By Angelina Rascouet
Pharrell Williams’ first Louis Vuitton show was a star-studded spectacle in Paris that included a performance by Jay-Z, tons of A-list stars, a gospel choir and models in camouflage jackets and boots, all under the gaze of billionaire boss Bernard Arnault.
For his debut show at LVMH’s biggest label, the music star-turned-menswear designer invited close to 1,800 guests. They gathered on Paris’ oldest bridge—located a stone’s throw from the Louis Vuitton headquarters—to discover his take on what men are set to wear in spring and summer next year.
That vision: monogram-adorned Speedy bags in bright red and yellow, Bermuda shorts paired with white socks and loafers, an olive green aviator jacket, beret hats and lots of “Damoflage,” or Williams’ word for pixelated camouflage. Models walked down the runway created on Pont Neuf to a soundtrack composed by Williams, who has won a string of Grammy awards. Pianist Lang Lang led an orchestra, and a gospel choir’s performance roused the audience on a warm evening.
Arnault, the CEO of Louis Vuitton parent company LVMH and one of the world’s richest people, filmed parts of the event with his own phone. He told Bloomberg after the show that he was thrilled by what he’d seen. The billionaire founder of LVMH was joined by his wife Helene Mercier, dressed in a bright red jacket and trouser ensemble, as well as his five children, who all work at the luxury group.
Williams’ first show for Louis Vuitton was “certainly one of the most anticipated moments of the season,” Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer at the digital consultancy Launchmetrics. Pop star Beyoncé, influencer Kim Kardashian, singer Rihanna wearing a $670,000 watch choker, Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton and Louis Vuitton womenswear designer Nicolas Ghesquiere sat on the front rows. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and Adam Mosseri, the head of Meta Platforms Inc.’s Instagram, also made the guest list.
Williams was named menswear designer of LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton SE’s biggest label in February, filling a vacuum after the previous designer Virgil Abloh died from cancer at the end of 2021 at the age of 41.
“When the universe taps you on the shoulder, you listen and you ride the wave,” Williams told reporters in Paris Tuesday, ahead of the event. “This is amazing, I’m the second Black man to ever experience this on the planet, at the biggest fashion house in the world.”
Williams’ appointment surprised some in the fashion crowd who questioned his credentials. “Some people were like ‘Why him? He’s not a formally trained designer, he didn’t study here, he didn’t study there.’ Well no, I didn’t but I also didn’t go to Juilliard either for music and I’m doing OK,” he said, referring to the school of performing arts in New York City.
In picking Williams, Louis Vuitton had chosen a “creative-at-large,” rather than a more “traditional” designer, Louis Vuitton CEO Pietro Beccari told reporters before the show.
Although menswear probably contributed a mere 5% of total sales for Louis Vuitton, Williams’ nomination has a “greater halo effect” for the rest of the brand, HSBC said in a March 28 note. While LVMH doesn’t break down financial performance by brand, Louis Vuitton is the juggernaut that helps power the wider luxury conglomerate, likely generating more than half of the group’s annual profit, the bank said.
Williams, 50, has long been a fashion entrepreneur. In 2003, Williams and Japanese designer Nigo founded Billionaire Boys Club, a clothing, accessories and lifestyle brand. Nigo is now the artistic director of Kenzo, which is also part of LVMH. Williams has also collaborated with brands such as Adidas and Chanel. In 2004, he launched a pair of sunglasses called Millionaire, working with Louis Vuitton’s then designer Marc Jacobs and four years later, he worked on a jewelry collection for the brand.
The world’s biggest luxury fashion label, which generated more than €20 billion ($21.9 billion) in sales last year, is undergoing big changes in 2023. In January, LVMH appointed Beccari to be the new Louis Vuitton CEO, succeeding Michael Burke who had been at the helm for a decade.
Asked about working with designers to set the direction for the brand, Beccari acknowledged that striking a balance between the designer’s vision and the view of a CEO can sometimes present a challenge. Each may have to compromise, Beccari said. “I also have a thick skin,” he quipped.
Williams’ debut comes at a moment of uncertainty after investors have recently sold off luxury names. LVMH shares lost 6.56% in May, the biggest monthly drop since December, amid concerns over the strength of the Chinese demand recovery and a slowdown in the US. Still, the stock price has risen by close to a quarter this year.
Last year, Arnault said Louis Vuitton was not only a fashion name but had become a cultural one too. Its menswear shows in the past 18 months have included performances or special compositions by musicians such as Tyler the Creator, Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) and Kendrick Lamar, as well as Rosalia, giving the brand unparalleled visibility in the age of Instagram posts.
Asked where he would be taking the label next, Williams said: “I don’t even see that there are boundaries. We’re just going to continue to build the empire.”
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