Louis Vuitton's SS21 Odyssey Comes To A Trippy End In Tokyo
It's been fascinating to watch the various ways in which the world's fashion brands have engaged with the challenges of showing their collections during the Covid-19 pandemic.
With the June menswear season all but cancelled in its physical form, many of the shows in the months followed were mounted entirely digitally. There have been a few failures, a surprising number of successes and a handful of no shows, with some brands choosing to sit out the entire pandemic, presumably conserving their energies for a fresh start in 2021 (fingers crossed!).
In my opinion, the designers who faired best during this period were those that embraced the medium they were required to show through – namely, the internet – rather than trying to squeeze the square peg of a traditional runway format into the round hole of a 12-inch laptop screen.
Virgil Abloh, the perpetually assiduous artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, has, over the past few months, managed to not only put on two physical Spring/Summer 2021 shows – one in Shanghai, the other in Tokyo – but he's also succeeded in conjuring a digitally focused halo around the physical action.
Earlier today, Abloh mounted the Tokyo portion of said show run, and it was both manifold and multicoloured, presented in the form of a Mardi Gras parade. “In America, where I grew up, parades are a manifestation of childlike wonder," Abloh told me following the show. “They are fantasies come to life, which essentially hypnotise the mind with wonderment. The idea of parades connects to my ‘Boyhood’ ideology, which is about seeing the world through the unspoiled eyes of a child.” Indeed, it was these fumes of fantasy that permeated the very fabric of the presentation.
First onto Abloh's floating pontoon runway (which was encircled by cherry-red LV-branded shipping crates, a mirror of the Shanghai setup) were 59 looks from last month's show, including the playful pop-colour zoot suits and Ethiopian flag-clad sweaters that punctuated proceedings. Next came 12 looks from Abloh's collaboration with Japanese designer Nigo. Including tote bags finished with gloopy Mr Whippy-style leatherwork and cloud-like shearling-lined slippers, there was a surrealist twist to the pieces that played neatly with the science fiction surrounds of teatime Tokyo.
It was the final 60 looks, however (all of which created entirely for Abloh's Japanese outing) that really set the trippy tone, which was bolstered by two “cinematic experiences” interwoven throughout the action – for our at home viewing pleasure. One part was directed by Caleb Femi, the other by Takashi Miike. “The collection proposes an alternative to rationalism," read the notes sent out after the show. "In order to break the chain – to achieve the impossible – the mind must journey into the subconscious and cross the borders of reason."
In real terms, this translated into a series of richly referenced looks that felt as well-travelled as they did laden with character. From ska-influenced pop-colour two-pieces to raspberry-hued Madras-check overcoats, much of the collection found its footing in Abloh's pan-African heritage, specifically suits, jackets, pea coats and voluminous trousers finished in fabrics inspired by the “kente cloth of the Ashanti Kingdom of Ghana, the birthplace of Virgil Abloh’s parents.”
Elsewhere, subtle (and not so subtle) references to Abloh's aforementioned preoccupation with childhood could readily be found. There were a series of oversized animated mascots – Zoooom and friends – who appeared in inflated form on the backs of various models, there were “Mad Hatter” suits and hats finished in exaggerated proportions and there were puffer jackets and overcoats furnished with ghoulish stuffed scorpions, wolves and frogs, a stylistic quirk inspired by a visit Abloh paid to a toy shop last winter.
“I was shopping for presents for my kids in a toy store in Paris in January, casually sticking stuffed animals in all my pockets," says Abloh. "When I saw my own reflection, teddy bears popping out of all my pockets, it clicked. In my mind, it linked to my ideology of Boyhood, an overarching motif I employ within my work at Louis Vuitton, which promotes a childlike perspective.”
Following the Shanghai portion of his SS21 show, in August, Abloh was attacked by avant garde Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck for copying one of his designs. In a thinly veiled Instagram post Van Beirendonck juxtaposed a crimson coat furnished with a stuffed doll-like figure from his own Autumn/Winter 2016 collection with an electric-blue trench coat designed by Abloh from the aforementioned show. The former coat also featured a stuffed figurine on its flank.
The internet went wild and Abloh was quick to defend himself. “Walter Van Beirendonck’s claims are completely false," said Abloh in a press release. "They are a hate-filled attempt to discredit my work. The inspiration for my collection comes from the DNA of Louis Vuitton, specifically the 2005 Louis Vuitton menswear show, and it was clearly outlined in the notes distributed to the press when the show began. This is yet another instance of false equivalence to try to discredit me as a designer.”
It was also an issue on which Abloh was happy to elaborate following his Tokyo show, which featured a great number of garments – including black leather jackets and red satin bombers – appliquéd with stuffed figures. “[Van Bierendonck's] work is not within my frame of reference. As a member of the purist canon of the fashion industry I am aware of him by name, but certainly not the granular look-by-look nature of his collections,” said Abloh. “Like any designer, I respect the philosophies of icons – from fashion to architecture and applied arts – but my inspiration comes from other avenues, such as the subcultures that have shaped me growing up and my Ghanaian cultural heritage as a second-generation African-American.”
Padded familiars aside, the question remains whether ringmaster Abloh's SS21 physical-meets-digital menswear circus managed to cut through the past few months of fashion's pixelated panicking. The short answer is “yes”. What Abloh achieved with his three month-long extravaganza was to maintain consumer interest, conjure regular newness and demonstrate the phenomenally deep pockets of the brand for which he works, all the while pushing his fundamentally inclusive agenda. And for that, at the very least, he should receive round applause.