Louis Vuitton’s Stroke of Genius
How Virgil Abloh Redesigned “Fashion” for LV
In a move worthy of an Exponential Organization (ExO), the world’s most innovative and fast growing companies, Louis Vuitton’s audacious pivot to attract new customers won it significant brand growth and fans, including us at ExO Works. In tribute to Virgil Abloh, their late Creative Director of Men’s Wear, we share why and lessons for all businesses.
In March of 2018, Louis Vuitton’s Men Ready-to-Wear Studio and Style Director, Kim Jones, left, leaving the collection without a design leader. Within a week came the announcement that Virgil Abloh, a 37 year-old creative designer, engineer, architect, Hip-Hop DJ, streetwear millennial and self-described outlier, would be filling the spot. “I feel elated,” Virgil said, adding that he planned to relocate his family to Paris to take the job at the largest brand in the stable of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury group. “This opportunity to think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean at a brand that represents the pinnacle of luxury was always a goal in my wildest dreams. And to show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look is a fantastically modern spirit in which to start.”
The Louis Vuitton brand, once known for steamer trunks, bags and formal demi-couture clothes, pivoted in a new direction into a new line. Luxury was colliding with streetwear, but the intersection was less of a collision and more of an inclusion.
Virgil’s passing on November 28th, 2021 provides an opportunity to reflect on his life and success, and to look to the future with the legacy he left, refashioning Louis Vuitton into an Exponential Organization (ExO).
An ExO’s impact or output is disproportionally large, at least 10x larger, compared to its peers due to the use of new organizational techniques that leverage accelerating technologies.
Virgil Was Here
Virgil redefined fashion through his passion for art, music, skateboarding and architecture. He never had a formal education in fashion, yet it took just four years for him to go from staging his first Off-White brand showroom presentation in Paris to being named the men’s wear designer for the world’s biggest luxury brand. Forbes Magazine estimated his net worth in 2021 at $100MM. “Fashion is one of the greatest vehicles to merge music, art, architecture, design, typography -- it’s a wide enough canvas, a big enough sandbox, to touch all the different things that I’m into,” stated Virgil.
If you were to build a vision board to define Louis Vuitton, it’s unlikely you would incorporate Hip-Hop and streetwear with the iconic monogram bags and signature scarves. But that’s exactly what Virgil did when he was hired as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection.
How did this happen? Virgil often stated, “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.” But at 17, he was a skater kid who wore graphic tees, created graffiti art, listened to Hip-Hop and rap and DJ’d for house parties. Born in 1980, he lived outside Chicago during the time when the Chicago Bulls achieved world recognition by winning six NBA Championships under Coach Phil and MJ. Everyone wanted to “Be Like Mike”; the number 23 became an icon and the sneaker culture was born.
Virgil went on to attend the University of Wisconsin - Madison and received his B.S. in Civil Engineering before studying Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. Virgil had been designing and printing graphic tees in his teens and by 2003 his designs and programming skills were so advanced the print shop he used hired him. It was in this print shop that Virgil first met Kanye West.
After graduating from IIT, Virgil moved to Rome to intern with Fendi and was in the same class as fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. Fendi at the time was headed by Chairman and CEO Michael Burke, who in 2012 moved on to become Chairman and CEO at Louis Vuitton.
Virgil had an insatiable curiosity, worked hard at everything he tried and intentionally pushed limits. Virgil’s “Question everything” mentality allowed him to try and fail many times before succeeding, without taking criticism personally. Virgil's ever expanding network of friends, fans and collaborators opened doors and helped him reimagine industries of the future. Virgil ran his brands like an ExO, first Pyrex Vision and then Off-White, growing them 10X faster than other streetwear brands by leveraging new technologies. He brought his skill set to Louis Vuitton and had an immediate positive impact.
