Close Look: Virgil Abloh’s Debut LV Collection

At the Louis Vuitton Men’s pop-up store in Tokyo’s Harajuku, you get to look at Virgil Abloh’s work in a setting that is nothing like the retail store. And that could be the problem—you may not feel like spending


lv popup @ harajulu

You will see it, from the train too—if you’re on the Yamanote Line heading towards Harajuku. The Louis Vuitton pop-up, all glass and steel and familiarly patterned all over, sits in sharp contrast to the nondescript buildings around it and, in particular, the verdant grounds of Yoyogi Park, just across the road. The serenity of the 54-hectare park, former Olympic village of the 1964 summer games, is surprisingly duplicated within LV’s temp store, erected to showcase—literally—the debut pieces of the brand’s star designer Virgil Abloh, now raved by the media as a “taste-maker”.

Inside, it is unlike any shop you have ever been to. But first, you’d have to get in. It’s not as easy as just walking through the front door. LV shops have a habit of making you wait, whether there is a queue or not. Sentries are there to ensure you don’t merely breeze through. Some stores, apparently, have a by-appointment-only policy and you will be denied entry without prior arrangement. Here in Harajuku, the front part of the store, where the one entry point is positioned, is manned (on the day we visited) by four suited guards. We were very politely ushered to the right side of the entrance where we were told to wait in line. Two minutes to opening, there was not one yet.

According to earlier reports in the Japanese media, entry is permitted when shoppers turn up with a ticket. These were supposed to be issued at 8.30 in the morning every day. People were told to start queuing at 6am. It seems there were those who did brave the winter morning cold to secure a ticket to get in line. According to a WWD account, “about 1,000 people queued up in the Japanese capital to be among the first to buy”. A week after the store’s 10 January opening, no ticket/keepsake, it seemed, was required since none was given to us.

DSC_6791.JPGdsc_6774The split level icon of Virgil Abloh’s current inspiration, the model Omari Phipps

Once you’re allowed in, an attendant greets you and guides you through a fixed route so that you end up in the inner section, where rope and stanchion indicate that another queue is to be expected. Here, the first attendant hands you over to another staff member who emerges from a line-up of about twenty-odd nattily attired sales people. The second, all smiling and eager to please, shows you to the actual retail space. This person will follow you throughout your visit till you leave the store, with or without purchase in hand, which may be of little concern here since it is reported that this pop-up already rang up 30 percent more sales in the first 48 hours of its operation than any other LV launches, including the collaboration with Supreme.

This is amazing to us. The essentially concrete store (distinguished by iridescent stickers of LV logos pasted on pillars, walls, and floors) is so well presented as exhibition that it seems to encourage viewing than purchasing. To be sure, retail space is increasingly a ‘curated’ space, and many are art gallery-like. This LV pop-up is clearly no exception; it seems to mirror the Espace Louis Vuitton Tokyo, just down the street on Omotaesando. Frankly, it’s all a bit of a show-off.

Standing—to be more specific, half-kneeling—in the middle is a statue of LV model of the season, Omari Phipps, the English lad who opened the LV spring/summer 2019 show back in June last year. The space surrounding the guy’s lower half is dedicated to nothing much except to displaying Mr Abloh’s installation sense, an expensive exercise to boot. You know instantly that you had come in for the experience, if not the merchandise.

DSC_6780.JPGlv harajuku p5Virgil Abloh fans, affluent and not alike, will possibly go quite mad on the two of the selling floors

It is experiential, alright, so much so that the experience—allow us to repeat—overwhelms the urge to buy. This was compounded, during our time there, by the sales attendant who stayed closed and urged us to try something, anything. The eerily bare and neat fitting rooms, lined on one side of a concrete corridor that looked like it could be the set of a film about a spooky sanatorium, do not appear inviting enough for one to peel off winter layers to try, say, a T-shirt or the knit pullover (a hooded and monochromatic version of the one featuring Dorothy and co of Wizard of Oz, which we were told “is exclusive to Japan”) that the sales staff had urged us to slip into. Someone outside, on a JR train, might see us try clothes, LV notwithstanding!

Everything is displayed in such a manner that one wonders if touching is allowed. In fact, some props and merchandise are indistinguishable. Accessories, such as eyewear, bracelets, and key rings beckons from within glass cases, distancing themselves from shoppers’ desire even when they gleam invitingly. Others such as the semi-transparent, embossed PVC Keepall—“the most wanted”—are placed like precious sculptures, to be admired, not caressed. When we reached out to touch one (the blue, if it interests you), the person trailing us offered to bring one for our inspection. Such attentive service was so at odds with everything we are used to here that we didn’t feel it was natural even if it was strangely appealing. Or, was this just Japan?

lv harajuku p6The special and limited edition Wizard of Oz hoodie that is available exclusively at the pop-up

Up close, Mr Abloh’s Louis Vuitton has that hyped-to-death ‘elevation’ seen in his Off-White. Sure, the clothes and the bags and the accessories looked interesting from far, but when you consider them individually in your hands, the barely more-than-basics don’t break new ground in terms of construction or reveal a creative nous. They feel luxurious, for sure, but it isn’t certain they’d look luxurious when worn, especially on those that, had by then, started to populate the space (no more than 30 at one go, we were told), whose main aim, it appeared, was to dress like hip-hop stars. The spare, but artistically appointed setting certainly made the clothes look attractive, but once out if it, on a body not a mannequin, we can’t be sure.

