Celebrity brand endorsements reached a whole new level when Kanye's cohort Virgil Abloh became artistic director of Louis Vuitton, one of the world's oldest fashion houses. Helene Dancer considers; is this the shape of hype to come?
It is a damp Thursday morning and a cluster of teenagers huddles on a Soho backstreet in central London, coolly checking the imperious security guards – and each other – from under hooded eyelids. Thursday is drop day and the queue has formed to gain entry to cult skate brand shop Supreme to cop the latest limited-edition release.
The queue is a little different these days since Westminster Council introduced a ticketing system after taking umbrage to the hordes of fans that wrap around Berwick Street and beyond each week. Such is the hype that surrounds these drops; hype being the juice that oils not only the limited-edition launches, but also a trend that's rewriting the fashion game.
Smack bang in the eye of the hype storm is Virgil Abloh, who was appointed Louis Vuitton's new artistic director in March 2018. Abloh epitomises a cool borne out of a streetwear aesthetic that not only looks different from traditional fashion tropes but acts differently too, and has inspired a frenzied following. Sneakers from his 'The Ten' collaboration with Nike sold out in minutes and his streetwear label, Off-White, is considered one of the most desirable around.
“Here's a guy who's got people queuing round the block for what he's making,” says journalist Jamie Millar who interviewed Abloh in 2017 – his subject scarcely looking up from his phone while in an Uber on the way to the Supreme store, signing off creative concepts and servicing his two million Instagram followers. “It's a rare and valuable alchemy to perform. If there's someone with that much power, why wouldn't you want them?”
For Jolanda Smit, director of group brand relations marketing at online retailer Zalando, his magic also lies in his versatility and creativity. “He has his own interests and he knows how to translate them into different projects and is open to collaboration too. He's really engaged and involved with other creatives and this is something brands can find hard to do,” she says.
“Here's a guy who's got people queuing round the block for what he's making. It's a rare and valuable alchemy to perform. If there's someone with that much power, why wouldn't you want them?”
Abloh's background eschews the well-trodden fashion career trajectory. Instead, he studied architecture, interned at Fendi with Kanye West, earned a Grammy nomination for designing Yeezy and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne album cover, and nurtures a successful DJ career. He straddles the worlds of fashion, art and music with enviable ease.
He's also crystallized streetwear's elevation to luxury status. “Streetwear is now the luxury market. In terms of trend adoption it's a trickle-up effect, from the street up to the catwalk,” says Supanika Richmond, marketing and communications coordinator at Pam Pam, a women's-only streetwear and trainer store in London's Shoreditch.
“Abloh is bringing these associations with him when he puts his name on a product and that's what people are buying into. Sure he's re-appropriating products, but it's his stamp that makes them appealing. You're part of that subculture when you own them.”
It's all well and good gaining access to that exclusive club, but is hype culture sustainable? “Things do fly off the shelves because of hype,” says Richmond. “I think hype will evolve, but it's also worth remembering that it's nothing new – Nike Jordans were hype shoes when they came out in the ‘80s. Kids were literally robbing each other! People have always gone crazy over sneakers with an association with a celebrity, and they're much more frequent these days. Communication is also entirely different now with social media.”
Social media has heralded the rise of the influencer, a task Abloh performs with aplomb. Fans don't just follow him for the latest news on the products he's developing – it's also about understanding who he is as an individual, getting the scoop on where he's been, what he's seen, what he's listening to and who he's hanging out with. “For Virgil Abloh, the associations with Kanye and the Kardashians just heighten the hype even more. There are people looking at which sneakers they're wearing and predicting what's going to drop next,” Richmond continues.
At Zalando, Smit says this level of communication and social resonance means a whole new set of rules when talking to consumers. “It's about blurring the lines and opening up borders,” she says. “Today we are logged into multiple platforms and are hyper-connected with everything around us. There are no fashion rules, everyone makes their own by mashing things up.”
Hype culture has also rewritten how traditional fashion retail operates. “With a lot of the streetwear brands, the drops and limited runs started from pure necessity,” says Millar. “That was all they could produce. They dropped when they were ready, and they worked in an ad hoc way. But they've continued to operate like this, rather than working seasonally like the big fashion houses. Seasonal launches mean you'll go into a shop in February and you can't buy a winter coat because the Spring/Summer stock has arrived. People find this frustrating so brands have started to move away from that way of working.”
This has affected fashion shows too, with brands now making clothes available immediately rather than having to wait for the right season. “If you're going to generate the buzz, then you need to supply before people get bored,” he says.
