VIRGIL ABLOH’S latest collection for Louis Vuitton exposes the struggle for suiting to evolve

“When I became a man, I put away childish things,” St. Paul wrote, but Virgil Abloh suggests the future of menswear requires harkening, at the very least, back to early adolescence.

Of all the fall/winter (FW) collections that launched at Paris Fashion Week Men’s over the past few days, the one I most wanted to see was that of Abloh, his fourth since becoming the first black man to be named creative director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division.

Abloh’s street cred is legendary, thanks to his work designing for his own label. Off White. That rawness, that realness that has attracted everyone from skaters with a trust fund to bankers looking for club wear was obviously what attracted LVMH.

The collection, however, did more to show why LVMH, and all high-end menswear labels generally speaking, are struggling to move the business suit into a truly innovative direction.

“Gazing at the world through the optics of a child – of an adolescent or a young man – is tantamount to first impressions.”

Louis Vuitton

As you can see if you watch the clip, Abloh decorated the runway with a giant paintbrush, scissors, safety pins and a spool of thread. These were all situated around a live beanstalk that reached to the ceiling, with walls panted bright blue and dotted with clouds.

“Gazing at the world through the optics of a child – of an adolescent or a young man – is tantamount to first impressions,” the show notes said according to an article in the Guardian, which added:

“There’s a happy disconnect between the inspiration behind his sets and most of what the models wear. If the former let Abloh’s imagination run at full tilt, the other is all business.”

I’m not as sure the disconnect is all that happy. Though no one expects models to be smiling their way down the catwalk, I couldn’t help watching the Louis Vuitton 2020 menwear show without feeling like these boys were entering a self-imposed exile from the wonder of youth and marching (albeit in pricey suits) towards the drudgery of work.

Fighting our ‘age-inflicted incomprehension’

Haute Living took the show in the optimistic way in which it was clearly intended to be seen:

“The suit—a symbol once known for convention—is reimagined and recreated in a way that conveys a sense of progression and joie de vivre,” the magazine said. “The style is twisted and turned to reprogram a traditional ‘dress code,’ while Abloh continues to explore the idea of boyhood, as well as the relationship between young, adolescent men with suiting and tailoring. With that, he ‘rewinds the clock on our collective, age-inflicted comprehension,’ as reflected by the show invitations distributed to attendees.”

Putting aside the stuff you’d never wear (like the ones that mirrored the cloud design of the set), this “reimagining” is best described by coverage in Hypebeast:

“Intricate stitching and patterns were also showcased on the formal wear, creating a cut-out-like effect,” it said. “Stand out pieces, of course, included the shirts and suit jackets which incorporated ruffle detailing and cut out panels, along with the long coats featuring gradient effects.”

I still don’t see a lot of men actually wearing the suits and coats with those effects, and the natural question might be, why does the suit (or the professional dress code in general require “reprogramming?”

Abloh suggested the answer in the Guardian article: “Don’t be defined by your day job.” That’s what a suit traditionally did. If you wore one, you were literally a white collar worker, a class that was still relatively homogenous.

Contrast that with today, where those in fields like advertising and design are still professional but “creatives,” or where we expect “entrepreneurs” or “founders” to look very different than a Fortune 500 company CEO.

Beyond being selective about the fabric, cut and details of the suits they wear, expressing yourself with a suit over the last few years has been mostly a matter of having fun with accessories. There was the era of loud ties and suspenders in the 80s and 90s, crazy-patterned socks in the late 2000s and 2010s, and more recently a seemingly unconscious but collective decision to give into the onslaught of marketing the watch industry has done to fend off the threat of Apple.

Abloh’s collection may not be practical (or affordable) for most men, but it poses an intriguing alternative to, say, buying a suite with a window pane check. He is asking, point blank, whether we’re ready to put on a different kind of suit — one that becomes less of a uniform and more of an act of personal branding.

In this, the suit is positioned as something akin to the magic beans in ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’: you either believe in its power, or see spending extra money on it as essentially worthless.

I really like the open-mindedness and freshness with which Abloh is suggesting we look at men’s suits and coats, but remember that a suit is the one of the most grown-up things you can buy. The idea that regression could be a mechanism for it to progress is provocative — but also has the naive hopefulness of a boyhood fantasy.

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