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Louis Vuitton, Pharrell Williams and the loss of fashion magic

Pharrell Williams is the new creative director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. (Erik Ian/Louis Vuitton)
6 min

Louis Vuitton’s decision to hire Pharrell Williams as the new creative director for its menswear line reaffirms the allure of celebrity within fashion’s boardrooms and the impact of music and streetwear on the luxury industry. It also serves as another blow to the belief that fashion design is a skill and not merely an attitude.

Williams follows the late Virgil Abloh, who was the first Black American to serve as artistic director of a French luxury brand. Abloh hadn’t studied fashion design, but he had worked his way through false starts, fashion competitions, his own brand, DJing and collaborating until he grabbed one of the industry’s few brass rings. He arrived at Louis Vuitton with a fan base that saw themselves in him. Abloh was groundbreaking.

The choice of Williams is not. It feels a bit like a company trying to recapture a certain excitement and sense of change that was fueled by possibility — maybe, just maybe, a door had swung open for other Black designers, and someone working away in a backroom or struggling to keep their own company afloat could win the big job. But Williams was not struggling. He wasn’t pounding away in the shadows. He was sitting in the spotlight wearing diamond bedazzled sunglasses and Chanel jackets. But okay. Fine. Life is not fair. He’ll present his first collection in June.

Williams is known for his wide-ranging interests and his ability to straddle a multitude of worlds. He doesn’t have a formal design background; his main medium of artistic expression is, of course, music. Still, he has a history as a fashion entrepreneur, most notably with Billionaire Boys Club, which he co-founded with the Japanese tastemaker Nigo in 2003. Williams is someone who has a sense of what’s bubbling up from the culture. He delights in collaborations and is an agile curator of talent.

Williams also has a high appreciation for a specific kind of eye-candy fashion: self-consciously defiant and flashy. He dresses the same way a producer might put together a song: freely sampling, always riffing and trying to keep the vibe not just of the moment but also beyond it. In his public appearances, Williams often walks a fine line between parody and subversiveness, stunt and style. With his slight build and high cheekbones, he can look younger than his 49 years. His youthful appearance is often exaggerated by his affection for short pants — or shorts — on formal occasions. He looks the part of a man who seems to be in touch with a rising generation of consumers. The fashion industry has been his playground for a long time.

Virgil Abloh’s wondrous success

His appointment, announced Tuesday, to one of the industry’s most high-profile positions at the helm of one of its most lucrative brands is a powerful statement about the fashion industry’s relationship with itself. Despite its swagger, insecurity is rife. Despite fashion’s commitment to chasing innovation, it has a habit of settling for more of the same.

Vuitton regards itself as a brand that’s bigger than mere clothes and accessories. The Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris houses and exhibits world-class contemporary art. The company has built an entire traveling show around its bags and trunks. Its logos are part of an international cultural language. It sees itself as an institution with a history that dates back to 1854. Yet rather than confidently promoting from within, Vuitton looked outward for someone who could enhance its validity. It went outside its ateliers and even beyond the realm of designers. Doing so suggests that a pure designer, that is someone who had committed themselves to both the technical aspects of fashion as well as its creative expression, couldn’t deliver what the company wanted. A pure designer was not enough.

That’s disheartening. It’s also simply not true.

Other brands have been helmed by designers who have been able to jolt the culture while also juicing sales. At Gucci, both Tom Ford and Alessandro Michele had long, successful runs during which they had an impact far beyond fashion. They tantalized musicians, actors and anonymous consumers. Neither Ford nor Michele was a known entity when they ascended to creative director. They were staffers, not stars. Fashion fueled their rise, and they, in turn, brought fashion to a wider audience.

Of course, countless other designers have failed to reinvigorate dying brands or even to hold the line on successful ones. But celebrity creative directors don’t have a flawless track record, either. Rihanna’s Fenty fashion label, backed by LVMH, which also controls Vuitton, closed in less than two years. Other stylish celebrities who had dismal showings in the fashion industry include Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé. And partnering with a celebrity has its risks, as Adidas discovered when its Yeezy sneaker business imploded after Ye (né Kanye West) spit out antisemitic and anti-Black rhetoric.

It’s hard to imagine that Vuitton would have taken a similar tack if it had been looking for someone to helm its womenswear division. While womenswear owes a debt to hip-hop, street style and athleticism, contemporary menswear is far more deeply indebted to those vernaculars. Choosing someone who moves nimbly between them proved irresistible.

But more than anything, the choice of Williams makes it clear how much the definition of designer has changed in a generation. In the popular imagination, the designer is still a lone figure draping and sketching, overseeing and demanding. Although that remains true at smaller entities and in a few rarefied spaces, in larger companies, there are a fleet of designers working on a multitude of divisions. The creative director oversees it all and worries about advertising and marketing and store design, too.

The shift has taken a bit of the magic out of fashion. It has removed any pretense of intimacy and limited personal expression. It’s all about product and messaging. The creative director has been absolved of needing design training. Times change. Fashion moves along, too. But with the selection of Williams, fashion deflated just a little bit more. Not because he is untalented, but because the choice is uninspiring.