Is Virgil Abloh the Karl Lagerfeld for Millennials?


Virgil Abloh, the founder of Off-White and the men’s wear 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 (or not so buried). He is “the Andy Warhol for our times” (The Guardian), he is “Jeff Koons” (the 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 D.J.’s: CircoLoco in Ibiza, Jimmy’z in Monte Carlo, Coachella, the Sub Club in Glasgow 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 Mr. 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: Mr. 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 Mr. Abloh in 2018 and previously, as chief executive of Fendi, worked with Mr. 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, which since early February has been moving from New York to London to Milan and now Paris, they blanched and said, “Oh, please, no!” or “That’s crazy!” or “Is this a joke?”

In pure biography the two are (duh!) very different. Mr. 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.

As Mr. Burke said: Mr. Abloh “is digital, like Karl. Cross-generational, like Karl. Hard-working, like Karl. Intelligent, like Karl.”

Like Mr. Lagerfeld, who dabbled in photography and book publishing, and collaborated with brands that included H&M and Coke, Mr. Abloh has a seemingly voracious desire to put his creative mark on everything — anything — even if the end result seems slapdash. He possesses a belief in his own talent even if it is devoted to a project for only about five minutes. And he has a healthy disrespect for the pretensions and conventional wisdom of fashion.

Like Mr. Lagerfeld, Mr. Abloh has made his mark in part by embracing irony. Like Mr. Lagerfeld he has made a community that can seem like a cult of personality around himself. Like Mr. Lagerfeld, he speaks in rolling sentences and is a pleasure to listen to, especially in a world where the most celebrated names often seem to be tying themselves up in knots at the prospect of answering a question.

Mr. Lagerfelds 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.

There is a sense, dear to fashion, that the designer should be a tortured soul agonizing over the creative process (in part because of its insecurity complex in regard to more classic forms of art). To boast about doing so little is somehow unseemly. Yet Mr. Lagerfeld had no truck with that idea, and neither does Mr. Abloh.

In the end, Mr. Lagerfeld’s most significant contribution to fashion was the way he changed everyone’s idea of what it meant to be a great designer, reshaping it in his image as a jack-of-all-brands, able to enter a heritage house and reinvent it with both a sense of history and a willingness to make it relevant for a new cultural moment. He was, as the influencer Bryan Yambao said, the pioneer of “the idea of the multitasking designer.” Mr. Abloh is broadening that, to be a jack-of-all-design. John Hoke, the chief design officer of Nike, also called him a “pioneer.”

Whether that becomes a new benchmark — whether Mr. Abloh really is, say, the Jeff Koons to Mr. Lagerfeld’s Warhol, as Mr. Tonchi posited — is still too early to say. Mr. Abloh has decades left to work. He may turn out to be a flash in the pan, someone who becomes a footnote in fashion history, rather than an era. It is not hard to imagine him leaving clothes behind and heading off into the pop culture-technology nexus.

In which case the final judgment may depend as much on how the world evolves as how his clothes evolve; whether we continue down the road of reality TV, of value systems shaped as much by convenience as closely held moral codes, of businesses run by likes and follower numbers as much as the desire to create something genuinely new — or change direction.

When people were trying to wriggle out of the comparison between Mr. Lagerfeld and Mr. 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, Mr. Abloh may not be the Lagerfeld heir we want. But he may be the Lagerfeld heir we have made.


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