Virgil Abloh attended Vogue’s inaugural Forces in Fashion event in New York with a bag from Louis Vuitton’s collection with artist Jeff Koons on his arm. The bag’s the strap – which read “Louis Vuitton” c/o Virgil Abloh © 2017 – was eye-catching, as it seemed to indicate that Abloh, 37, had signed on to do a collaboration with the Paris-based design house. We have since learned that it was not a collaboration, but a pre-cursor to Abloh's tenure at the Paris-Based brand. But at the time, the prospective of a collab was not outside of the realm of possibility given that Abloh is on something of a perennial collaboration spree.
Over the past couple of years, in particular, Abloh – and his brand Off-White – have been tied to a string of partnership projects, including but not limited to Nike, IKEA, Rimowa, Dr. Martens, Jimmy Choo, Warby Parker, and Champion. [Insert whatever ones I am missing here – I am certain that there are more].
Many of them make use of Abloh’s design signature, quotation marks. Yes, the Chicago-born, world-based (he is never in the same place for longer than a few days thanks to these collaborative projects and an endless number of DJ gigs across the globe) designer has seemingly traded in his growingly distinctive diagonal lines logo – at least for now – for an abundance of quotation marks – whether it be “AIR” on a pair of Nike sneakers or “KEEP OFF” on an IKEA rug.
Exposure: A Balancing Act
Traditionally, brands have been cautioned when it comes to collaborations and branding efforts, more generally, with the notion that too much brand exposure will lead to consumer fatigue. Louis Vuitton, for instance, learned a tough lesson after “going mainstream” so to speak, in the late-90’s and early-2000s, by upping the quantity of logo-covered goods that were manufactured and expanding its offerings in terms of price to include more accessible logo-ed products.
The key takeaway from this exercise: Exposure is a double-edged sword. As noted by Reuters in November 2014, this “volume-based strategy made [LVMH] shareholders rich but it also diluted the [Louis Vuitton] brand.”
At the peak of what has since been labelled “logo fatigue,” discerning consumers closed their wallets to Louis Vuitton, demanding more discrete goods, and leading to a several quarters of very slow growth for the Paris-based brand.
As such, the house did a 180 and embarked upon a large-scale revamp of its product offerings. In an attempt to regain the favor of the well-to-do, Louis Vuitton’s leather good division acted upon a vow that chairman Bernard Arnault’s made in a January 2009 earnings call: Louis Vuitton would be making changes. In addition to scaling back its real estate expansion plans, the brand would actively prune its portfolio of logo-emblazoned canvas bags, which made up two thirds of its business and generated gross margins of 90 percent. In their place: Expensive leather and exotic-skinned bags with subtle – if any – exterior logos.
In re: Off-White
How does this relate to the multi-hyphenate industry figure that is Virgil Abloh and his brand Off-White? Quite frankly, despite the brand’s potential over-extension of itself in terms of collabs, such stories of revenue-crippling dilution might not plague - or better yet, simply might not apply to - Abloh for more reason than one.
One of those reasons: The notion of brand dilution might be outdated in an age of targeted marketing and user (i.e., algorithm)-dictated content. The apps we use learn - based on the accounts we follow and the posts we "like" - what we are interested in, and then show us those things. In essence, consumers are - more than ever before - dictating the media (and the ads) they see, thereby, potentially removing the likelihood of broader dilution.
Maekan co-founder Eugene Kan echoes this notion, saying, "The idea of dilution in fashion is an interesting thing these days. We live in an era of different channels and filter bubbles." With that in mind, he says, "For however many collabs anybody may do, they are seen by: 1) the brand's target demo, 2) rabid friends of the brand, and then ... 3) general public." And, as Kan aptly notes, "Big brand fans won't care about dilution as much because well, they're fans, right?"
What we do know is this: Consumers consistently prove to be fickle, especially when they are spending large sums of money on products. While Abloh’s Nike sneakers and IKEA rugs might be affordable (especially for his younger fans), the exposure of the Off-White brand name is being hoisted further into consumers’ psyches each time the brand puts its name on a new collab.
This is beneficial (to a point), as it stands to boost visibility for the cool-guy brand. However, at a certain point, will this prove dilutive of the Off-White brand and simply make it less desirable to those who are buying into the main collection and those opting for some of the more affordable collabs? Maybe. Maybe not.
The thing is, though, even if dilution exists in 2018 and does set in, Abloh may be uniquely to fight off dilution to an extent, at least. Like him or not, it is difficult to deny that he is inventive when it comes to his brand and its branding. Such shifts in direction – from diagonal lines branding to the quotations when consumers began to slowly tired of the former, for instance – may be the key to longevity for Abloh’s brand.
If we have learned one thing from Abloh to date, it is to not underestimate him.