What Is the Fate of the Virgil Abloh Collaboration Machine?

Now that the Off-White designer is in at Louis Vuitton, will the well-loved (and accessibly priced) partnerships that helped make him famous come to a halt?
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Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Photo: Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images

Virgil Abloh officially ascended to the upper echelons of the fashion industry last week, and when he was named the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear on Monday, bridged the gap between streetwear and luxury fashion once and for all. Many (though not everyone) expressed excitement over the 37-year-old's new gig replacing Kim Jones, but could the very thing that made Abloh ultra-popular among young shoppers — his collaborations with brands high and low — come to an end now that he's part of the LVMH family?

The details of Abloh's hiring remain scarce to the public, and a representative for Off-White, his independent label, offered no comment to Fashionista. Abloh told The New York Times that he would continue to run Off-White, which he founded in 2013, but would "cut back on his other activities, including moonlighting as a DJ."

The list of Abloh's Off-White collaborators is long and impressive: Kith, Jimmy Choo, Sunglass Hut, Ikea, Moncler, Vans, Umbro, SSENSE, Levi's, Warby Parker and, perhaps his most notable and sought-after, Nike. What's apparent about this list is that while some of the partners, like Moncler, already existed in the luxury space, most of the brands with whom Abloh partnered are accessible to the average consumer. While the products may have sold out immediately and could be flipped for exponential price increases on the resale market, the point is that they originally were meant to be accessible to someone who can't afford, say, a $700 Off-White hoodie.

"His collaborations can be considered distractions, but I tend to think of them as a source of inspiration and also a way to feel the pulse of what the current fashion trends are," says Andrew Shipilov, professor of strategy at INSEAD and co-author of a report in Harvard Business Review titled, "Luxury's Talent Factories." Shipilov adds that there's a breadth of research that shows when a designer explores diverse experiences, they tend to be more creative, which is could prove to be a bonus for both Abloh and Louis Vuitton.

Certainly there's precedent for luxury designers running multiple labels at once, as well as offering high-low collaborations. A prime example is Karl Lagerfeld, arguably the true "king of collaborations," whose resume is as varied as any. Lagerfeld is, most famously, the longtime creative director of Chanel, co-creative director of Fendi and the head of his own eponymous label. When he's not producing collections, he regularly photographs both editorials and ad campaigns, works as a director and dabbles in interior design. While Chanel is independently owned, unlike Louis Vuitton which falls beneath the LVMH umbrella, the multi-billion dollar brand has done little to curtail Lagerfeld's creative pursuits independent of the French house.

Now that Abloh and Louis Vuitton are inextricably linked, the issue will be finding that harmonious balance between overexposure and exclusivity, one that Vuitton has arguably struggled with in the past. As The Fashion Law noted in October, Louis Vuitton had issues with brand dilution due to oversaturation in the late 1990s and early 2000s. And in 2012, as Fashionista documented, Vuitton saw a sales slump that was largely attributed to its "ubiquity."

Still, many think the very thing that propelled Abloh to a major role at the namesake brand of the world's largest fashion conglomerate isn't his skillset in an atelier, but his ability to conceptualize — and re-contextualize — for more consumers than Louis Vuitton would be able to appeal to on its own.

"I think [the appointment] gives him more credibility, and it won't necessarily alienate his existing customers," says Christine Su, the owner of Heir PR who cut her teeth at Complex Magazine, Adidas and Converse, and is an organizer of New York City's SneakerCon. "I think this helps to take him to another level, while helping Louis Vuitton open their marketplace to a different audience. The possibilities are endless."

The Off-White Fall 2018 finale in Paris. Photo: Imaxtree

The Off-White Fall 2018 finale in Paris. Photo: Imaxtree

Andrew Raisman, the founder of Copdate, an app that reserves your spot in line digitally during an exclusive streetwear or sneaker drop, thinks it would be foolish for LVMH to keep Abloh from collaborating outside the brand. "I think they hired that guy for a reason. I don't see why they would try to suffocate his influence or creativity in other markets when that's what makes him relevant today," suggests Raisman. "I've seen some people talking about how LVMH will stifle him creatively, but from a business or even a logical perspective, it's absurd to think that. The whole point is to harness that creativity." It's also fitting, then, that Louis Vuitton has a longstanding tradition of big-name collaborations under several past creative directors, including Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons and Supreme — the latter of which, of course, saw levels of success that LVMH is likely hoping to emulate with Abloh's hire.

For the sake of argument, Raisman also examines the flip side, in the case that LVMH does put the kibosh on Abloh's collaborations. (Keep in mind that this would require him to finish out existing contracts with several companies, including Ikea, a partnership that won't yield products until 2019). This would mean the Abloh product currently on the market would be the last of its kind — at least, while he's at Louis Vuitton. If that was the case, it'd be like when Kanye West stopped producing shoes with Nike. "It would be every man for himself," says Raisman. For the uninitiated, West's Nike Air Yeezy Red Octobers can be found on resale sites for upwards of $7,000.

To be sure, the Off-White Nike sneakers already fetch astronomical prices on the resale market. "At an average sale price of $1,741, this Jordan 1 model is commanding a whopping 830 percent premium over retail — and it's a price we haven't seen Yeezys demand in quite some time," notes GQ.

Of course, the detractors remain, as not everyone thinks the hype around products with a Kanye West or Virgil Abloh stamp of approval are worthwhile or able to maintain their value. "For those who follow the sneaker business intimately, these collaborations are meaningful and they know about them and talk about them. But that's also a tiny sliver of the economy. I don't see [Abloh's] collaborations as commercially meaningful," says NPD Group's Matt Powell.

The question remains: Is Abloh selling out by moving up, turning his back on the young fans who stood in lines overnight, crashed fashion shows and supported his work until this point?

"I think it helps his personal brand big time," says Raisman. "If he got appointed to be head designer of Guess or Abercrombie & Fitch, it would be the opposite. The fact that he's going to the crown jewel of luxury brands means that anything he puts his name on after or during that time has that value transmitted on it in some capacity, whether it's an Ikea lamp or whatever. Fashion and luxury are all about aspiration." 

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