Celebrity and spectacle collide at Pharrell's debut show.
With the unprecedented appointment of Pharrell Williams to the head job at Louis Vuitton menswear comes another unprecedented but far less spectacular moment: William’s debut Spring/Summer 2024 menswear show marks the occasion of my first-ever menswear critique for Savoir Flair. In a backstage moment shared on Williams’ new Louis Vuitton-focused Instagram account @skateboard (a likely reference to his beloved past time and high school nickname ‘Skateboard P’), the newly minted designer told LVMH’s new CEO of Louis Vuitton, Pietro Beccari, “You had a crazy idea, you bet on a Black man from America, one that is untrained, but someone you deemed worthy. And you have no idea how many trajectories besides my own life… people around me… people we work together… you changed all our lives with this one crazy decision. Tonight, we don’t let you down.” It felt like a scene from a sports movie where the star point guard rallies the team for a comeback in the fourth quarter.
A year-and-a-half after the sudden passing of Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton announced Williams as its pick to replace him. Prior to that moment, a lot of names were floated for the position: Martine Rose, Grace Wales Bonner, Telfar Clemens; all are Black and all are talented fashion designers with strong creative visions. It felt like, among them, the perfect successor to Virgil could be found. Was Blackness a prerequisite for the position? Given the cultural climate and the love and success bestowed on the position’s predecessor, it seems like an obvious yes. However, more deeply rooted, the luxury industry has finally admitted its tacit reliance on Black culture for both awareness and sales – a fact it had previously scorned. In America alone, Nielsen reports that Black buying power is estimated to grow to USD1.98 trillion by 2025, and the Black population outspends their white counterparts on luxury goods by 28 percent. In a recent interview with the New York Times, LVMH’s CEO Pietro Beccari admitted that they were searching for “something that went beyond just pure design.”
The appointment of Williams echoed the value of the Black perspective in luxury, but his star power is also important to the luxury house and its financial future. LVMH reported a record year in 2022 with revenue from its crown jewel, Louis Vuitton, surpassing EUR20 billion for the first time. The needs of a company of this size outstrip traditional notions around fashion design, which used to require training at a notable fashion institution, sketching and pattern-making skills, technological skills, and knowledge of media and marketing. In order to communicate the products being made, a brand must break through the chaos of social media and grab a user’s attention.
There were those who rued the appointment, bemoaning the fact that Williams is not a fashion designer, at least not in the traditional sense. He shot back at that, saying, “No, I didn’t go to Central Saint Martins. I didn’t go to Juilliard for music either.” No one doubts his extraordinary music success. The match point belonged to Williams.
However, in the present day it’s clear that the bottom-line success of a fashion brand requires much more than a fashion pedigree. In a society gripped by attention deficit, the only way to cut through the noise is with spectacle. Fashion has become that spectacle. The Met Gala, Cannes Film Festival, and Fashion Month have all become a war for consumer eyeballs and social media engagement. Over-the-top gimmicks, dicey stunts, and A-list front rows are now regularly deployed to snatch your interest. Fashion doesn’t anymore exist for fashion’s sake. It exists to move product.
By these new rules of fashion, a designer at the helm of one of the world’s biggest luxury brands — owned by the world’s biggest luxury conglomerate — must be so much more than just a fashion designer. They must be a celebrity in their own right, a household name, an arbiter of taste, a social maverick, a creative juggernaut, a savvy businessperson, and a keeper of the financial flame. The polymathic Williams ticks every box.
Let’s not forget that he has previously collaborated with Louis Vuitton on multiple occasions, and has also collaborated with Moynat and Tiffany & Co., and helped transform BAPE and Billionaire Boys Club into streetwear institutions. He may not be a designer by training, but he is one by osmosis.
For his debut show, Williams heightened the fashion spectacle with a display of power like Paris had rarely seen. The National Police shut down the entire center of the city and Louis Vuitton took over the iconic Pont Neuf bridge for the show location, which guests were ferried to by boat. Displaying his strong connection to both the music, celebrity, and fashion industry, Louis Vuitton’s 2024 menswear show had the most star-studded front row imaginable, featuring the likes of Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Zendaya, LeBron James, Tyler the Creator, Kim Kardashian, and Naomi Campbell. On the runway, Pusha T, Malice, and former Yves Saint Laurent designer Stefano Pilati walked the show. Jay-Z performed a set at the after-party, and Williams hopped on for a song.
All of this spectacle and speculation placed Williams’ debut under the critical microscope, but to his tremendous credit, his collection (while not wildly inventive) was great. Borrowing eclectic styles from his own wardrobe, Williams showcased fedoras and berets, skirts for men, cargo socks (!), street-style tracksuits trimmed in crystals, and lots and lots of co-ords and suits. He was smart to bring the Louis Vuitton ‘Damier’ check to the fore, upholstering it in different colors and sizes across many of the looks. Dubbed ‘Damouflage’, Williams did the ‘Damier’ check in pixelated shades of green. Seizing on a singular motif is something that’s been successful when it comes to Valentino’s ‘PP’ pink, Bottega’s parakeet green, Yayoi Kusama’s polka dots, Missoni’s chevron, and Prada’s triangle. It acts as a brand or artist signifier – a logo without a logo. It can also trip brands up. Used sparingly, later on, it will easily aid brand recall, but continued use will result in consumer fatigue. Let’s see how far he takes it.
Elsewhere, he showed pixel-patterned Wellies, molded moss-green leather toppers, mint-green cracked leather separates, shearling-lined suede bombers, and more. I really appreciated the craftsmanship of an exquisite black-and-white checkered coat, which upon closer inspection was fully embroidered and set with miniature pearls (exquisite!). I also loved a surreal green branch-print on coordinated separates that had been spliced with leather insets and finished with enormous leather pockets, as well as a later assortment of looks studded with gold chains and brooches. A black three-piece suit embroidered with tiny faces and gold LV logos also caught my fancy. Green lept out as another motif. It’s a color often associated with rebirth and renewal, but it’s also the color of money. If fashion’s new formula for success is celebrity + spectacle, then Louis Vuitton will be printing heaps of it with this collection.