After years of collaborating with Kanye West, Virgil Abloh made a splash with Louis Vuitton Men's debut. How much of an impact does the music producer have on an emerging designer's career? A lot, apparently.
Virgil Abloh just started a new chapter in fashion history when he debuted his first collection as the menswear designer for Louis Vuitton in Paris this past week. In just four years, the Ghanaian-American designer went from his first showroom presentation for Off-White in Paris to designing Louis Vuitton’s men’s collection, becoming the first black person to take the helm as designer at Louis Vuitton — but could he have done it without the influence of his friend and mentor Kanye West?
Abloh isn’t the only one from West’s fashion circles to find success. Samuel Ross, a former creative consultant for West and founder of British streetwear label A-COLD-WALL*, was a finalist for the LVMH Prize for new talent this year, and in 2016, Matthew Williams, a consultant for Kanye’s company DONDA, was also named a finalist for the prize. Heron Preston, another West collaborator, partnered with NASA for his fall 2018 collection. Call it the Kanye effect. A number of Kanye West protégés have gone on from the so-called “School of DONDA”—DONDA being the company founded by the musician and named after his late mother—to breaking out independently with their own fashion labels and projects and labels.
Ever the trailblazer, West knows how to spot emerging fashion talent—receiving a call from West to work on a project at DONDA is often times the start of a promising career in the fashion industry. West’s stamp of approval opens doors for more exposure for an existing label, and other ventures.
All of the designers that West recruited spent time at DONDA—most helping to design West’s tour merchandise—before moving on to concentrate on their own ventures. Abloh started Pyrex Vision in 2012 with a capsule collection with Champion T-shirts, hoodies and flannel shirts that he shuttered before starting Off-White in 2014. Since then, the polymath has done collaborations with Nike, Ikea, French juicery Wild & the Moon, and more, before getting a call from Louis Vuitton. Preston worked on projects for DONDA as an art director, designing tour merch and invites for Yeezy shows. When West saw one of Jerry Lorenzo’s long Fear of God T-shirts from the first collection, he immediately set up a meeting to see the collection, proceeding to fly Lorenzo out for interview. West ultimately hired him to work at DONDA on a collaboration with APC, leading Lorenzo to dress West in ripped Fear of God jeans for the 2016 Met Gala. The rapper met Williams, who he hired to help develop his tour wardrobe. The opportunity led to Williams launching Alyx (it was recently rebranded as 1017 ALYX 9SM), the clothing line named after his daughter that he runs out of Ferrara, Italy to be closer to craftspeople and manufacturers there. West saw that Ross had worked on prints for Hood by Air as well as his work with Abloh at Off-White before recruiting him to work at DONDA on tour merch and the APC collection. Dane Richards, the Montreal-based designer behind YARD666SALE, received his Kanye calling to work on tour merch, and soon his rejiggered ‘90s looks started appearing on Kim Kardashian and North West, who controversially wore a corseted slip dress in 2017.
All of West’s protégés have gone on to receive accolades in some form after moving on from DONDA. Abloh was the first to become a finalist for the LVMH Prize in 2015 (Williams received the honor in 2016 and this year Ross took home the award). Celebrities like Bella Hadid, Cardi B. A$AP Rocky, Jay-Z, Justin Bieber and Béyoncé have all been spotted in designs by “graduates” from the School of Donda. When Demna Gvasalia, the designer behind Vetements and creative director of Balenciaga, received West’s stamp of approval in 2015 in the form of the singer sporting an oversized Vetements hoodie during Paris Fashion Week and attending what would become Gvasalia’s breakout show for the brand, thanks to the praise from West and the top fashion critics, he went on to become the latest designer to watch.
While a degree from FIT, Parsons or Central Saint Martins may seem like a promising bet on a career in fashion, a call from West and time at the School of Donda can also point an aspiring fashion mogul in the right direction.
Additional research by Gregory Miller