Will Pharrell Williams usher in a new era at Louis Vuitton or will it be more of the same?
When Louis Vuitton announced Pharrell Williams is to succeed Virgil Abloh as the new creative director of menswear, it underpinned its new strategy for the French luxury house. By focusing on celebrity, influencers and artists, LVMH is writing a new blueprint to remain the world’s most successful luxury group and growing its 20 billion euro Louis Vuitton business.
An unknown designer appointment could prove less fruitful for Louis Vuitton as it has for other brands, such as Bottega Veneta and Ferragamo, who trade on a more pared back aesthetic. Louis Vuitton, during Paris men’s fashion week in January, executed a multiplicitous, high octane show, firmly delivering on hype and brand buzz but some thought less on substance. Understated and timeless luxury appear to not be the cornerstone of the brand’s new lexicon.
Mr Williams is no stranger to the fashion industry, of course, having launched successful brand ventures and collaborated with multiple others. Still, Mr Williams has no formal design training or technical knowledge, which designers who went the route of studying and building careers at various houses, will swiftly point out.
While a lack of formal experience may not be a deterrent at Louis Vuitton, where teams of highly skilled designers, technicians, production managers and ateliers are at disposal, one of the main criticisms of celebrities as fashion designers is that they are chosen for their marketing potential and social reach over the skills that professional fashion designers have. While some celebrities may have a keen eye for fashion, they rarely have the overarching skills and knowledge required to design a collection that balances aesthetics, functionality, commercial viability and timeless luxury.
Mr Williams, who rose to fame as one half of the duo the Neptunes in the early nineties, has collaborated with several fashion brands and designers, including Adidas, Chanel, G-Star Raw, and Louis Vuitton. In addition to these partnerships, Mr William also co-founded Billionaire Boys Club and Ice Cream with Japanese designer Nigo, two successful brands that have paid equal if not greater dividends to his notable wealth, in comparison his music career. Nigo is currently creative director at Kenzo, also operated by LVMH. Mr Williams has been involved in the design process for both of these brands, and his unique sense of style and aesthetic has been a key part of their success.
At Louis Vuitton Mr Williams created a collection of sunglasses during Marc Jacobs tenure, in 2004. He also designed jewellery for the house in 2008, working alongside Louis Vuitton's then-jewellery consultant Camille Miceli.
Streetwear and diversity
Virgil Abloh charted a successful streetwear path at Louis Vuitton, bringing with him a diverse audience. It is nearly certain that this avenue will be continued by Mr Williams, in tandem with the brand’s Cultural Maison status.
LVMH operates over 1,800 stores in Asia, compared to just over 1,000 in the U.S. and 1,100 in Europe, and Louis Vuitton is keen to attract the next generation of luxury spenders. Asians are expected to account for more than half of the global luxury goods market by 2025, according to data from Bain & Company, up from 43 percent in 2019. This also underscores LVMH’s strategy, where the majority of its sales by region is generated.
The Washington Post noted the celebrity route has not always worked for LVMH. When it launched the Fenty fashion venture with Rihanna, it was put on hold after it failed to take off.
Virgil Abloh’s tenure at Louis Vuitton was a one in a million success stories, yet with his cultural dexterity Mr Williams could chart a similar route, even if his appointment is less bold in terms of re-writing fashion history. Mr Williams' rolodex will be useful when it comes to collaborations with artists and the streetwear community, and the next few years will be measured by his cachet and momentum. That will match the strategy of new CEO Pietro Beccari, who will be keen to drive Louis Vuitton's next phase of growth, on a course already familiar.