Vanessa Friedman (The New York Times)
Virgil Abloh, the founder of Off-White and the menswear designer of Louis Vuitton, is the kind of fashion figure that seems to demand comparison.
Almost every profile contains one buried somewhere in the text. He is “the Andy Warhol for our times” (The Guardian), he is “Jeff Koons” (editor Stefano Tonchi). He is most often, and when no individual will do, “a Renaissance man.” While struggling to explain his ubiquity, his seeming sudden blanketing of the culture, people grasp for someone, anyone, to make sense of his influence.
After all, aside from his two fashion day jobs, here is a partial list of the companies and brands with which he has collaborated: Evian, Nike, Vitra, Ikea, Champion, Equinox, Jimmy Choo, Sunglass Hut and McDonald’s. Here is a list of galleries and museums where his work has been shown (and sold): The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Galerie Kreo in Paris, Gagosian, the Louvre.
Here is where he DJs: CircoLoco in Ibiza; Jimmy’z in Monte Carlo, Monaco; Coachella; the Sub Club in Glasgow, Scotland; and the Potato Head Beach Club in Bali.
He has lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design, the Graduate School of Design at Harvard, and Columbia.
But of all the comparisons that have been posited since Abloh landed in Paris Fashion Week six years ago and began his viral takeover, perhaps the one that gets the strongest reaction is a more fashion-centric idea: Abloh is the Karl Lagerfeld of the millennial generation.
“I’ve been saying that for a while!” said Michael Burke, the chief executive of Louis Vuitton, who hired Abloh in 2018 and previously, as chief executive of Fendi, worked with Lagerfeld from 2003 to 2012.
But to pretty much everyone else in fashion, it’s a blasphemous statement. Almost every time I suggested it to someone while chatting catwalk-side during the most recent show season, they blanched and said, “Oh, please, no!” or “That’s crazy!” or “Is this a joke?”
Perhaps it is too early, for both men. Lagerfeld died only a year ago this fashion month at 85-ish, after more than five decades in fashion, and the industry is still mourning his loss. Abloh, 39, has been showing a brand for only six years. He’s still relatively unproven. But then, attention spans are increasingly short.
Lagerfeld, the designer of Chanel, Fendi and his own line, among many other things, is often viewed as the ultimate fashion figure: A one-off creative genius whose imagination and intellect could not be contained in a single brand, and whose understanding of the art of the atelier was unparalleled. He was, above all, a professional designer.
Abloh is the man who told the world, “You don’t have to be a designer to be a designer.” He doesn’t even call himself a designer; he calls himself a “maker,” according to The New Yorker – perhaps in acknowledgment of critics, myself included, who don’t think he is particularly great at his day job (or that he even cares).
He embraces, and propagates, the idea that fashion is not about clothes, but rather totems of community, and that the uniforms of various youth subcultures have a legitimate place in the temple of the elite.
There’s a suspicion, somehow, that he is scamming the industry; seeing how far he can exploit its own embarrassing desire for cool, its need for visible diversity, and its lust for his millions of Instagram followers.
High fashion, after all, is famously white, set in its often-old-fashioned ways, and yet desperate to appeal to a generation of consumers who, it suspects, have a very different idea of what matters than the current establishment does. Abloh exploits, tantalizingly, the promise of all that. People line up for what he is selling, even if they feel like what he is selling is a line.
This is a moment of reckoning with the world we have wrought, in politics, in technology, in society. And in many ways, the idea that it may be Abloh who has inherited the Lagerfeld mantle is simply a pointed reflection of the choices the industry has made when it comes to its own value system and place in the consumer mindset.
In pure biography the two are very different.
Lagerfeld, who was white and German, grew up in a hothouse of high culture and elitism in the first half of the last century, escaped to Paris as a teenager and apprenticed among the most historic French houses (Balmain, Patou) before beginning his career at Chloé.
Abloh, a black American, grew up in the suburbs outside Chicago, the child of Ghanaian immigrants; studied engineering in college and then architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology; worked with Kanye West for a decade; and opened Off-White in 2013. His formal industry apprenticeship consisted of six months at Fendi.
One comes from the couture tradition; one built his career on streetwear. One saw himself as the caretaker of artistic heritage (under Lagerfeld, Chanel acquired the specialty ateliers of embroiderers, hat makers and cashmere spinners in order to protect them); one has a keen awareness of himself as a harbinger of cultural change and breaker of boundaries.
Abloh is one of the rare black creative directors of a French heritage house, which makes his position particularly freighted and unusual. And yet in many ways they have met in the middle, which is kind of where fashion is these days.
As Burke said: Abloh “is digital, like Karl. Cross-generational, like Karl. Hardworking, like Karl. Intelligent, like Karl.”
Lagerfeld’s creativity was extraordinary when focused – his couture shows could be transcendent; he transformed Fendi and the whole idea of fur – but often it wasn’t, and the result could be self-indulgent.
Yet such was his myth by the late 20th century, even critics often overlooked his clunkier designs, as well as the fact that a proportion of what he did could seem dashed off and superficial.
Still, there were those who dismissed Lagerfeld as a “stylist,” just as there are many who refer to Abloh as an “art director,” though in both cases there are others who argue differently.
One of the things that most upsets fashion people about Abloh’s rise is his propensity for fetishizing the shortcut. In The New Yorker, he called it “the 3 percent approach” (the theory that changing a design by that percentage is enough to make it qualify as new). At Harvard, he referred to it as his “cheat codes.”
There is a sense, dear to fashion, that the designer should be a tortured soul agonizing over the creative process. To boast about doing so little is somehow unseemly. Yet Lagerfeld had no truck with that idea, and neither does Abloh.
When people were trying to wriggle out of the comparison between Lagerfeld and Abloh in a diplomatic way, they often said “fashion has changed so much, the world has changed” that they couldn’t possibly connect them.
That is true. Precisely because of that, though, Abloh may not be the Lagerfeld heir we want. But he may be the Lagerfeld heir we have made.