Pharrell Williams’s just-announced appointment at Louis Vuitton proves that LV is determined to keep their menswear in the hands of Black non-designers
Pharrell Williams walking the Chanel show in 2016. Photo: Getty Images
These days, to look for a luxury house’s next designer, a brand does not seek candidates at other runway shows, including graduate events at prestigious fashion schools, or among members of fashion design councils around the world. It only needs to consider the Grammy Awards, past and present. Louis Vuitton’s announcement that Pharrell Williams, with 13 Grammys, would be taking over the design reigns at their menswear division—no news outlet did not run a story on that—affirms that the music world, particularly African-American hip-hop, is where designers are waiting to be found. Even if no one could say for sure what exactly has been Mr Williams’s contribution to fashion design, people do remember that he is a singer who’s well-loved by the fashion fraternity and is thought to be a culturally significant influencer. For brands these days, “cultural” positioning, as it appears (or worse, curation), is more important that fashion prominence. We have been told time and again that brands, capturing the youth market, do not need design, only what’s hot.
Pharrell Lanscilo Williams is the second Black non-designer employed by LV (are we allowed to say that without wading into dangerous waters?). Sure, like Virgil Abloh, Mr Williams too has a clothing business at the time of his hire, but that is no affirmation that he is a designer, even if he is a CFDA Fashion Icon awardee. The Happy singer collaborated with Nigo, now at Kenzo, on Billionaire Boys Club (BBC) in 2005 and, later, Ice Cream, two similar lines that primarily offers T-shirts as key merchandise. It is not clear who did (and does) most of the work. Open to speculation, too, is the possibility that it was the Bape founder Nigo, now secure at LVMH’s Kenzo, who recommended Mr Williams the LV role. Nigo had collaborated with Mr Abloh, another chum, at LV. Pals do watch out for one another. The BBC partners have known each other since the mid-2000s. Mr Williams, in fact, is close to more than one person who designs: His wife Helen Lasichanh, too, is known as a fashion designer. Will he welcome her into his team at LV?
In luxury fashion, Mr Williams is very much associated with Chanel, where he is a collaborator and where he debuted as their runway model in the 2016 Métiers d’Art show in Paris, followed a year later by a TVC in the brand’s commercial for the Gabrielle bag—he was the first guy to model Chanel handbags. His employment at LVMH likely means that he would not be associated with Chanel, at least not publicly. But that could be a small price to pay. Chanel could gift him clothes, but they won’t offer him a job. It is not known if Mr Williams is as hungry as Mr Abloh was (or his chum Kanye West) in securing a design job with a European house, but he has been an ardent collaborator, including a pairing with LV in 2008 when he co-designed jewellery and eye-wear under Marc Jacobs’s watch. Sunglasses is his specialty it seems (he is often seen in a sparkly, be-jewelled pair), with an earlier collab (2012) with Moncler, known as Moncler Lunettes. His work with Adidas, as you’ll agree, needs no introduction, nor reminder.
Louis Vuitton was unsurprisingly full of praise in an Instagram post that revealed their newest LV employee. “Pharrell Williams is a visionary whose creative universes expand from music to art, and to fashion – establishing himself as a cultural global icon over the past twenty years,” it rhapsodised. “The way in which he breaks boundaries across the various worlds he explores, aligns with Louis Vuitton’s status as a Cultural Maison, reinforcing its values of innovation, pioneer spirit, and entrepreneurship.” That sounds similar to what the brand said about Virgil Abloh’s appointment. Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s Chairman & CEO, said in a statement back in 2018 that Mr Abloh’s “innate creativity and disruptive approach have made him so relevant, not just in the world of fashion but in popular culture today. His sensibility towards luxury and savoir-faire will be instrumental in taking Louis Vuitton’s menswear into the future.” Admittedly it’s premature to say if Mr Williams’s work would generate the manic hype that his predecessor’s did, but it would still, no doubt, be hype that will drive the brand.
Pharrell Williams (right) with Nigo. Photo: Billionaire Boys Club
In the past, most people without solid design experience would not take on a top position at a storied luxury house. Even now few would. Gucci’s new designer Sabato De Sarno, who replaces Alessandro Michele, has a solid CV, with design responsibilities bestowed on him at Prada and Valentino, where he was known as Pierpaolo Piccioli’s right-hand man. Burberry’s newly-installed Daniel Lee made a name for himself at Bottega Veneta, after cutting his teeth at Donna Karan and Céline. But at LV, design cred matter less that the hype the appointment itself would bring. LVMH has a track record of hiring relative novices. Mr Williams was probably confident enough to give it a go as he would be backed by a reputedly well-staffed design studio. Or, what Bernard Arnaud described of the team behind the failed Fenty Maison venture led by the equally rookie, singer-turn-designer Rihanna back in 2018: “talented and multicultural team supported by the group resources.” But even with that supply and support vastness, Rihanna could not make Fenty soar. Even LVMH does not always score a winner.
But the world’s largest luxury conglomerate, posting a record €79 billion in sales in 2022, cannot afford to let their biggest namesake brand slide. The LV men’s division has been undergoing changes with considerable success, certainly since Kim Jones was at the helm (2011—2018), when he introduced a more street-centric sensibility to the brand. This went, many believed, in tandem with the changing profile of the emerging luxury shopper. The hip-hop consumer who buys star-branded merchandise for fans and the rabid fashion consumer had merged. Hypebeasts were gaining influence, sneakers were footwear kings, and hip hop stars wanted to be designers, if not start a label. Luxury was redefined and it had a new selling tool when Supreme met Louis Vuitton in 2017: hype. And it would be in American street and hip hop culture that workable hoopla could be harvested. And who, among the world’s generators of exaggerated attention, attendant culture, good ’ol America? Was it not the best place to find designers? Who will luxury brands ask next? A$AP Rocky? Or Drake?