Although our guide/sales staff was polite, friendly, and informative (it appeared that there was nothing about the merchandise he didn’t know), his constant presence left us no opportunity to even have thoughts to ourselves. Just as we wondered—silently—if there were any sneakers in this launch event, he pointed to a shelf with two chunky, hardware-heavy kicks and asked, undeterred, if we would like to try a pair. When we declined, he guided us to another part of the store, and introduced other items to us. When we finally decided to leave, some 15 minutes after entering, he accompanied us to the door, bowed, and said cheerily, “have a nice day”. To be sure, it was.

Louis Vuitton’s Harajuku pop-up store for the men’s spring/summer 2019 collection is open till 30 January. Photos: Jiro Shiratori

Tokyo Won’t Be Added To A “Big Five” Any Time Soon

Despite their best efforts, Tokyo Fashion Week is not quite on par with New York, London, Milan, and Paris (held twice a year in that order), but does it matter when Tokyo itself is still the most exciting city on earth for fashion?

Lithium AW 2017Lithium autumn/winter 2017 show

It’s been a long and somewhat rough journey for Tokyo Fashion Week. The autumn/winter 2017 showing just concluded in the Japanese capital, but it’s not been fodder for media frenzy, viral memes, or ten-trends-to-watch-out-type reports. Most of what has been coming into news feeds have been along the lines of “The Strongest Street Style from Tokyo Fashion Week”. Sidewalk, it seems, was more captivating than catwalk.

Not that they have not tried. It’s been 32 years in the making, yet, somehow, the big league has escaped what has been Asia’s premier and possibly oldest fashion week. Its inability to soar could be the problem with identity. While many insiders refer to it as Tokyo Fashion Week (just as the Big Four have become identified by the city in which the events take place), it, in fact, began life as Japan Fashion Week (JFW), which emerged in 1985, no doubt prompted by the success of the Japanese designers in Paris in the early ’80s. Prior to that, people in Tokyo remember an event called TD6 (or Top Designers 6) emerging in 1977, organized by the show producer and musician Yoshiro Yomo, who has collaborated with Issey Miyake in the latter’s early shows in Paris, where prêt-a-porter, institutionalised in 1973, is precursor to today’s fashion weeks.

Japan Fashion Week remained largely a gathering of a motley group of designers from across the country to show collectively until 2005, when the Council of Fashion Designers restructured it in order to attract the best local names (Japanese designers still preferred to show overseas: Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons have never left Paris since their respective debuts there in 1981). It was also when the Japan Fashion Week Organisation was formed to guide JFW in the direction that will bring about bigger international acclaim, if not lure more international buyers. In 2010, it went into partnership with IMG Fashion to attract big-name corporate sponsorship and in 2011, unsurprisingly, Mercedes-Benz became the title sponsor until last year when, surprisingly, Amazon Fashion came into the picture, branding it—what else?—Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. Still following?

House CommuneHouse_Commune autumn/winter 2017

It is not yet clear what Amazon can do for a fashion week. Mercedes-Benz is understandable (although Persil or Tide makes more sense), but Amazon Fashion, a recent sub-brand of the e-commerce behemoth, has mostly been associated with merchandise that’s not quite “fashion”. That’s not the only reason why fashion brands are avoiding them; there’s also their pricing strategy (read: not high end). Amazon has been a (discount) book seller for a good part of their existence and then a general merchandise portal. High fashion is not (yet) a major sell although, if you type Louis Vuitton in their search bar, you do get a list of LV bags sold, not by LV, but sellers such as Chic Designer Bags On Sale.

According to the Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo website, which completely replaces the old pages headlined by Mercedes-Benz, the city has already joined the Big Four: “Out of the world’s fashion weeks, those held in Paris, Milan, London, New York and Tokyo are regarded as having the most potential for disseminating information due to their history and the amount of buzz surrounding them. These five fashion weeks are the most known fashion weeks in the world and have much influence of the fashion world.” The reality is a little different. For many of the members of the media, as well as the buying brigade, Paris is, as Refinery 29 wrote, just three weeks ago, “the final stop on the international whirlwind known as Fashion Month”.

To be fair to the Japanese, they did try to get Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo to a quick start. The first show was on 20th March, one day shy of two weeks from the last Paris show. But that is not quick enough for the international pack if you consider that Paris Fashion Week began immediately after Milan. Even if you factor the time difference between Europe and Asia, no one needs thirteen days to recover from jet lag. Once, you’re outside Fashion Month, which is not lacking in grumbles that it’s too long, it’s going to be tough to get people back into another circuit.

AulaAula autumn/winter 2017

Scheduling aside, people know who they are going to see when they go to New York, London, Milan, then Paris, plus a few they don’t know for good measure. Chances are, you don’t really know what you’re in for in Tokyo. All the names that you are familiar with and that you like, you have already checked out in Paris: Anrealage, Comme des Garçons, Issey Miyake, Junya Watanabe, Kolor, Noir Kei Ninomiya, Sacai, Toga, Undercover, Yohji Yamamoto. So who will you see in Tokyo?

