Over the years, Virgil Abloh approached his work with Nike as something slightly different than a straightforward collaborator. He was a tinkerer. A nudger. A questioner. Often his ideas verged on the raw: What if you punch holes in the sneaker? What can we print on it? What if we rendered the invisible parts of construction visible?
In this way, Mr. Abloh’s designs for Nike were the most literal exposition of his “3 percent” approach to innovation: gentle perspective shifts that ended up seismic, and a vivid representation of his belief that forward-thinking design could be reinterpreted on a mass scale.
But Mr. Abloh, the men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton until his death in November, had even bigger dreams. A restless creator who wielded corporations like paintbrushes, he sought to unify his many worlds. The most vivid and ambitious exposition of this is in the soon-to-be-released Air Force 1 he orchestrated, a collaboration between Nike and Louis Vuitton.
The sneaker, officially referred to as the Louis Vuitton and Nike “Air Force 1” by Virgil Abloh, is one of the final projects Mr. Abloh worked on before his death, and it is a marriage of aesthetics, production techniques and ideology: a heritage Nike design, tweaked with Louis Vuitton iconography, and manufactured in the Louis Vuitton atelier in Venice.
There are 47 versions of the sneaker. All of them are being displayed, and nine of them will being sold beginning in June. There are signature Abloh flourishes throughout: The laces have “LACET” printed on them, the stitching is slightly exaggerated, some of the color and pattern juxtapositions are bold. The most exciting of the commercially available silhouettes is the checkerboard mid-top overlaid with Vuitton graffiti by the artist Ghusto Leon, a luxury item with the feel of a custom.
Remembering Virgil Abloh (1980-2021)
The barrier-breaking Black designer whose ascent in the luxury industry changed what was possible in fashion, died on Nov. 28, 2021. He was 41.
They are expensive — $2,750 for the low-top styles, $3,450 for mid-top — approximately double the price for typical Louis Vuitton sneakers and more than 20 times as expensive as a standard issue AF1. But the utilitarianism of the silhouette is the point here. The AF1, currently in its 40th anniversary, is a hip-hop staple, mentioned in countless songs and worn by countless artists; it is the subject of endless memes; it has been endlessly copied and iterated on. It is a sneaker everybody can see themselves in.
Its absorption into the Louis Vuitton atmosphere is a logical step in Mr. Abloh’s long campaign to annihilate the barriers between high fashion and streetwear, and a simple acknowledgment that the AF1 silhouette is already part of true high-style grammar. Amplifying it, embellishing it, fancifying it — that’s been going on for years.
This collaboration fulfills the promise of Dapper Dan, the legendary Harlem bootlegger/customizer of the 1980s, who understood decades ago that high fashion brands weren’t serving Black customers, and so he remade their garments in a range of custom styles, earning him loyal customers and legal headaches. (Dan has experienced a career renaissance in recent years, with partnerships with Gucci and the Gap.)
Some of Mr. Abloh’s color choices also recall the 1990s and 2000s era of sneaker customization (Remix Da Kickz, for example). During this time, the AF1 was truly becoming a canvas, and while Nike had previously controlled scarcity of some colorways with regional releases, having a one of one design became even more coveted.
In the span of the 47 designs, there are winks at classic Air Force 1 colorways, and even, perhaps, to A Bathing Ape, which more or less appropriated the AF1 for its Bape Sta silhouette. Over the years, AF1s have occasionally featured national flags; this collaboration includes the first to include the Ghanaian flag, celebrating Mr. Abloh’s heritage.
A wall-size screen near the entrance shows a video loop of the construction of one of these sneakers, from the swoosh getting stitched on to the dremel smoothing out the sneaker’s leather so that the midsole can be attached. Throughout the space are small holographic displays of the 47 designs, each arranged next to its real-life counterpart. The floor is a gargantuan LED display of a clouded sky.
In the rear of the room is a treehouse. Up the circular staircase, there are mood boards and videos of all of Mr. Abloh’s designs — the one with multicolor pastel fur drawn from a recent coat he designed is a highlight — including notes drawn from his text messages.
The only place you see Mr. Abloh in the installation is in a short video filmed last year in his Paris studio during the design process. But it’s hard not to understand this release as a breathing extension of his life’s work. A hip-hop staple, manufactured by hand in Italy, full of nods to connoisseurs — this is a museum piece made for the streets.
Collaborations between high fashion brands and sneaker companies have become old hat in recent years. Some stand out for their originality: Think Kiko Kostadinov and Vivienne Westwood’s consistently bold partnerships with Asics, or Comme des Garçons’ perspective-tilting Nike collaborations. But more often they lack meaning and attitude: Think Dior’s too slick Air Jordan 1, or the shrug-worthy Adidas collaboration with Prada.
Mr. Abloh’s Louis Vuitton AF1, by contrast, is full of meaning and attitude. In the video in which he appears, he says: “I think it should be not about the colorway. It should be about the idea.”
The shoe has already become, for some, a totem. Two hundred pairs of a limited style, with contrasting Louis Vuitton patterns, were recently auctioned off at Sotheby’s, many for well over $100,000, with proceeds going to the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund. And while some friends and family colorways were released in recent weeks, barely any of them have trickled out onto the secondary market (at least not publicly), a sign of the reverence with which Mr. Abloh is still regarded.
Mr. Abloh held his position at Louis Vuitton for only three years, but his ambition and sense of scale are very much here to stay. His assertion that well-known entities are toys to be played with, and not fragile, has set the terms for a generation of creative thinkers. This week it was announced that Shannon Abloh, his wife, will be the chief executive and managing director of Virgil Abloh Securities, a new entity dedicated to continuing Mr. Abloh’s ideology and methods to projects across disciplines.
That means more rules broken, more corporations pushed beyond their comfort zones, more opportunities for tinkerers to be given the opportunity to disassemble and rebuild. Across the street from the installation, up in the sky, there’s a water tower painted with a simple, essential Abloh-ism: “DREAM NOW.” The fruits will survive you.