The menswear spring summer 2019 campaign chooses teenagers to talk about identity, conformism and gang violence
When Virgil Abloh became creative director of Louis Vuitton menswear, many observers concluded the same thing: streetwear triumphed and engulfed all fashion. It was easy to think of it, given Abloh’s career as a streetwear standard bearer with Pyrex Vision first and then with Off-White, but on several occasions we are having proof of how reductive this idea is. The last is the School Teens campaign that the designer designed for the spring summer 2019 of the French brand.
Streetwear does not sum up all the style and ideas of Abloh, but the designer has not forgotten its roots, nor the political meaning: Don C, designer of Just Don and collaborator of Nike as well as Abloh, recalled in an interview of when he, Kanye West and Virgil participated for the first time at a fashion week, in 2006. They were different events than they are today, exclusive of a small circle of insiders and, all in all, very conformist. “Kanye said we would look back at that time and it would have seemed similar to the civil rights movements, because we were finally there to have a voice,” said Don C. “I told him that perhaps it was not the case to compare that moment to Rosa Parks, but in the end he was right, because we were encouraging new groups of people to participate “.
Abloh’s new campaign for Louis Vuitton stems from a concept of participation that is in some ways very similar. Using the monocolor for almost all the garments in the collection, the designer plays on the binomial individualism and conformism, the opposition between the desire to feel part of a community and the need to be unique, an idea that, in schools, is visually expressed by contrast between uniform and free dress code. The strong impact of the colors of the T-shirts and the contrast they create between them closely resembles the chromatic divisions that often indicate the opposing factions of the city gangs, the most famous of which is between red and blue, between Bloods and Crips, between Compton and Los Angeles. It was in a high school in the city of the Angels that the campaign was taken, entrusted to Raimond Wounda and inspired by the schuttersstukken, paintings spread in Holland in the second half of the 1500s that portray groups of schutterij, a sort of private militia or city band that protected the city .
The decision to entrust photography and narrative system to Wounda is not accidental: already in 2007 he had published a photographic project of the School title, which investigated life during what the photographer defines: “period of research, of hormones, so much energy, rebellion, aggressiveness and fragility “. Speaking of School in the New Yorker, Jessie Wender wrote: “for Wounda, students are excellent subjects because they express their questions about identity and society in a very drastic way and their ideas are visible and photogenic”. An investigation continued with The Pivotal Years, the name of the project that led to the collection, chosen to exemplify the transition from youth to adulthood, which reinterprets the very idea of a faction, proposing an ethnic diversity in which the only Affiliate element is represented by the color.
This reinterpretation of school uniforms also meets a debate that has been going on for a long time, especially in American public schools: the idea that the use of uniforms can help to reduce the influence of gangs in schools. Back in 2016, Professors Professor Todd A. DeMitchell of the University of New Hampshire and Richard Fossey of the University of Louisiana wrote in the Atlantic: “Since gang members often wear specific clothing to represent their affiliation, it makes sense for schools try to regulate that behavior. The idea is to eliminate the symbols associated with gangs in schools, so that members among students cannot be identified and recognized: this reduces the likelihood of violence ”. The aesthetic recognizability of the members of a gang is so explicit that on the site of the Los Angeles Police Department it is possible to find a note that draws colors and pieces of clothing typical of each group.
The choice to tell something starting from a certain type of shared language and a series of very contemporary symbols and styles, as well as shared by American minorities, the black one in the first place, is perhaps the greatest strength of Virgil Abloh and the medium through which to set in motion that revolution in his head. Abloh’s cultural and artistic extraction is shared with the main members of the contemporary star system.
Having dressed with true Off-White icons of the black generation, including Beyoncé and more recently Serena Williams, Abloh is slowly trying to bring the French maison closer to an imaginary diversity that, from Dapper Dan onwards, has always been closer to Gucci. He does this also using African-American cultural excellences like Drake, author of Signs, composed just for a Louis Vuitton fashion show or as Dev Hynes, who today works under the pseudonym of Blood Orange. Abloh works on this new imagery by including in his influences also African-American excellences of the past, such as Basquiat or Michael Jackson.
The entire creative path of Virgil Abloh seems to have been thought and imagined for moments like these, in which fashion becomes political. This journey began with the first part of the campaign, Infancy, Childhood and Adolescence, shot by Inez & Vinoodh and inspired by the Wizard of Oz. It is as if Abloh had waited a whole life to succeed in transmitting his idea of identity and equality with the most congenial language: collections that seem to focus on the exaltation of the personality rather than the head itself.
After his debut on the catwalk for Vuitton, Abloh gave Vogue an interview in which, referring to his audience, he said: “They will be able to recognize who the models are, what they do. It is a matter of giving it an identity, of not making them more anonymous bodies. There is a map of where they live in the world and where their parents come from. ” The construction of this imaginary, thus planted in reality, is now passing from the first place in which the life of the individual has always been political: school, a world expressed in all its complexity but also narrative banality. A faded, fluid imaginary, as the concept of identity should be, at least according to Virgil Abloh.