Virgil Abloh’s Last ‘Dreamhouse’ at Louis Vuitton

PARIS — Virgil Abloh’s tenure at Louis Vuitton ended where it began, with “The Wizard of Oz.”

In his first collection for the French giant, the late designer, who died in November of a rare cancer, evoked the film’s wide-eyed journey over the rainbow as a parallel for his own experience. A Black man from the suburbs of Chicago with no formal fashion training, Abloh nonetheless built the luxury streetwear sensation Off-White before rising to become menswear creative director of the world’s largest luxury brand.

Abloh’s 2018 debut for Louis Vuitton was set on a rainbow-coloured runway evoking Oz’s yellow brick road, flanked by hundreds of fashion students invited to watch the event (and encouraged to follow in the designer’s footsteps). His final outing for the brand Thursday was set in the clouds, with dancers and models traversing the roof of a “Dreamhouse” sunken into the sky-blue runway, evoking the Kansas cottage swept away by a tornado in the film.

As an orchestra played a composition by Tyler the Creator, students of the École Duperré design school across the street from the venue crammed against the windows to catch a glimpse of the show. “Virgil would have loved that,” fashion documentarian Loïc Prigent remarked.

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The audience, split into two showings, included fashion heavyweights like most of the Arnault family and Naomi Campbell alongside stars of music, sport and cinema including Skepta, Mos Def and Venus Williams.

Like the set, the collection — which Louis Vuitton says was on its way to completion when Abloh died — reached for the sky as well, with a mix of luxe suiting and streetwear silhouettes transformed through couture-level detailing. Jean jackets and bombers were reinterpreted in velvet, satin, sequins, lace or patchwork. One canvas jacket blended a shredded floral pattern with distressed logo-print denim in a piece handcrafted in Japan. Other looks featured Gustave Courbet’s masterpiece “The Painter’s Studio.”

The show closed with a model wearing giant white wings that looked like they were made from kites. Equally heavenly was the use of white veils, a nod to the tradition of couture shows ending with a bride, except this time the veils were attached to baseball caps on boys. It was a perfect example of Virgil’s tendency to gatecrash the fashion establishment, as well as his practice of turning something familiar on its head with small changes (what he called the “3 percent approach”).

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While Vuitton described the veils as romantic, Abloh’s large fanbase in Asia — where white garments are often associated with mourning, not marriage — may have taken away a more poignant message. After the show, Virgil’s entire design studio, as well as the often unsung “petites mains” of Louis Vuitton’s menswear atelier, marched onto the set to embrace the models and take a tearful bow, bringing the audience to its feet.

Abloh leaves a significant legacy. At Off-White, he reimagined the role of the creative director — eschewing top-down style edicts in favour of a spirit of openness and exchange with his community, and myriad collabs with other companies within and outside the fashion sphere. He brought those values to Vuitton, too, just as a new generation of fashion consumers, well-versed in the culture of remixing and riffing common to both hip-hop and internet memes, were acquiring greater purchasing power.

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But Louis Vuitton is a story that will go on, and speculation on who could be Abloh’s successor filled column inches this week. A bid for continuity could see the brand lean on protégés and collaborators of Abloh, like stylist Ibrahim Kamara, who worked closely with the late designer, or Nigo, the Japanese designer and streetwear’s doyen (who recently joined Kenzo), or A-Cold-Wall founder Samuel Ross.

And yet Abloh leaves the business in good shape and still very much in the glow of his halo. The designer didn’t limit himself to the sandbox of Vuitton’s runway shows but also introduced hit accessories and retooled the brand’s more commercial menswear lines. Parent company LVMH doesn’t break out sales for individual brands, but HSBC estimates 2021 revenues of €16.7 billion ($18.9), up from €10.8 billion when he arrived in 2018.

Thursday’s collection won’t start to hit stores until May. Vuitton will eventually need to close the chapter but could hold off on appointing a successor for some time amid continued fervour for Abloh’s designs.

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