Consuming culture online is an Easter egg hunt. Much cultural commentary – even criticism – has become something of a conspiracy theory as we find signs and symbols and string them together in hopes of finding greater meaning. Even when the pieces don’t fit together into a whole, the mere discovery of them gives us some of the thrill and the feeling that there is indeed order in a world that appears to be lacking. Think Marvel movies, and maybe QAnon too.
I thought about it when I saw Virgil Abloh’s Fall 2021 show for Louis Vuitton, an exploration of male archetypes: “The artist, the salesman, the architect, the drifter, etc.,” the show’s keynotes read, although in of the collection I also saw the Prophet, the Pimp, the Zaddy, the Manager and the Gstaad Guy. (No kidding: Abloh is one of my fellow Instagram guilty runners @TheGstaadGuy.) In part, this archetypal approach was an appreciation of the huge role Abloh plays as the leader of a large luxury house: he has to be a picture maker, and every look has to be great gesture. He’s been working with stylist (and new Dazed editor) Ib Kamara since last summer, who also creates monumental, powerful images. Every style of Kamara seems to look like royalty, and this collection had the same quality, sense of solemnity and eternity.
Like most Abloh collections, this one was jam-packed with ideas. Abloh shares critics and fashion fans, the main criticism being that he overloads his clothes with half-hearted ideas and concepts, and doesn’t give any of them enough time or attention to fully develop. In this one alone there were Lawrence Weiner aphorisms, a James Baldwin essay that was intertwined with an art theft theme, a model airplane motif, an original score with a spoken word piece by Saul Williams, a Mos Def performance (!), Paper dolls, hats inspired by Edward Scissorhands, people disguised as entire cityscapes, morning pendulum choreography and quotes from John Berger. There is a lot of diversity. The show’s keynotes said the collection asked, “Who can claim art? What defines low versus high? Who can make art? Who can consume it? “Great questions, though I’m not sure how this collection raises – or answers – them more than his previous work.
Increasingly, I think that’s the point. Abloh is very aware of how online commentary works, especially with young men, and fills his collections with these Easter eggs because he knows that it is the lingua franca. Perhaps the only way to channel the subculture right now is to come up with so many ideas that each idea becomes a niche in itself. Abloh is a notorious online explorer, self-taught in the fashion world, and his collections are increasingly acting as encyclopedias of hidden messages and references, full of gestures intended to inspire his followers to obsessions and rabbit holes. The big narrative isn’t necessarily the point. I could be wrong, of course, but significantly, Abloh has added a new sentence to the Book of Terms, which he updates every season: go fish, which he calls “an innate reaction of people when he looks at an object for the first time, to relate it to something you’ve seen it before – often before you’ve seen the nuance of the object. “That’s what I’m talking about here. The result is hard thinking is framed as a luxury item in and of itself – kind of a bogus idea that I think Abloh would love.
Kim Jones is the other designer who has to work this way – or maybe I should say he works successfully – and envisions the big fashion house he runs, Dior, as a platform to educate young men about his passions ( Judy) Schuld, Shawn Stussy), the interface between streetwear and the art world (Daniel Arsham and KAWS) and the technique of making clothes. He’s much more concerned with beauty and the process of making intricate garments after using his access to the Dior couture atelier to make things like sheer shirts embroidered with his favorite artists’ designs and elaborate knitwear. There’s a long history of dealing with apparently impossible garments in women’s couture, and I can’t think of any other designer who would approach the idea of men’s fashion from a couturier’s point of view rather than a tailor’s point of view. You can see how and why an art fair prince cares about Jones’ pieces.
For this collection he worked with Peter Doig, a brilliant Scottish painter who is much more a doyen of the art world than his previous artistic partners like Arsham or Kenny Scharf – much more Artforum than Hypebeast. These clothes had a serenity that only a painter of Doig’s technical superiority can evoke: the knitwear (some quote directly from Doig’s work), the soft, tailored trousers, the raised satin coat carefully imprinted with doigisms. Jones also changed his silhouette, which has been tailored and precise since his first collection in January 2019. Here he worked with the basis of a fitted, military-inspired stand-up collar jacket and soft, almost blouse pants. It was confident and chic in Doig’s washed tones – especially the finale look underneath an opaque purple fur coat with bracelet sleeves and a large, spangly brooch.
These are two designers who don’t have to respond to the state of the world – who can instead make fashion for fashion’s sake, operating at the height of their craft and, as we must admit, their powers. And they remind you that the kings of the world can not only be found on the slopes of Gstaad. Although you will surely find them there.