Reflecting on Pharrell Williams’s revolutionary style as he joins Louis Vuitton
Despite pushing 50, Pharrell Williams seems to have barely aged a day since he burst on to the music scene in the early 1990s, as one half of the producer duo, The Neptunes.
Since then, his personal style has constantly evolved, cycling through fur coats (real and faux), big hats, diamond necklaces and shorts as formal wear, plus collaborations with Louis Vuitton, adidas, Moncler and Chanel, which have all helped cement his credentials as an intersection between hip-hop and fashion. As a man who helps shape trends, rather than be led by them, this shifting quality is now precisely what has bagged him the hottest job in town, as the men’s creative director at Louis Vuitton.
Williams is the successor to Virgil Abloh, who died in November 2021. He offered up a new narrative, one that had begun under Kim Jones, who famously teamed up with Supreme during his tenure of the house. Abloh steered away from traditional French codes (think white, middle class), and towards something younger, reimagined through a prism of hip-hop, street culture, architecture and music. In teaming up with black poets, artists, choreographers, stylists and models, Abloh presented Louis Vuitton as a space where all creatives were welcomed with open arms.
Since Abloh’s premature death aged 41, many names have been linked to the role. First, his long-time friend and collaborator Kanye West’s name was whispered, then British menswear designers Martine Rose and Grace Wales Bonner were in the running. The sudden appearance of Williams as frontrunner earlier this week caught many by surprise, because until The Wall Street Journal broke the story about a possible link, few had any idea he was even being considered.
Twenty-four hours later, Williams had been confirmed in the role and the world seems to be at his feet. With a huge and experienced team at Louis Vuitton, Williams’s first show will be this June.
While he may be famous for his music — he has written and produced for Jay-Z, Gwen Stefani, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, has been the lead singer of NERD since 1999, produced and sung the hit Blurred Lines with Robin Thicke in 2013, and wrote Happy, the smash hit from Despicable Me 2 — his fashion CV is equally impressive.
In 2004 and 2008, he collaborated with Louis Vuitton, while in 2005, he launched his own fashion brand, Billionaires Boys Club, with Nigo, the Japanese designer behind A Bathing Ape, and the current creative director at Kenzo.
Merging streetwear with luxury, BBC set a deeply influential tone. Next came a sub-label called Ice Cream, and in 2014 Williams joined Bionic Yarn, a company that makes innovative fabrics out of ocean plastic, as creative director. In 2018, he worked with the jewellery house Jacob & Co and the artist Takashi Murakami to create The Simple Things, a line that made a cupcake, can of Pepsi, trainer, bottle of Heinz ketchup and bag of Doritos out of 26,000 sapphires, emeralds, rubies and diamonds, for a Murakami sculpture in Switzerland. Last year, he tied up with the jewellery house of Tiffany & Co, on a line of diamond and emerald-studded sunglasses.
In 2014, Williams teamed G-Star Raw with Bionic Yarn to create Raw for the Oceans, a collection of denim made from ocean plastic, the same year he signed a partnership with adidas, releasing a collection in July 2016.
In 2015, he became the first man to appear in a Chanel campaign, modelling bags alongside Cara Delevingne, and in 2017, he created an adidas trainer for the French house. A friend of not only Chanel but its then-creative director Karl Lagerfeld, Williams also walked on the runway for the Metiers d’Art show in December 2016, wearing pearls and a tweed coat, and was even invited to design a capsule collection, that appeared in spring/summer 2019.
And it is this merging of styles and genders that lies at the heart of Williams’s sartorial success. Into the intensely masculine world of hip-hop, of low rider jeans, baseball caps and overscale fur coats, Williams has effortlessly folded in unexpectedly feminine touches, such as the Chanel tweed jacket, strands of costume jewellery, or even a Birkin bag. His love of elaborate jewellery and clothes led to the launch of his own auction site last year, Joopiter, which opened with a sale of pieces from his own wardrobe, including a diamond-encrusted astronaut and crystal-laden Stan Smith trainers.
Unafraid to jumble pieces to suit his mood, in the past he has given the suit an edge by adding a beanie, and worn a woman’s pearl and diamond brooch with a tuxedo jacket. He even arrived at the Moncler 60th anniversary celebrations in a camouflage patterned suit, its trousers replaced by shorts.
As he takes the helm at Louis Vuitton, Williams becomes only the second black American man to be handed the reins, and only the head a major French house, after Abloh and Ozwald Boateng who headed Givenchy men’s from 2003 to 2007.
Yet, with a proven record of being one step ahead of the curve, and an instinct for street-inspired luxury, Williams may well be the perfect fit. Louis Vuitton will want to continue the success it enjoyed with Abloh, who knew how to grab headlines (plane-shaped bags, anyone?) as well as how to craft coats, jackets and trousers that spoke of a moment, reflected a spirit and absolutely flew off the shelves.
With a name that precedes him, and a wide audience base to bring to the house, hiring Williams seems to be a canny move by Louis Vuitton, which will be looking to capitalise on his reputation and following. Having already smashed the glass ceiling by giving Abloh the top job, it is good to see that the company is invested in the path it has chosen, by selecting Williams as his successor.
Multitalented, and multifaceted, (he even has his own skincare range) Williams has the potential to be every bit as important as Abloh for the house. Inevitably, there are those frustrated at Williams’s lack of formal fashion training, and already the internet is decrying new talent being overlooked for a famous name. While these are certainly valid points, in this age of instant recognition and huge sales targets, Vuitton was unlikely to pick a no-name designer; there is too much at stake.
As the main driver of the LVMH machine, Louis Vuitton is allowed to break the rules, but it is difficult to express exactly how rigid some of those rules and expectations are. For instance, some customers still resent changes brought about by Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent and Celine (in 2012 and 2018 respectively), while the French press reluctantly supports Maria Grazia Chiuri, seven years into her tenure at Dior. Virginie Viard, who leads Chanel, is familiar with how scathing the French press and establishment can be.
Much lip service is given to fashion’s need to be inclusive and offer equal representation, but there are few who have appointed head designers outside the parameters of being white or male. While we’re yet to see if Williams is the answer that Louis Vuitton is looking for, is it important that a house its size and weight has, for a second time running, appointed a black man to head one of its divisions. In fact, it is a little short of revolutionary, and if this is the future that Louis Vuitton is offering us, whereever Williams takes it, it gives us all a good reason to be happy.