This week, after months of rumors, LVMH named Virgil Abloh—Kanye West’s life-long creative director, founder of Off-White, endless brand collaborator, DJ and former Fendi intern—as the new menswear director for Louis Vuitton.

The appointment propels Abloh to the upper echelon of the luxury world. But his unorthodox path speaks volumes about streetwear’s role in luxury and design and where everything is headed in an age dictated by celebrity status and social media. Abloh’s ascent should also put to rest the idea that you can’t move up market—as he has proved over the last decade, a ladder always exists—one just needs to climb it without falling off.

What follows is a recap of his ascent and insight into what this means for the future of luxury and the designers that create it.

Kanye and DONDA

In 2002, when Abloh was 22, he started working as a creative consultant to Kanye West. This work led to DONDA in 2012, Kanye’s creative agency, which would “pick up where Steve Jobs left off,” according to Kanye. DONDA mainly focused on tour merchandise, album covers and set design. The current craze and aesthetics of tour merch, as well as many modern live show dynamics, are arguably the result of Abloh’s efforts and direction at DONDA, which simultaneously elevated him to insider-celebrity status.


In 2009, Abloh and Kanye got the fashion bug and interned at the LVMH-owned Fendi for a few months. Michael Burke, then CEO of Fendi (and the current CEO of Louis Vuitton), hired the duo, paying them each $500 a month for their work. They worked on a range of projects, from getting coffee to presenting design ideas.

Pyrex Vision

Abloh’s work at Fendi set off a chain reaction of forays into the fashion world, starting with the launch of Pyrex Vision in 2012. As his first solo venture, the brand’s premise was as simple as it was derivative: it sold Champion t-shirts for over $200 and vintage Ralph Lauren flannels for over $500, featuring one-color screen prints, along with the word “Pyrex” and big sports numbers on the back. The hip hop community quickly latched onto the brand, imbuing it with cultural weight and attracting the interest of important boutiques such as Colette in Paris, Union in LA and Storm in Copenhagen, which placed Pyrex alongside other luxury labels.

But as the brand ascended, it was also criticized for its shameless appropriation of existing merchandise from other brands. However, even as it received flack for putting a cheap screen print on someone else’s garment and hiking the price, Pyrex came to prominence in the streetwear canon at the right time, when it was pulling heavily from the sportswear world, and rode the wave that followed.


Abloh shut down Pyrex a year after it was founded as his aspirations grew larger. In 2013, he launched Off-White as the next evolution of his fashion ambitions. This time, having learned a number of lessons about aesthetics, hype, design and production from Pyrex, Abloh teamed up with New Guards Group (NGG), a little-known, Milan-based holding company. Founded by the Italian streetwear designer Marcelo Burlon, the NGG team included co-founders Claudio Antonioli, who ran Burlon’s business, as well as his eponymous boutique in Milan, and Davide de Giglio, who was in charge of NGG’s production. NGG gave Abloh access to serious design, production and retail infrastructure, allowing him to realize his vision while focusing mostly on creative direction, rather than the other, more tedious aspects of running a brand.

Early Off-White designs were an incremental evolution from Pyrex, relying heavily on screen printing, graphics, and blank sweatshirts and t-shirts that were relatively cheap to buy. The prices, however, were just as high, if not higher, allowing Abloh to position the brand between streetwear and luxury, and giving Off-White the margins to succeed with wholesale.

But Off-White evolved and rapidly expanded, both as Abloh’s profile hit new heights and NGG gave him the infrastructure to compete globally. Over time, the brand grew to hundreds of stocklists as it morphed into more of a fashion label, taking on runway shows, a women’s line and an increasingly high-end aesthetic.

Off-White’s global sales are well distributed—as of late 2016, 30% came from North America, 40% from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and 30% from Asia, where Abloh’s line sees particular success. The business is nearly evenly split between menswear and womenswear, with 24 stores to date, some of which are owned by the brand and others that are either concessions or franchises run by other retailers. Off-White Toronto, for example, is owned and run by CNTRBND, one the the city’s leading boutiques.

Off-White has also been a very liberal collaborator, working with everyone from Barney’s and Equinox to Dover Street Market and Kith, Nike to Moncler, and Vans to Levis—just to name a few. These collaborations widen Abloh’s reach and allow him to piggyback on the audiences and aesthetics of the partner brands. Off-White will continue with Abloh at its helm as he takes the reins at Louis Vuitton, although he will likely only work on high-level creative direction.

Reach and Criticism

Abloh has remained an utter press magnate throughout his ascent, commanding more interest and reach than almost any other designer on the circuit. (The Louis Vuitton announcement was trending on Twitter the day the news was released, not least because Abloh is the first African American designer at a French luxury brand.) This feat says a lot about where the industry is headed and how much of it is now driven by celebrity. Yet, unlike most other celebrities and brands, which have only enjoyed average-to-little staying power, Abloh is entering a league of his own, constructing the tallest and most sturdy ladder all the way from streetwear to peak luxury.

His rise, however, has fueled plenty of criticism from designers. Raf Simons of Calvin Klein, for example, has spoken out against Abloh, mainly for his appropriation of other designs. While this is clearly true, it is also unavoidable today, as fashion—and culture, more broadly—shifts from a supply-driven to a demand-driven world and transforms into an endless washing machine powered by trend, hype and intrigue.

The bigger concern for people like Simons—who built his career on “original design” and moved from heading an obscure, eponymous contemporary menswear brand to leading fashion house after fashion house—is that Abloh’s rise is one of the first trajectories of its kind. While Abloh earned his stripes working for Kanye and putting his industrial design and architecture background to the test, he is not a fashion designer by any traditional measure—more of a creative director than a designer, he loves to use the word “vibe.” Abloh is less involved in clothing design—especially from a technical perspective—and is more focused on the overall aesthetic and direction of the brand and will surely look at Vuitton through this lens. This will likely serve Abloh well at Vuitton, as helming a legacy brand is about much more than the clothes—it’s about the “vibe,” the social media, the retail stores, the celebrities attached to the brand, and so forth.

Interestingly, as Simons builds the next chapter of Calvin Klein, where he has full control over everything from the clothes to the advertisements to the retail stores, it will be important to see who is better poised for success: the guy that started on the high-end and stayed there, or the guy who climbed his way up.