While the list of Black talent in fashion runs longer than the industry may recognize, just a handful of creatives have reached the upper echelons of luxury fashion as leaders of design direction.
Virgil Abloh, Olivier Rousteing and Ozwald Boateng are part of a short list of Black designers to hold a creative lead title of a luxury menswear or womenswear business, but with each, their impact has been wide-reaching.
As we head into fashion week, WWD looks back at the early collections and longstanding influence of these three creatives.
Over his 30-year career, Ozwald Boateng has had a significant impact on menswear.
An award-winning Savile Row tailor for years, Boateng was appointed creative director of Givenchy Homme in 2003 and tasked with creating the house’s first men’s ready-to-wear line.
But he got his start on his mother’s sewing machine, crafting his first collection in the late 1980s that would ultimately be sold to a store called Sprint in London’s Covent Garden.
The London born designer of Ghanaian heritage studied fashion at Southgate College in London in the mid-1980s. He established his first design studio on London’s Portobello Road — by which point he had already dressed the likes of Mick Jagger and Spike Lee — held his first runway show in Paris, making him the first tailor to hold a show during fashion week, before opening his first store on Savile Row. In 1996, Boateng won the award for Best Menswear Designer at Trophées de la Mode.
Boateng’s colorful take on the traditional British suit brought youthful energy to the U.K. and redefined the expectations of menswear. The bright colors may have drawn the eye, but the suits’ structure, fabric selection, detail and refinement best exhibited the designer’s touch and flair and his proposition for the modern male.
In addition to dressing celebrities, Boateng began doing wardrobe for films, dressing actors such as Jason Statham for “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” Paul Bettany in “Gangster No. 1” and Will Smith in “Bad Boys II.”
Already an accomplished designer, Boateng took on the role at Givenchy Homme, as the first ever to serve in this new role, which he held for three years. Boateng had a simple task: build the house’s menswear business.
In a statement at the time of his appointment in 2003, Boateng said, “My challenge will be to reinvent the French gentleman. My inspiration will be Hubert Givenchy’s style and elegance.”
Boateng came out swinging for his first collection for the house in 2005. He brought pops of red to traditional trousers, played with jacket hems, from cropped to almost coat-length, and added white overcoats to keep things fresh. At the start of the show, the designer debuted a short Manga-style film the he wrote and directed, picturing him as a sort of superhero figure come to save the day in menswear design at Givenchy.
His last collection for Givenchy was subdued in its color palette but maintained the energy and flair that defined his namesake label.
That collection harkened back to previous decades, with elements of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, like sporty bomber jackets paired with sunglasses and slick hair, shiny coats, jackets and suits expected of a band in a live performance, tank tops paired with suit trousers and, of course, suits in unexpected colors and patterns. Boateng jazzed up the traditional tuxedo with silver pants, or a white dotted robe with black lapel, and he closed the show himself in an all-white ensemble.
Boateng left Givenchy in 2007 and it would take a few years before Riccardo Tisci, who led the women’s collection during Boateng’s tenure, to pick up from where the designer left off. Boateng stepped down from the creative director role but remained as a consultant to Givenchy’s in-house team.
Though sportswear slowly took over Givenchy men’s under Tisci, the collections weren’t without the tailored touches and traits Boateng introduced and that Tisci, Claire Waight Keller and now Matthew Williams are redefining.
After Givenchy, Boateng received an honorary degree from The University of Creative Arts and an honorary doctorate from the University of Arts London, as well as the Harvard University Veritas Award. More recently, he designed pieces for Marvel’s “Black Panther” and expanded on this work for his 2019 fashion show, A.I. or Authentic Identity, that featured models like late actor Michael K. Williams and singer Jidenna, celebrating the African diaspora, his storied career and introducing, for the first time, a womenswear collection under his namesake brand.
Olivier Rousteing recently celebrated 10 years at Balmain.
The designer, creative director of the French fashion house and subject of the “Wonder Boy” documentary following the search for his birth parents, succeeded former creative director Christophe Decarnin at Balmain in 2011 at the young age of 24. In some ways, he has continued Decarnin’s rock-and-roll aesthetic but has certainly added his own spin along with reintroducing the house’s couture and reestablishing its clout in fashion.
Rousteing was adopted as a baby and grew up in Bordeaux. He moved to Paris to study at Ecole Supérieure des Arts et Techniques de la Mode, but dropped out and interned instead, which led to his first design role at Roberto Cavalli. At Cavalli, he served as creative director of women’s ready-to-wear before departing for Balmain where he would serve under Decarnin for two years before presenting his first collections for the house in September 2011.
The designer’s first collection laid the foundation for what was to come. It featured skinny jeans, blazers with accentuated shoulders and loose leather pants as well as the introduction of 3D embellishments on short dresses and skirts that marked his debut and what would be his signature for seasons to come. The collection largely left behind grunge rips, tears and holes in favor of glamour and opulent gold details. The men’s collection had sleek tuxedo blazers and denim, work jackets paired with biker jeans and leather pants styled with tall boots.
