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

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.

Virgil Abloh through the years
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Virgil Abloh through the years
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 28: Singer Sky Ferreira and Virgil Abloh attend Givenchy Menswear Spring/Summer 2014 Show as part of the Paris Fashion Week, held at City of Fashion and Design on June 28, 2013 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 10: Theophilus London, Virgil Abloh and Mirtha Michelle attend Hood by Air during Fall 2013 MADE Fashion Week on February 10, 2013 in New York City. (Photo by Wendell Teodoro/WireImage)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 07: Virgil Abloh attends 'Uniform' Heron Preston For DSNY Presentation September 2016 during New York Fashion Week at DSNY Salt Shed on September 7, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Robin Marchant/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - NOVEMBER 30: Virgil Abloh, Daniel Arsham and Rosario Dawson speak at the 'Open Worlds: Art In The Age Of Interactivity' panel in Miami at Audemars Piguet Art Commission 'Reconstruction Of The Universe' By Sun Xun hosted by Take-Two Interactive at Oceanfront Miami Beach on November 30, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Take-Two Interactive)
PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 03: Virgil Abloh wears a blue hoodie sweater, a gray denim jacket, a black t-shirt, gray striped Loewe pants, and black sneakers with white shoe lace, after the Undercover show, during Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2017/2018, on March 3, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JUNE 22: Virgil Abloh wears a Vuitton shirt, a black t-shirt, sunglasses, black shorts, and sneakers, outside the Louis Vuitton show, during Paris Fashion Week - Menswear Spring/Summer 2018, on June 22, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Edward Berthelot/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 01: Virgil Abloh attends the 'Rei Kawakubo/Comme des Garcons: Art Of The In-Between' Costume Institute Gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on May 1, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images For Entertainment Weekly)
NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Virgil Abloh speaks onstage during Vogue's Forces of Fashion Conference at Milk Studios on October 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 26: Karla Otto and Virgil Abloh attend dinner hosted by Rimowa & Alexandre Arnault to celebrate the 80th Anniversary of Rimowa's iconic aluminium suitcase at Restaurant 1728 on September 26, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images for Rimowa)
PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 28: Off White Designer Virgil Abloh and Lenny Kravitz pose backstage at the Off/White show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Spring/Summer 2018 on September 28, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images)
MIAMI, FL - DECEMBER 05: Off-White designer Virgil Abloh attends the opening of the new Chrome Hearts Gallery & Cafe to celebrate their 3-Year Anniversary in the Miami Design District on December 5, 2017 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Chrome Hearts)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 18: Virgil Abloh (L) and Edward Enninful attend as Tiffany & Co. partners with British Vogue, Edward Enninful, Steve McQueen, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell to celebrate fashion and film at the new Annabels on February 18, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Vogue)
MIAMI BEACH, FLORIDA - DECEMBER 6: (L-R) Virgil Abloh, Matthew Angelo Harrison and Herron Preston attend Art Basel Miami Beach - Private Day at Miami Beach Convention Center on December 6, 2017 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Patrick McMullan/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - MARCH 01: Kaia Gerber and Designer Virgil Abloh backstage at the Off-White show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2018/2019 on March 1, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images)

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.

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.

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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