Robert Burke Associates.

“I think that's what really sets him apart is he's not a traditionally trained fashion designer,” Burke added. “He really brings a new customer in, and a new point of view for the time. A House can have a very strong legacy and stay very true to that, but they can also lose their value during that process of staying true to their legacy.”

“The world of brands is much more complicated than it used to be,” noted Ben Shabat. “What LVMH understands is that Virgil Abloh understands youth culture and how it is going to influence the consumer market. He is the right man, at the right place, at the right time, because he came at a time where that shift in the consumer's mind has already happened.

"He has many skills and talents, and he has the understanding of youth culture and he’s able to take that understanding and translate it into products and messages that resonate. LVMH can see that that his  level of understanding is what the organisation needs,” she added.

And as change in the luxury industry begins to gather pace, particularly in the context of the shifting values of consumers towards values over product, the boundaries of which luxury brands previously held themselves on no longer hold the same ground they used to.

“The luxury goods industry is becoming more democratic,” said Burke. “And there is an internal kind of push and pull on that. And for some of the old guard they really don't like this idea that it's more democratic, that it was always kind of top down feeding of information… But, that's exactly the point, LVMH are not putting parameters on what he can touch and do and say and influence. It's a new way of thinking. And it's a very smart way of thinking.”

Those who remain reticent to those changes however, might find themselves getting left behind. “LVMH is the biggest luxury conglomerate in the world. Where it goes everyone goes,” said Morency.

“It’s going to have a massive impact on the way that people start thinking about fashion gatekeeping and opening up the doors, and the industry will be disrupted fast, so you better hurry up on that train, or opening up the gate, because if you don't open up the gates as a luxury brand nowadays, you can be, regardless of your heritage or how big you are today, you can be very small tomorrow.”

LVMH | Virgil Abloh