During his tenure at Louis Vuitton, Interbrand, the world’s leading brand consultancy, reported that LV’s brand value increased from $22.919 billion in 2017 to $28.152 billion in 2018 and $32.223 billion in 2019. In 2021, Louis Vuitton was ranked the most valuable luxury company in Interbrand’s 2021 report, ranking number 13. Louis Vuitton ranks first in Interbrand's 2021 Top Global Brands report – CPP-LUXURY.
Virgil’s traits and use of ExO Attributes opened the door to a new generation of fashion at LVMH.
Virgil’s Massive Transformative Purpose (MTP)
To expand opportunities for diverse individuals and foster greater equity, unity, humanity, individuality and inclusion worldwide.
Virgil had what became known as his signature 3% approach,“My greatest design tool personally is to look at what genre is doing and make it 3-5% different. By making small changes or shifts Virgil found he could capture significant 10X returns.
During the 1990s while still in school, Virgil and his friends would send sneaker designs to Nike. Nike at that time was not accepting any design ideas outside the company. Ironically, and Virgil loved the “ironic”, Nike hired him in 2017 to deconstruct and redesign 10 of the Nike sneaker styles, including Air Jordan 1, Converse Chuck Taylor, and Air Force 1. “The Ten” collection collaboration was a partnership that produced some of the most coveted sneakers in Nike’s history. Virgil used Sharpies, zip ties and X-Acto knives to deconstruct and recreate the sneakers. His seemingly simple hands-on process led to sneakers that once sold for $100 to now be priced at more than $1,000, while some are even on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA).
In 2011 Virgil launched Pyrex Vision in Milan and ran it as a Lean experiment to represent the importance of youth culture. He put his designs on garments most youth would recognize, including Champion brand blanks. Virgil repurposed deadstock Ralph Lauren Rugby flannel shirts and screen printed ‘PYREX 23’ on the back, with the number 23 an homage to Michael Jordan. He paid $40 per shirt and re-sold them for $550. They sold out immediately. He shut Pyrex down in 2012 after completing his experiment.
Black rug by artist Jim Joe, commissioned by Virgil for his Off-White showroom in Paris.
In 2013 Virgil launched Off-White, “the gray area between black and white as the color of off-white” as a high-end streetwear brand also based in Milan. Under Off-White Virgil designed collections of men’s and women’s clothing, objects, furniture and publications, creating his vision of relevant and current culture. He stated that 35 brands failed before Off-White succeeded, including Pyrex Vision. To Virgil, the first “no” or failure was a good sign that would drive the next better idea. Eight years later in 2021,LVMH acquired a 60% interest in Off-White with Virgil continuing as the brand’s creative director.
Community and Crowd
In 2003 while Virgil was working at an architecture firm in Chicago he started writing for a streetwear blog called The Brilliance. In his blogs he would describe recent purchases, design ideas and opinions and review fashion and art events he attended. Later on Virgil would use the open source tools on Instagram to create an online magazine which enabled him to build a fashion brand through non-traditional ways. “I couldn’t beg a fashion writer to write about my project. But with Instagram, I made it my magazine.”
When Virgil started collaborating with Kanye on album covers, concert designs and merchandise he gained access to a larger community and new partnerships with peers on a larger scale. His hands-on approach to innovation and asking for and gauging his followers' likes and dislikes led to a loyal following from his community. Virgil was a leader who opened doors for other ‘makers’ while giving back to future creatives through his Virgil AblohTM “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund.
Virgil sought out millennials when he traveled and when he wasn’t designing, he could be found DJing and reaching new voices who shared similar passions. He visibly impacted and inspired Black youth, specifically Gen Z and millennials, helping them become creatives who would explore, fail, change and keep trying. With his Pyrex brand, Virgil stated he “based the majority of the pieces on that [gym] uniform but an important factor for me was putting numbers on the back so everyone who wears it feels like part of the team.” Virgil created the brand knowing it was never just a tee shirt or pair of shorts. Instead, he was converting the crowd to a community of belonging. Now that’s a “Tee Shirt”!
“The world moves as fast as Instagram scrolls,” Virgil often described social media as a ‘collective consciousness that opened an international community’, “We have this thing called social media where we can communicate and we’re just a world of young people, no longer just a niche culture in one city with young people. A kid in Tokyo and a kid in Kansas are essentially talking to each other.”
He once mused, “Off-White may be the first luxury brand built from social media - as clothes come out they are posted on instagram and people can buy them. Our generation is valid.”
As of 2021, Virgil had more than 7.1 million followers on Instagram, Off-White has 10.7 million followers, and Louis Vuitton has 46,600 followers. Rather than using traditional media outlets, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault took to Twitter to announce Virgil's passing.
Leveraging Assets and Staff on Demand
Virgil didn’t own printing press equipment nor did he have a full time staff. Instead, he used Champion blanks and added his graphic designs to create his Pyrex Vision brand. By leveraging printing equipment and computers owned by print shops and using their staff, Virgil was able to design and create graphic tee shirts with minimal overhead.
Throughout his career, Virgil traveled extensively and was on the road more than 320 days a year. This kept him on the edge of new and trending style, and although he had offices around the world, he never used a desk. He used his iPhone and WhatsApp to keep in touch with his team. In lieu of FTEs he would hire and collaborate with diverse millennials who knew graphic design programming to produce new products. This democratized his access to working capital and gave him flexibility to stay relevant and nimble.
In a conversation with students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) in 2017, Virgil showcased his creative process. Earlier that day he visited the design labs on campus and worked with students to deconstruct and redesign two RISD sweatshirts he bought at the bookstore. His transparency and inclusion attracted students and youth which continued to increase his community. Virgil “Theoretically Speaking” | Rhode Island School of Design | May 2, 2017
In addition to leading Louis Vuitton’s menswear and running his own fashion label Off-White, Virgil impacted many brands through collaborations including IKEA, Champion, Levi’s, Nike, Kith, Moncler, Warby Parker, Evian, New York City Ballet, Rimowa, Timberland, Moët & Chandon, Converse, Le Bon Marché, Byredo, Jimmy Choo, Boys Noize, Vitra and most recently, Mercedes Benz. A list of brands and artists Virgil Abloh collaborated with — Quartz at Work.
Virgil used creative collaborations as a unification strategy - a way to bring together different populations and points of view. “My mission has not changed; my hope for this collaboration is to further strengthen this bond with the new generation,” he stated in an interview regarding his Vitra collaboration. “This collaboration invites the new generation into the conversation; my work is meant to open doors for them.”
Virgil Abloh single-handedly changed the fashion industry forever, breaking barriers and opening doors for an entire generation of artists. He built bridges across industries, enhanced brand awareness globally and engaged millions of new consumers. Virgil recorded a message that was played at his last fashion show held in Miami in December 2021, “I’ve been on this focus in terms of my art and creativity, of getting adults to behave like children again. That they go back into this sense of wonderment, they start to stop using their mind and they start using their imagination.”
Virgil believed that everyone, and therefore anyone, could make a difference and impact the world around them. His optimism and endless curiosity led to many opportunities globally, and his openness and approachability created lifelong friendships and collaborations. He remained humble and never forgot his roots; he didn’t have a formal education in fashion, his mother taught him to sew, his designs came off his laptop, his community was his extended family. Reflecting on the black rug he had placed in the Paris showroom, “That quote is what people stand on when they’re buying Off-White. That literally was my only entry-point into fashion – I had to use whatever means I had.”
From lessons learned by a millennial who grew up wanting to “Be Like Mike” let’s use 2022 to dream out loud, to change 3-5% and achieve 10X returns, and speak to a new generation, to "Habló como Abloh."
Virgil's 10 Rules for Success
- Prove Yourself
- Thrive Off a "No"
- Just Do It
- Disrupt the Status Quo
- Craft Your Own Path
- Don't Chase Perfectionism
- Have Mentors
- Be Critical
- Define the World
- Think Ahead
Featured image via Shelton Boyd-Griffith.