When Dior, Hermès and France’s other luxury giants unveiled their Spring-Summer 2021 collections at the online-only Paris Men’s Fashion Week last month, Louis Vuitton was conspicuous by its absence.
Rather than making do with a virtual showcase, the label posted a cryptic short video, “Zoooom With Friends,” in which a squad of cartoon mascots loaded up crates on a ship setting sail along the River Seine.
That shipment has now arrived – literally and metaphorically – in Shanghai.
On Thursday, Louis Vuitton revealed its new menswear collection for Spring-Summer 2021, dubbed “Message in a Bottle,” in spectacular fashion, on the banks of the Huangpu River. Although travel restrictions prevented artistic director for menswear, Virgil Abloh, from attending in person, his eclectic DNA was stamped throughout the collection, which came in streams of formal garments followed by animal-themed streetwear and bright block colors.
Lauryn Hill was beamed onto a branded shipping container for a virtual performance, which was live-streamed on Louis Vuitton’s Instagram and website. But, otherwise, this was a distinctly physical show – one on a scale rarely seen anywhere in the world since the coronavirus pandemic started disrupting the global fashion calendar back in February.
There were few face masks in sight. Audience members could be seen sitting in close proximity to one another, fanning themselves with Louis Vuitton paddles in the early evening heat. And while safety measures were taken, including temperature checks and paper-free tickets, the show marked a return to normalcy, said creative consultant and former Elle China editor, Ye Zi (also known as Leaf Greener), who was in attendance.
“It’s like we’re back to our new normal lifestyle,” she said in a phone interview.
The decision to eschew Paris for Shanghai may, of course, have been a practical one. Physical fashion shows are not entirely out of the question in Europe (Jacquemus, for instance, unveiled its new collection in a wheat field outside Paris), but social distancing requirements have made conventional showcases all but impossible.
In China, however, many restrictions have eased, and some live events are being held. On the day of Louis Vuitton’s show, Shanghai reported just seven new cases of Covid-19, none of which had been transmitted locally, according to Chinese state media.
By staging the showcase in China, the label is also sending a clear message about the importance of the country’s recovering luxury market to its business model.
Parent company LVMH, which also owns brands like Christian Dior, Céline, Fendi and Givenchy, recently reported a 46% year-on-year drop in profits for fashion and leather goods in the first half of 2020. But while an accompanying press release optimistically noted “gradual improvement since May in Europe and the United States,” its assessment of the Chinese market was far rosier. The conglomerate has said it experienced a “strong rebound” in China during this year’s second quarter.
Whether Louis Vuitton’s rivals also show in Asia over the coming seasons – or whether Abloh returns to more familiar territory once the pandemic has eased – remains to be seen. But with Europe’s big fashion houses already shifting their attentions East over the last decade, the pandemic may prompt others to follow suit.
“There will be more physical events here,” predicted Greener, who consults for several Western brands. “And I think it’s a smart direction, because we have the opportunity to be able to do them.”
‘Not just another fashion show’
Louis Vuitton’s new pieces were partially geared towards Chinese consumers, added Greener, who pointed to the use of cartoon characters as something that Asian cultures “love.” (Characters from the brand’s teaser video appeared on the runway as outsized inflatables, printed on bags and dangling from various garments).
Yet, Abloh also spoke to wider themes, and in his show notes he described the collection as a “platform of nuance” through which he strived for “inclusivity, unity and humanity.” At the end of Hill’s performance, the singer announced that Abloh and Louis Vuitton will be making a donation to the MLH Foundation to assist Black-owned businesses affected by Covid-19.
“What you’ve witnessed today is not just a mere musical performance or another fashion show,” Abloh said in a video, narrated by Hill and posted to his personal Instagram Thursday. “What you’ve seen is black imagination manifesting itself in real life.”
Nonetheless, as the show notes explained, Abloh “embraces the global community of Louis Vuitton and meets his clients in their own parts of the world” – and with the brand’s next event set to take place in Tokyo in September, this appears, for now, to mean Asia.
This article has been updated to reflect that Greener consults for several Western brands.