On Valentine’s Day, Louis Vuitton may have pulled off the biggest surprise in history by announcing that Pharrell Williams will take over as the brand’s new creative director of menswear. It was yet another flash of inspiration from a brand renowned for making bold choices that have stunned and astounded the fashion industry.
Fans of Williams (and his celebrity buddies) naturally cheered that he would be taking over for the late Virgil Abloh.
Williams’ appointment coincides with the 50th anniversary of hip-hop and is the first time that a prestigious fashion company has given one of rap’s most varied style icons a seat at the table, despite years of major fashion brands referencing or borrowing from hip-hop style.
Others, however, were baffled as to why LVMH chose Williams over a number of other purported contenders in the fashion industry, including Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner, Telfar Clemens, and Colm Dillane of KidSuper.
Williams, along with Dapper Dan, Sean “Diddy” Combs, and Kanye West, has long shaped how the general public perceives hip-hop fashion.
By dressing like a skateboarder, he defied the norms of hip-hop fashion; he is a global connector who personally connected with NIGO to usher in an era of Ura-Harajuku-inspired streetwear to the United States that dominated young adult fashion for a decade; and his Y2K remix of Slick Rick’s ostentatious jewelry was literally copied and pasted by rappers like Drake today.
Williams’ Billionaire Boys Club label diverged significantly from Yeezy’s fashion-hoop fantasies, but the leader of N.E.R.D. is one of the select few musicians who can claim to have already collaborated with high-end brands like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Moncler, and Tiffany & Co.
3Yet, does Williams’ appointment really support hip-current hop’s hold on modern fashion? Or is it just another extravagant marketing gimmick by LVMH motivated by a celebrity? Without a doubt, hip-hop celebrities have contributed significantly to making Louis Vuitton one of the most recognizable fashion brands in the world today.
A decade before Louis Vuitton engaged Marc Jacobs to create its men’s and women’s collections in 1997, Dapper Dan’s bootleg couture connected luxury house monograms with hip-hop legends like Rakim and LL Cool J.
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However, during the course of his 16-year career at Louis Vuitton, Jacobs organized well-known collaborations not just with Takashi Murakami but also with current hip-hop icons like Skateboard P. Kim Jones built on Marc Jacobs’ collaborative approach by integrating streetwear into the luxury market by fusing Louis Vuitton with brands like Supreme—a label whose own designs are profoundly influenced by hip-hop fashion and urban culture at large—while his menswear collections shied away from such star-studded collaborations.
Abloh actively engaged LV with hip-hop during his eight-season tenure as Louis Vuitton’s creative director of menswear after years of toying with the genre. With Pietro Beccari, the new CEO of Louis Vuitton, performing the marriage ceremony for Pharrell’s first union as a clergyman, his appointment unites these two realms in holy matrimony.
Yet one wonders whether Abloh had a different fairy tale conclusion in mind for the house. Although Abloh was a close friend of celebrities, his celebrity position did not limit the success of his collections. Even if his celebrity connections made headlines for Louis Vuitton, that was not his greatest strength as a designer.
He did legitimize using his famous buddies like ASAP Nast and Kid Cudi as runway models. Yet, he mapped these celebrities with depth and used this strategy to make more general themes about recognizing diversity in the fashion industry.
The LV Men’s Fall 2021 presentation featured a performance by Yasiin Bey (Mos Def), which connected a thread of Black poets that also included Saul Williams and Kai-Isaiah Jamal. Abloh’s Spring 2022 collection, which was partially inspired by vintage kung fu films, featured an appropriate “Liquid Swords” performance by GZA of the Wu-Tang Clan.
Abloh’s goal was less to generate social media hype and rather to subtly highlight his teenage hip-hop heroes while drawing attention to more extensive Black art histories that have long been ignored by the traditional fashion business.
The distinction between Abloh’s description of Dem Dare as a “fashion house” when discussing his own collaborative work with Reggieknow and Kim Jones’ Summer ’22 Dior Men’s runway collection with Travis Scott—more or less a luxurious line of Scott’s Cactus Jack merchandise with little to say aside from a “Rest in Peace” knit sweater dedicated to the Dior-loving Pop Smoke—is stark.
It does little for the products of the brand or the cultures these labels get their inspiration from to parade a music icon down the catwalk with no purpose other than marketing to their fan base.
Of course, any fashion designer with a thriving brand, like LV Men’s runner-ups Grace Celebrities warmly welcomes Martine Rose, Wales Bonner, and Telfar Clemens. But, the fashionable star who will wear their outfit next doesn’t determine their vision.
As with Abloh, they choose to communicate the messages they want to tell through fashion. Rose draws inspiration for her outfits from the ’90s South London rave environment she was up in.
By creating designs that draw inspiration from African royalty yet are impacted by conventional Saville Row tailoring, Wales Bonner challenges Britain’s colonial past.
In addition, Clemens’ work is true to the democratization of fashion that Abloh aimed for, from highlighting the modest White Castle employee flipping burgers in Harlem to the Rainbow clothing boutiques that influenced the style of more New Yorkers than a Louis Vuitton flagship on Fifth Avenue. Clemens may be best known in pop culture for selling his viral leather tote bags.
So why shouldn’t these other, more fashion-focused creatives, who have worked hard for years to share their unique cultural ideas with an audience beyond their own fanbase, be given the chance to do so on the Louis Vuitton platform throughout the world?
There is no denying that Pharrell has had a lasting influence on modern street style. Yet, over the past 20 years, he has developed into much more than simply a hip producer from Virginia Beach.
He is now a multihyphenate millionaire entrepreneur who runs his own creative think tank called I am Other,” his well-known “Something in the Water” music festival, his Humanrace Adidas sneaker and clothing line, his Humanrace skincare label, his clothing brands Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream, his OTHERtone podcast, his Black Ambition and Yellow charities, among other things.
Pharrell already has the public’s attention and can use the platforms that have been given to him since he is a celebrity to express any ideas he may have. Many fashion designers, however, will never have such a luxury in their lifetime.
One can only hope that Williams would approach his new position similarly to Abloh, taking chances, highlighting people who are marginalized, and elevating voices other than his own. The entire world won’t be able to watch until his debut performance in June.