Only one element marred Tuesday’s Louis Vuitton men’s show in Miami, one that felt decidedly inappropriate to some guests — indeed, to employ the word used by one high-profile fashion editor, it veered into “offensive.” But more on that later.
It’s not too big a leap to arrive at such an opinion, especially as Tuesday night’s focus was clear: to honor Virgil Abloh in a show produced less than 48 hours after the artistic director’s death on Sunday, Nov. 28, from a rare form of cancer. Fashion presentations during Art Basel Miami Beach tend to be highly celebratory events, designed to nurture relationships with top clients while burnishing the brand with a high-profile showing of its latest offerings. As roughly 1,500 guests waited to depart by boat at a marina near downtown Miami, the event exhibited all signs that it would adhere to this well-established formula, with cocktails and hors d’oeuvres served to attendees dressed head-to-toe in their Louis Vuitton finest.
Party yachts then ferried everyone out to Miami Marine Stadium, an open-air venue on Virginia Key; built in 1963, the once-popular site has been at the center of redevelopment efforts for more than seven years. Now awash in colorful graffiti, the concrete stadium ultimately proved to be a fitting backdrop for Abloh’s Spring 2022 menswear collection, the juxtaposition of an architectural relic against fashion that feels exceedingly modern. Even that idea seemed expected, an old-meets-new strategy that’s often explored by tradition-centric fashion houses.
The high-wattage audience likewise befitted a hot-ticket Art Basel event, from Kim Kardashian West and Kayne West, with daughter North sitting between them, to Rihanna, ASAP Rocky, Pharrell Williams, Joe Jonas, Maluma and Bella Hadid. That’s far from an unusual front row for a Louis Vuitton show, but make no mistake: They were there to honor Abloh. “There’s a lot of emotions,” Williams told The Hollywood Reporter. “What he built and what he put together is amazing.”
Brother Vellies creative director Aurora James agreed. “When we talk about fashion, we often think about the idea of ‘garments,’ but it was so much more than garments to Virgil,” she said. “It was really about culture, about identity, about the youth. He also made a lot of people feel seen; for him, it was always ‘us’ and ‘we,’ never ‘I,’ and that’s really important. I’ve also never seen anyone be able to output so much incredible work. It was mind-blowing. I’m honored to be here.”
Everyone settled into their seats as the sunset transitioned the sky to an inky shade of indigo — and that’s when a seismic shift in the night occurred, from celebratory to somber. “This is the hardest speech I have ever given,” Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s chairman and CEO, told the now-silent audience. “The deeply moving show we are about to see was born out of an idea Virgil first discussed with me three years ago. It was based around the traditional coming-of-age narrative — of course, being Virgil, he spun and recontextualized the concept for the 21st century, and in doing so, he was expressing his own unique talents and vision. This idea of coming-of-age was important to Virgil because inspiring and empowering younger generations defined who he was. He used the platform he had to break boundaries and to open doors, to shed light on his creative passions — art, design, music and, of course, fashion — so that everybody could see inside, not only to dream of being part of that world, but to also find ways to make that dream a reality. Virgil showed them the way.”
His voice heavy with emotion, Burke told of meeting Abloh, Kanye West’s creative partner at the time, 15 years ago in Tokyo and inviting them both to intern at Fendi in Rome, his eye immediately impressed by Abloh’s skills and vision. “When the time came, Virgil was not looking for the limelight, but the limelight found him,” Burke added of Abloh’s ascension to artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s collections in 2018, the first Black designer to hold the position. “He often mentioned to me how he felt a deep connection to Louis Vuitton, the man, who walked to Paris in search of a better life and disrupted the world with his ideas. … During one of the many lengthy conversations Virgil and I used to have, he told me, ‘I’m doing now what Monsieur Vuitton would have done.’”
Then, before the first model hit the runway, we heard Abloh’s voice once more, noting that his key inspiration for the collection was the idea of recapturing childhood, a time when it’s easier for children to embrace “the sense of wonderment, to stop using their mind and start using their imagination.” The clothes that followed perfectly expressed that feeling, a parade of streetwear meets exquisite tailoring, of knit jerseys boldly emblazoned with the Vuitton name in bright neon tones to long coats in primary colors embellished with artful interpretations of the house’s iconic Monogram and Damier prints. Abloh previously revealed most of this collection in a digital presentation in June, but this in-person event, featuring 10 never-before-seen looks exclusive to a just-debuted men’s store in Miami’s Design District, was a sublime reminder of the power of the live fashion show, replete with layers of meaning and expressing one man’s thoughtful interpretation of our current life and culture.
Following the traditional finale carousel of models — a group that included Kid Cudi, ASAP Nast and Offset — fireworks in red and white lit up the night sky. Burke also mentioned that Abloh had been intimately involved in every detail of the event’s planning, and this particular moment of celebrating the man and his spirit in such a manner ultimately proved to be profoundly moving for many in the audience, who hugged each other and wept as they watched. A walk to the post-show gathering not only revealed a towering statue of Abloh, a Louis Vuitton-embossed portfolio under his arm, but also further insight into the depth of the night’s details, as one bartender explained why champagne was not being served: “Champagne felt a little too celebratory for what tonight is about,” he said. (Soon after the runway presentation, sister brand Givenchy and its creative director, Matthew Williams, announced they were canceling their Wednesday evening Art Basel event out of respect for Abloh’s legacy.)
The evening would have been a perfect, sublime tribute to a game-changing artist — if not for the one inappropriate element, quietly condemned by a number of guests both on and off the record. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner were among those in attendance Tuesday evening, and several in the crowd found the controversial couple’s presence to be an unhappy surprise. L’Officiel global chief creative officer Stefano Tonchi said he was informed of their presence by artist friends who first spotted them on one of the boats traveling to Virginia Key. “They felt it was offensive, especially in a place where we are celebrating diversity and coming together,” Tonchi said. “I’m not happy about it, and I’m not sure how it happened, because we really are here to celebrate Virgil and what he meant to fashion.”
Indeed, it felt undeniably inappropriate to spot the couple at a fashion event devoted to honoring a man who put diversity and inclusion front and center in everything he created. It was a jarring moment that took attendees out of the spirit of the event — imagine viewing a piece of quiet, respectful theater, only to experience someone arriving unexpectedly so they can loudly ring a clanging, discordant bell. Abloh ultimately was more than deserving of a conflict-free tribute, and the attendance of a couple who sparked controversy throughout the four years of their time in the White House simply shouldn’t have happened.
It was only out of respect for Abloh and the event that direct confrontations didn’t happen; only poorly mannered people cause trouble at a memorial service, after all. Instead, the night was reserved for tears and smiles, the latter occurring when a drone presentation during the post-show gathering spelled out the event’s singular enduring message: “Virgil was here.”