“My first show I always remember because when they told me to go on stage to thank the crowd, I saw the spotlight and thought, ‘Oh, my life has changed.’ But for those last six months as I was working on that collection, I didn’t realize what it was to be a creative director in front of the fashion crowd and the crowd as well,” he said at WWD’s CEO Summit in 2018. “It was incredible. But when I started to get love from all the people, I thought it’s taking off and it’s actually working. Working on a collection is a lot. I had to deal with the fact that, yes, you get followers. I got a lot of reviews telling me that my show was for Instagram or to catch pictures. This is not true….Now I think it’s a battle for many people to go forward. You cannot move forward and not be a strong designer.”
Rousteing’s impact on the house was quickly palatable. Soon enough, brands were making their own versions of biker jeans and leather pants. Artists like Nicki Minaj name-dropped the house in the 2014 song “Anaconda” and Kid Cudi devoted an entire song to the house’s popular denim on track “Balmain Jeans.” Rousteing connected quickly with the younger consumer, tapping the Kardashian family to front campaigns and dressing Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, Kylie and Kris Jenner and Cindy Crawford, among others for the 2016 Met Gala. Balmain was also one of the brands heavily featured in the “Kim Kardashian: Hollywood” mobile game for the iPhone and Android, for which Rousteing exclusively designed Balmain ensembles.
When Balmain collaborated with H&M in 2015 for the Swedish fast-fashion company’s long-running designer collaboration, Rousteing said in a 2021 interview with WWD, 95 percent of the collection sold out globally in 10 minutes.
Balmain’s deepening connection with Millennials and youth culture didn’t come easily. As Rousteing said at the WWD CEO Summit:
“Let’s not forget that Balmain is a French, old brand from 1945. In America, there is always this idea of youth and inclusivity. In France, it is very different because the older you are, the better it is — like wine. So…at 24, you learn. I said to my president, ‘Why don’t we go on social media? Let’s take selfies with the models. Let’s create a new platform. Magazines are incredible but that’s not the goal.’ So I started to create that world, putting together my ideas and my vision. At the same time, it’s not just because I was 24 and I was doing sneakers and looking young in the street. I wanted to actually show that Millennials also love craftsmanship and quality.”
And beyond revamping the brand’s ready-to-wear, Rousteing revived its couture, too, bringing a collection back in 2019 after the brand shuttered in 2002 following Oscar de la Renta’s departure.
The Virgil Abloh era at Louis Vuitton has been one to be remembered. The late designer was the first Black American to hold an artistic director position at Louis Vuitton and assumed the role after ushering in a new era for youth fashion culture.
Abloh, who apart from creating for his own brand Off-White, held the role of artistic director of menswear at the luxury house before his death in November 2021, left the world with his fall 2022 collection for the brand (which he designed 95 percent of before his passing). It was an innovative assortment presented in a surrealist show that continued Abloh’s narrative at the house, which began with his spring 2019 collection. The designer from Rockford, Ill., of Ghanaian heritage possessed a whimsy and wonder often seen in a bright-eyed child first discovering the world.
His first collection for Louis Vuitton began with stark white loose-fitting suits and sportswear and ensembles of elegant tailoring in new shades for the brand, like red, green, blue and even tie-dye, all playing off of the rainbow runway created for the show. Abloh had officially arrived.
The collection was a departure from the previous fall 2018 collection under then men’s artistic director Kim Jones, which was a slim-fitting, tailored assortment that made exquisite fabrics the main attraction. For spring 2019, Abloh incorporated touches from Off-White, like graphic patches with phrases like ‘Man Behind the Curtain Pay No Attention’ and ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road,’ as well as denim jeans and jackets. His arrival was also marked by accessories such as the cutaway vest worn by celebrities like Michael B. Jordan, Timothée Chalamet, and bags and vests with 3D pockets. A duffle bag and jewelry received a similar rainbow gradient treatment as the runway floor.
As Louis Vuitton chief executive officer Michael Burke told WWD following Abloh’s first collection for the brand, it raked in 30 percent more in the first 48 hours than the house’s previous collaboration with Supreme.
That collection showed potential for what was to come during Louis Vuitton’s Abloh era, including a collection referencing Michael Jackson’s music catalogue for fall 2019, “The Truman Show” for fall 2020, and designs often celebrating Black American style, the African diaspora and their influence on global style.
Abloh’s legacy at Louis Vuitton is storied, with the expansion of the brand’s footwear offering and the introduction of its first skate shoe. It also marked firsts for rappers and musicians like Kid Cudi and Sheck Wes walking runway shows, and artists like Dev Hynes producing music to accompany them.
When LVMH became a majority investor in Off-White in July 2021, and announced an agreement to work on non-fashion projects in conjunction with Abloh, the designer told WWD, “Today just marks a day where I’m given a seat at the table for us to do more, and not be limited by the past.”
‘Virgil Was Here,’ the phrase from Louis Vuitton’s tribute show to Abloh in Miami in December 2021, is apt.