It may seem a little harsh to say that all the strong ones have left the nest, but it is not immoderate to say that those who show in Tokyo are perhaps not quite ready to take their place alongside the world’s best. Having followed the Tokyo scene regularly for decades, it does appear to us that those who remain in their home turf tend to be too Tokyo, which means, they are markedly Japan-centric. That in itself is not a bad thing since it is known that many Japanese labels are quite happy to cater to the domestic market alone. But for those from the outside looking in and hoping to find more of the Nippon artistry that makes Paris Fashion Week more exciting, they may be unraveling the wrong seam.

Members of the media, buyers, and influencers swoop down on New York for the city’s love of sportswear, (further) takes on the ’70s, First Lady-worthy gowns, and, if they must, joke that is Christian Cowan, with Paris Hilton taking to the runway. Then they cross the Atlantic to London to see the stuff that will advance fashion, and all the Brit-classic redux they can take, while wondering where in the happy mix will be the next Alexander McQueen. After that, they fly into Milan to witness Italian tailoring the umpteenth time, and also take in the good taste, and in recent years, the bad too. Then it’s off to Paris for the refinement left over from haute couture, and, since the Japanese invasion, the avant-garde, and, since John Galliano at Dior, sumptuousness and historicism. If there’s anything left in the overseas budget, it’s off to Tokyo, but what can they hope to find in the land of Cosplay?

Hare AW 2017Hare autumn/winter 2017

What Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo has up against it is not so much the other fashion weeks, but the city itself. Tokyo, as regular visitors and first-timers would attest to, is a veritable catwalk anywhere you go in the city centre, even in the neighbourhoods away from Shinjuku and Shibuya and the triumvirate of Harajuku/Aoyama/Jingumae. The most interesting things are also happening at retail level, and not just among designer labels but across chain stores too. Buyers who are attracted to the wares and wears of Tokyo often go straight to the brands to discuss biz op.

The popular brand Beams, for instance, receive constant inquiries from overseas retailers keen on representing it in their home market. Sometimes it’s the fans that go directly to the brand, such as M.L Trichak Chitrabongs from Bangkok’s Heavy Selection. Mr Chitrabongs, a graphic designer by training, has been an ardent fan of the artisanal denim label Kapital. When he became the design director of Heavy Selection, the shoe-maker-turn-fashion-retailer with 200 plus stores throughout the country, he took the opportunity to go straight to the Kojima-based company to seek the distributorship for Thailand.

Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo as middleman is, therefore, somewhat redundant when so much of the city could be walk-in business potential. The 50-odd labels that participated in the catwalk shows could hardly come to represent the staggering variety that is fashion in Tokyo alone. As showcase, it is unneeded since the city too is a living platform for fashion that is actually being consumed. So many of the participating designers bore aesthetic similar to the merchandise in mega-emporiums such as Marui (also known as 0101), which touts itself as purveyor of “world-acclaimed apparel collection of Tokyo styles”, that it is hard to discern what is truly special at Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo.

EthosensEthosens autumn/wniter 2017

The difficulties facing Tokyo is compounded by competition from fairly nearby cities: Shanghai and Seoul. Sure, fashion week in Tokyo has a longer history, but upstarts are not too concerned with the past of those that came before them. Shanghai Fashion Week (8—16 April) is gaining ground even if interest is aroused only because Chinese designers such as Yin Yiqing and Zhang Huishan are making waves in Europe. Seoul Fashion Week (27 March—1 April, immediately after Tokyo) is on the radar due mainly to the unwavering interest in K-pop and K-drama, but what if both are no longer exciting the indiscriminate young? In some ways, Seoul, too, have a problem similar to Tokyo. Buyers have long been visiting Seoul to source for their stores, but the catwalk has not really been the conduit; the packed wholesale complexes of Dongdaemun operating in the dead of night have.

According to AFP, the Tokyo calendar attracts 50,000 visitors, and that, apparently, is “just a quarter of the total number that attend New York’s two annual fashion weeks, and also lagging behind London, Paris and Milan”. Despite its lack of pull, is Tokyo still the place to see groundbreaking designs?  It has not been a given that you will always get to witness the likes of Junya Watanabe, but given the city’s design culture and history, there are opportunities to view things one have not seen before, even if Japanese avant-garde has become somewhat saturated. Watchable names such as Yu Amatsu’s A Degree Fahrenheit don’t necessarily show on runways, and house brands of stores such as Tomorrowland and United Arrows continue to rack up sales without the benefit of fashion week showing.

There are, of course, some interesting, if not totally compelling, shows in this second installment of Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo. We’re piqued by the designs of Lithium, House_Commune, Aula, Hare, and Ethosens, whose respective designers are making wearable clothes desirable without resorting to craziness or indeed the complex forms of their predecessors who have brought Tokyo to the world’s attention. However, this handful isn’t quite enough to elevate Amazon Fashion Week Tokyo to commanding heights. For now, it would have to be Big Four plus one.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori