EXCLUSIVE: Louis Vuitton, Nike to Offer Virgil Abloh-designed Sneakers

·10 min read

Louis Vuitton will showcase a piece of Virgil Abloh’s legacy in an exhibition dedicated to the late men’s artistic director’s long-anticipated collaboration project with Nike.

The luxury fashion house next month will launch nine editions of the coveted Louis Vuitton and Nike “Air Force 1” by Abloh and is currently accepting preorders ahead of the shoe’s release. Prior to the launch, Vuitton is mounting an exhibition from May 20 through May 31 at Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse in New York City dedicated to the partnership, with Abloh’s recurring themes and touches serving as a backdrop for the 47 bespoke editions on view. The opening party on May 20 will include a performance by 21 Savage and a DJ set by Jamie xx.

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The nine editions that Louis Vuitton selected for in-store release, including all-white, two-tone, black suede, metallic gold and multicolor mid-top and low-top silhouettes, were manufactured in Venice, Italy, in Fiesso d’Artico with the house’s leather, materials and insignia. The editions will retail for 2,000 euro and 2,500 euro in sizes 3.5 to 18.

The editions first debuted last June at the men’s spring 2022 show in Paris. The collection is rooted around the “Amen Break,” a drum break in the 1969 song by The Winstons that would be one of the most recognized samples in hip-hop and jungle music. Abloh compared the now ubiquitous drum break to the Air Force 1 sneaker, a style first introduced in 1982 amid New York City’s bourgeoning hip-hop culture and breakdancing. The sneaker had been immortalized on DJ E-Z Rock’s 1988 album “It Takes Two,” where he wore the style with the Swoosh adorned with a Louis Vuitton monogram as altered by Harlem haberdasher Dapper Dan, one of the first to bridge the gap between luxury fashion and sportswear.

“The Air Force 1 is a sample like the ‘Amen Break,'” Abloh said in a quote provided by Louis Vuitton said. “A T-shirt is an ‘Amen Break,’ a suit is an ‘Amen Break.’ We’re all iterating on the same ideas. But, in my canon, the Air Force 1 puts the edge on the blade. This object happened way before me, but to get to a context where it’s adjacent to the T-shirt and the suit, its logic has been 40 years in the making.”

Two-hundred exclusive pairs were sold at auction at Sotheby’s in February to benefit the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund and raised $25.3 million, far eclipsing the $3 million estimate for the lot.

“The total number of bids and individual bids set a world record and most importantly they had never had that from that many countries,” said Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton.

“What individual can create a charity that can create these kinds of prices from all over the world?” Burke asked. “What individual today can create a global feeling of togetherness? Is there an elected official that can draw that kind of interest and engagement? It’s the first time they had that deep interest for that.”

The collaboration speaks to so much about Abloh’s legacy. It serves as a culmination of a proposition that goes back several years before Louis Vuitton and Nike could be considered a reality beyond sneaker customizers.

For many years, Abloh showed pop culture that it’s possible to bridge seemingly unrelated worlds. What does luxury fashion have to do with sportswear? Athlete and entrepreneur David Beckham may have proven that luxury fashion and athletes can coexist, but Abloh proposed mixing subcultures and genres throughout most of his career.

RSVP Gallery, the Chicago store he opened with streetwear designer Don C, offered luxury and contemporary fashion and art with streetwear brands. Abloh was trained as an architect, but had deep ties to the music, skate and streetwear scenes. He also brought his love of skateboarding to Louis Vuitton, introducing the house’s first skate shoe and signing the brand’s first skater, Lucien Clarke.

“Many people were expecting this in Virgil’s first show,” Burke said about the Louis Vuitton and Nike collaboration. “I remember some people being disappointed there wasn’t a big action put on sneakers for his first show. Virgil had always said he didn’t want to rush into it. He didn’t want to pander to the clientele that’s primed for it. He wanted to start with fashion and ready-to-wear, draping, cuts, fabrics, and wanted to find out more about leather.”

Abloh and Nike were in partnership since 2016, led by the design project “The Ten,” where Abloh put his signature design touches on Nike Air Max 90 and 97, Air Force 1 Low, Blazer Mid, Air Presto, Air VaporMax, React, Hyperdunk 2017, Air Jordan 1 and Converse Chuck Taylor. The designer also reworked the Nike Air Zoom Fly Mercurial Fly Knit, Air Jordan 2, 4 and 5 sneakers, all of which were chronicled and immortalized in books like “Icons” that released in 2020.

In 2018, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton appointed Abloh as Vuitton’s men’s artistic director, succeeding Kim Jones who famously orchestrated a collaboration collection between Louis Vuitton and Supreme. That project opened the door for more collaborations to come, and with Abloh stepping in at Vuitton with several Nike projects under his belt, it was just a matter of time.

“We knew we were going to do it,” Burke reiterated. “He has a very special relationship with Nike. We knew we were going to do it and the timing was his. When you have Virgil and his history with Nike, it’s obvious that it’ll be the link of two icons. He’s the godfather and that’s what is interesting.”

