The race to LV: How Virgil Abloh one-upped his fashion sensei
Virgil’s appointment as Louis Vuitton’s creative director will never become old news.
Becoming the first African American to head one of the most prestigious fashion houses in the world is history and more than an enormous feat.
But the price of being LV’s creative director was not without a hard-fought race with the one and only: Kanye West.
That “love at first sight” type of work
How did Virgil manage to win LV’s creative director title against the Louis Vuitton Don himself?
Contrary to popular belief, Kanye and Virgil worked their way to the top together as a team. In fact, a lot of Kanye’s success is thanks to Virgil’s help. He was the guy with the computer on hand.
While studying architecture for his master’s degree, Virgil learned the versatility of 3D programs and adobe suits. Like a true visionary, instead of limiting his creativity in architectural designs, he used them as a tool to make graphic T-shirts.
His files were so perfectly made that the screen printing store, “Custom Kings,” offered him a position.
At that time, Don C (Kanye’s then-manager) was on a talent hunt; looking for designers to help Kanye with his fashion desires. Thus, it was only a matter of time before he landed at Custom Kings and learned about Virgil’s skills.
Just like Cupid, Don C shot the arrow and finessed the introduction of Virgil to Kanye, and the two vibed immediately. Little did he know that he had just united fashion’s greatest power couple.
Both Kanye and Virgil saw something at play where no one else had taken it seriously: streetwear. And in 2007 Virgil was hired to alleviate Kanye’s frustration over the fashion industry and help him realize his vision beyond music.
“He is the strategist. I’m thinking about the ideas and Virgil is able to take those ideas and architect them, because he is an architect.”
From stage shows to concert merch, Virgil was in charge of the design of Kanye’s most remarkable projects. He co-designed 808’s & Heartbreak cover.
And was the artistic director of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and, Yeezus. For 10 years, Virgil became Kanye’s right creative hand and personal designer.
Virgil and Kanye body the streetwear era
In 2004, he had traded baggy jeans and triple XL shirts for bright color rugby shirts, pink polos, and a Louis Vuitton backpack for the release of College Drop Out.
Then in 2009, Kanye became the Louis Vuitton Don when he released the first sneaker collaboration with the brand. Like a king, Kanye’s eyes always were fixated on pricing.
And that same year, Kanye made history, again. Yes, Taylor Swift, remember? When Kanye told Taylor Swift that “Beyonce had the best video of all time,” as she gave her acceptance speech at the VMA’s.
As correct as he was, he surely caused the greatest controversy of the decade.
Meanwhile, Virgil worked as a collaborator for Kanye’s brand Donda. And was turning Kanye’s aspirations into actual projects. Simultaneously learning about design and making his own connections. It was their mission to raise the taste level of an entire generation by introducing streetwear as an actual style.
But, Off-white’s start as a high-end brand had its own challenges; no fashion writer wanted to write about his project. And, realizing the impossibility to grow a fashion brand through the traditional system, Virgil used Instagram as his own magazine.
Though his most famous strategy was his friends, he had Jay-Z, Beyonce, Kendall Jenner, and of course the now fashion guru and Virgil’s best friend, Kanye West use his stuff.
And, in 2015 Kanye had his iconic collaboration with Adidas and turned Yeezys into a cultural fashion piece.
Just like that, in the blink of an eye Yeezy and Off-white became the hottest brands in the world.
Culture in the making
Finally, 2017 was the decisive moment that no one was expecting.
Kanye had been talking with Bernard Arnault, CEO of LVMH — Louis Vuitton conglomerate, about a possible contract with LV.
And Virgil, on the other hand, was making history in his own way. He had partnered with Nike for re-designing 10 of Nike’s and Nike-owned brand best-selling classics.
“It was potentially a career suicide,” said Virgil.
Something that could make or break him as a designer. But the shoes sold out within weeks and now are being re-sold at more than a thousand dollars.
The deal not only proved Virgil’s skill but his ability to contribute to the culture in both classic and new ways.
After having the deal on the table and performing at their museums, Kanye’s deal with LVMH was dropped.
Months later, in 2018 the world woke up to find that Virgil Abloh was the new creative director of men’s wear for Louis Vuitton. The first black designer with a creative director position at the world’s most exclusive industry and most valuable brand.
“I never thought I could be a designer with a capital D because no one in the industry looked like me.”
Kanye, Virgil, and Louis Vuitton finish line
Surely the appointment was hard for Kanye.
After all, Virgil was his guy. But, during Virgil’s first show in Paris as LV’s creative director, he received a standing ovation, and among his fans was a proud mentor: Kanye West.
Perhaps LV felt that Kanye’s reputation puts at stake Louis Vuitton’s image. He had been very vocal about his stance in politics and racism. Or perhaps they saw in Virgil what Kanye had seen all these years.
Regardless, the race to LV was won by both. At the finish line, both artists embraced each other with a big hug and some tears. Virgil may have taken the prize, but Kanye realized the dream: they changed the fashion industry forever.
“We are all playing on the same court,” said Kanye.