On Virgil Abloh, the improbable benchmark for our return to post-coronavirus normalcy
[Note: Originally published on my Substack on April 16, 2020]
When will we know things are back to normal? Or at least on the road back to normal?
Some will look for signals straight from the top, and go with whatever President Trump says (though that message may change on a daily basis). Others will look at their state governors, or top health officials (👋 Dr. Fauci). Or maybe when it's just easy to go out and get a burrito or a Negroni without incident.
Me? I'm looking at Virgil Abloh.
You know, the polymathic architect/artist/DJ/fashion designer/Kanye's (former) right-hand man. The guy the New York Times wondered if he's the next Karl Lagerfeld for millennials?
So... why is Virgil Abloh the benchmark?
Abloh is the artistic director of men's wear at Louis Vuitton. Of course a position like that is going to be severely impacted by coronavirus. For example, the French fashion governing body(!) - Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode - cancelled the men's and couture fashion weeks originally scheduled in June and July (Vogue). Fashion shows and designers are leaning into virtual events (Vogue Business). Fashion, just like sports, air travel, and a million other industries, is at a stand-still.
But what about consumers? You know, the people who walk into a Louis Vuitton store and buy a $5,400 letterman jacket?
Turns out, high-end fashion is may be a leading indicator of getting back to normal
Lucky for us, LVMH, the parent company of Louis Vuitton, reported earnings this week, giving us a glimpse into the world of luxury retail amid the global coronavirus pandemic.+
The company said that 90% of its stores in China are open, and traffic is booming, up 20% in the first week of April over the last week in March. The company also said that sales in China were up over 50% in April compared to March.
While it is seemingly absurd to extrapolate sales of $2,070 flower print shorts to the broader consuming public, that's a really positive sign for consumer behavior. In China, as soon as the doors are (somewhat) reopened, the pent-up demand for luxury goods has come spilling out of the gates.
And back in August 2011, NYT reported that luxury retail sales were accelerating while many other Americans were pulling back on spending.++
As it were, August 2011 was also the post-financial crisis low for Consumer Sentiment. After that late summer month way back in 2011, consumer confidence basically improved unimpeded until the coronavirus pandemic.
So if you want a glimmer of optimism, go watch some live-streamed runway shows on YouTube. And when Louis Vuitton puts stuff back in the windows on Michigan Avenue, or when they open up a new brightly-colored pop up, you'll know we’re on our way to some kind of normalcy.
And before you know it, we'll see Abloh on the runway in Milan waving to a crowded room after debuting his new collection of $6,800 bee keeper blousons.
But until then, I’ll be enjoying his Instagram Live DJ sets from his Lincoln Park basement.
+ There were also some excellent reports on the future of luxury retail this week from:
++ Again, this goes directly back to questions around inequality, which is a topic (or a book) all on its own.