The project also was a wink to the past. “For the Nike x Louis Vuitton Air Force One project, Virgil wanted to reference the customized versions that popped up in the late ’80s and early ’90s, which often incorporated Louis Vuitton fabrics repurposed and applied to the Swooshes and uppers of the shoes,” said Fraser Cooke, head of special projects at Nike.

“The idea of sampling ran through Virgil’s work, so to take the AF1 and create it officially with LV — finally making this clash of icons legitimate — was a uniquely personal and culturally inspiring initiative,” he added. “You only have to look at the show in which he debuted the Nike x Louis Vuitton Air Force One to see how much of an expansive homage that was to sampling and to hip-hop cultural iconography.”

But again, Abloh introducing these into his collection was a matter of time. “He was really expecting to create eternity through the sneaker,” Burke said. “Eternity is something we strive for and designers benefit because they could achieve it. ‘Icon’ is an overused word, but it’s something that lasts longer than us and compared to our short lives, it’s an eternity. You cannot force that. That has to happen when everything aligns and it’s not a formula you can replicate. We talked often about that. This should happen when we’re ready, when Nike is ready and when the people are ready for it.”

Burke explained that Abloh and the house produced 47 bespoke sneakers for select people, which will be the ones on show in New York City.

The expansive showcase will be open to the public; the 47 editions will be displayed in a dreamlike space that hearkens to the Vuitton men’s runway shows under Abloh’s direction. The venue will be wrapped in a vivid orange adorned with a logo that fuses the Louis Vuitton and Nike logos, and when guests enter the exhibit, they will see walls painted with clouds, reminiscent of a few of Abloh’s shows, a giant version of the logo reflected in a mirrored ceiling and will be surrounded by Abloh’s signature 3D-printed statues.

The upper room is a treehouse created as a tribute to Abloh’s affinity for the childlike mind and furnished like the Louis Vuitton studio and atelier he created on Rue du Pont-Neuf in Paris. The editions are exhibited in motion on magnetized walls in holographic displays that hearken to breakdancing.

In addition, large glass boxes will be placed around New York City at Domino Park, Grand Central Terminal, South Street Seaport, Astor Place, Columbus Circle, Flatiron Plaza and Gansevoort Plaza displaying graphic globe sculptures tied to themes of the showcase.

“For me, that’s a little wink to Virgil,” Burke said. “It summarizes ‘Virgil was here.’ He was everywhere at the same time and I hope we can recreate that. That represents Virgil more than anything I’ve said. His mere presence changed lives.”

Burke explained that the exhibition is an amalgamation of all of Abloh’s shows, beginning with spring 2019 up to his eighth collection shown in January 2022. “He was very adamant that one show would not render the last show irrelevant,” he explained.

The men’s fall 2022 show was also a dreamlike setting, much like the exhibition, and shares a blue hue with the “Truman Show”-esque fall 2020 show set that had clouds motifs also seen in the exhibition as well. Also, the 3D-printed statues appeared at several Louis Vuitton men’s pop-up shops in cities like Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Seoul, among others. The statues appeared in bright, monochromatic colors like green for the Lower East Side temporary store, neon orange in Chicago, and in gradient patterns.

A rainbow gradient statue of Abloh was made for the Miami show in December 2021.

“He didn’t want the creative ideas to be overwhelmed by what comes after them,” Burke said. “He announced the future that referenced the last collection and that’s what you’ll see in the sneakers. This is a tribute to Virgil and it wasn’t planned that way, just like the Miami show wasn’t planned. In a way, what we’re doing with the sneaker exhibition mimics what we did with the ready-to-wear in his passing. He would’ve loved to see it himself.”

Burke used the words “icon” and “eternity” when explaining the Louis Vuitton and Nike sneakers and Abloh’s collections for the luxury house. Though the launch and exhibition showcases Abloh’s legacy as a designer for the house and in his many collaboration projects, Burke does not see this as the end.

“At the end of every show, he left many doors semi open,” Burke added. “He left possibilities for the future show, which is why the January show felt like he was there every second from the point of view, the smoke, the dancers and orchestra. Anybody could take his work and work upon it.”

Burke revealed that there is room for more bespoke sneakers after these 47 editions — “There is no finality,” he said — and the house is developing a book that chronicles Abloh’s tenure at the house.

“The editor said this is the book and there should be an end and I said, ‘I would like you to not show a bookend,’” he said. “’You have to show it in a way where eight leads you back to one, a continuation of something that happened before, and I think Virgil would want that. He knew his medical situation and wanted finality. In four short years, the arc that he drew was absolutely amazing. The first collection was from someone beginning and by the eighth he was a master.”

He concluded, “Physicists have tried to find a very unifying force and Virgil had it actually. They were looking in all of the wrong places.”

Launch Gallery: Louis Vuitton Celebrates Nike “Air Force 1” by Virgil Abloh With New York Exhibition

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