Virgil Abloh – the fashion designer, DJ and pop culture expert – is about to become the most powerful black manager of the most powerful luxury goods company in the world.
On Tuesday, LVMH announced that it has acquired a 60 percent stake in Off-White, the luxury streetwear brand that Mr. Abloh founded in 2013 and which he still designs in addition to his work as artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear.
In addition, Mr Abloh, 40, will take on a larger role at LVMH and in categories such as wine and spirits (LVMH owns Krug, Dom Pérignon and Hennessy, under 30 brands) and hospitality (more than 50 hotels, including the Cipriani in Venice and Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons in Oxfordshire), smashing silos and adding more diverse voices to a variety of brands.
“I’ll get a seat at the table,” said Mr. Abloh cheerfully, speaking of Zoom from Chicago, where he lives.
While his job definition is still pretty nebulous (Chief Disruption Officer?), The news gives Mr Abloh, a first generation Ghanaian-American, a pretty broad range of duties and makes Off-White one of the rare brands in the LVMH stable that doesn’t European heritage is deeply rooted.
It also marks a potential new stage in the development of LVMH, which emerged from the pandemic with shares up 60 percent this year and had such a good first quarter (sales up 30 percent over the same period in 2020, pre-Covid) that its chairman Bernard Arnault was briefly the richest man in the world.
“We’re not trying to imitate an existing model,” said Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s chairman, of Mr. Abloh’s new role. “It’s more like what Bernard Arnault did when he bought Dior and decided to create a federation of luxury brands.” That is, shaking up the status quo.
Now Mr Arnault is trying to throw his own organization out of the comfort zone with Mr Abloh as a zeitgeist whisperer.
The new agreement is similar to the collaborations that Mr. Abloh specializes in – with Ikea, Nike, Champion, Vitra and Equinox to name a few – but pumped up on a protein drink and with long-term effects. Not only does Mr. Abloh get a cool sounding new gig; he gets a stake in all cross-fertilizing projects he develops.
“We’re trying to turn the founders around in their graves, but in the best way,” said Burke. “Some of our biggest brands tend not to see it in their own best interest to stay in the modern world.”
For Mr. Abloh, who is often compared to Jeff Koons, it is no problem to be “involved in the contemporary world”, describes himself as a “doer” rather than a designer and promotes the “3 percent approach” Keeping This Record A change of only 3 percent to a design is enough to qualify it as new.
LVMH has been vocal about its commitment to diversity, equality and inclusion, despite having an all-white board and a board of directors. It didn’t help that LVMH put Fenty, its short-lived experiment of building a direct-to-consumer brand from scratch with Rihanna, on hold last year (although the company remains affiliated with Rihanna through its cosmetics brand).
The new agreement with Mr. Abloh and Off-White is part of a lot of LVMH activity. Tiffany bought it last year on the biggest luxury deal (the new ad campaign reads, “Not your mother’s Tiffany”). Last week the company announced it had acquired a minority stake in Phoebe Philo’s new eponymous company; last month, the renovated La Samaritaine department store reopened with an appearance by President Emmanuel Macron; and the ultra-luxurious Cheval Blanc Hotel and Dior Spa will open in Paris this year.
The deal also positions Off-White, best known for its ironic use of quotation marks (and a tendency to quote not just phrases but arguably styles) for what Mr. Abloh calls “generational growth”.
Although Off-White, the company, continues to be operated by New Guards Group, the Italian manufacturing company that owns the license for the brand (and is itself owned by Farfetch), Off-White LLC, which owns the brand, is incorporated become part of the LVMH fashion and leather goods group. The terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Mr Burke said “it took about five minutes to reach an agreement”.
LVMH has historically acquired or bought a minority stake in the personal brands of the designers it employs to work with its traditional labels. This is a pattern it developed with John Galliano when he was the creative director of Dior (when he was fired he also lost his naming rights); Marc Jacobs, whose brand is still owned by LVMH; and JW Anderson, Loewe’s creative director.
Still, according to Burke, Off-White is the largest such brand LVMH has ever acquired, with 56 stores worldwide and a presence in 40 countries.
Mr Abloh said he hoped the deal will ensure Off-White will be “in historic corners around the world” for years to come. He also said the partnership will be used to expand Off-White into categories like cosmetics and housewares, and to expand the leather goods side of the business.
Mr. Abloh, who has an engineering degree and no formal fashion training (his mother, a seamstress, taught him to sew), began his relationship with LVMH in 2007 when he was creative director for Kanye West and the two were interned at Fendi . the Italian brand. In 2015 he was a finalist of the LVMH Award for Young Designers and in 2018 he was named Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer.
In 2020, following the assassination of George Floyd, Mr. Abloh founded the Postmodern Scholarship Fund to help black students and promote diversity in fashion. Louis Vuitton was one of the fund’s early donors, raising approximately $ 1 million; three scholarship holders complete an internship at Vuitton.
“The idea is to come up with a path that I would have wished for when I started,” Abloh said. His new role, he added, is to open doors for non-traditional luxury candidates in all areas of the industry, from entry level to top. Maybe especially at the top. “I focus on relevance,” he says. “Relevance is my benchmark.”