Especially if the buzz surrounds a new creative talent, releasing their inaugural line for a top-name fashion house. “We're in a situation now where we have creative directors moving around like football managers,” Millar continues. “They come in, do a few a years and then move along and someone else will come in.”
In recent years, Olivier Rousteing has reignited Balmain with his provocative designs and celebrity connections; Christopher Bailey made Burberry about far more than check and chavs; and Marc Jacobs transformed Louis Vuitton from a staid leather goods and luggage brand into a global powerhouse, incorporating streetwear trends by working with graffiti artist Stephen Sprouse to create those now iconic bags – a move which was shocking at
'Marc Jacob's style was quirky and outrageous for the more old-school luxury brands,” says Richmond. “The difference now is that it's more about hype and streetwear rather than the shock factor.”
For Millar, it's also the ecosystem formed around the products that fuels the frenzy. “When I talked to Virgil Abloh, he referred to Supreme as art curation. It's not just the products but the way they are presented to you, the people serving them to you – they're rude and that's part of the performance – and the music too. He said people should be paying double for the clothes because of that.”
Creating this immersive world is something retailers are certainly trying to emulate. Smit was part of Zalando's Bread & Butter festival in Berlin in 2017, which was about exploring the latest in style and culture through music, talks and fashion showcases. “There is a particular interest in tangible experiences and interacting face-to-face in real time. Customers are open and like to be engaged – and for brands, it means that an authentic vision is key,” she says. “What is culturally relevant is important, things that have an urban and real edge.” She invited rapper A$AP Rocky to perform at the festival, and he then worked with Zalando on a Spring/Summer campaign.
Pitching that 'authentic vision', however, can be tricky, and it is a delicate art maintaining the interest. “Having a person with influence is nothing new, but the way it's done is different now. You can't just be on a poster anymore with a Coke in your hand – you need to know the story behind it,” says Richmond. “It's about the story behind the brand, the person, and if that story makes sense and if I can engage in it. It's not just a brand sending me a message – it's whether I can get personally involved. The question for us is how can we give the customer the insight they're after on all these different levels.”
She reckons people like Abloh tick a lot of these boxes, capable of being more than just an ambassador or model or talent. “Luxury and heritage brands are looking for a way to connect with new customers and Generation Next, and how to translate that heritage into something that is contemporary. They need to resonate with what these customers like, and A$AP and Virgil Abloh really embody what the customers stand for.”
They do indeed, until they're not cool anymore. Every brand's worst nightmare. “All these luxury goods have value that is subjective,” says Millar. “There is some concrete value but a lot of the value is perceived value. For luxury brands it's vital they maintain this perception and if they become uncool, then that's a death knell.”
We've yet to see how long Abloh can ride his hype wave but it shows no sign of abating. Richmond reckons Abloh's appointment to Louis Vuitton will result in the same success he achieved with his collaboration with Supreme, but with more longevity.
According to Millar, the appointment to Louis Vuitton was all part of the plan. “Abloh told me his goal was to work at a big established house, and I was surprised because he was already doing so well. But he said he wanted to get in somewhere like that and shake it up. If what he was doing was easy and simple then everyone would be doing it but they're not. You can't knock that.”
Harness the hype
Wondering how you can generate some hype of your own? Here are three things to chew over. Whatever you do, make sure you’re being completely authentic – to both your brand and audience.
Broaden your horizons and open yourself up to collaboration
Be versatile. Your brand doesn’t just have to be about the product or service you’re offering. Think about the values behind your company and look at others who share those values. Collaborating with those people or brands in creative ways can spotlight your business to consumers that might otherwise not have heard of you. Having shared values or goals makes the collaboration authentic, regardless of how different your respective products may be.
Use social media to reveal more about your brand
If you’re working on a special project, think about teasing bits and pieces of it to your audience through your various social platforms. Reveal more of who you are as a brand. Whether it’s words, pictures or video, help your audience to understand what you’re about – and the interesting things you’re doing. Get your consumers excited.
Create a world and immerse your consumers in it
Two-thirds of millennials are more fulfilled by live experiences than by products of the same value. Create an experience around your brand that consumers absolutely can’t get anywhere else – it’s an opportunity to interact with your audience in real life, and a unique way to tell your brand story (through the thoughtful curation of what you put into the experience) in an authentic, real way that consumers can relate to.
Helene Dancer is a freelance writer, journalist, video producer and director who specialises in travel, arts and culture.
She has worked with the BBC, Lonely Planet, the Guardian, Vice and CNN, and also develops editorial content for brands including Audi, Harrods, Land Rover, Mazda and Nike.