The Pont Neuf is Paris’s oldest bridge, dating back to the 16th century, and this summer, Louis Vuitton claimed it as its own. The brand decked the surface in a golden version of its signature checkerboard Damier motif and ferried some of the world’s most starry people—LeBron, Rihanna, DiCaprio, Beyoncé— to the front row in a boat. A gospel choir’s rousing benediction filled the air as models, including former Zegna designer Stefano Pilati and rapper Pusha T, sauntered down the runway illuminated by the warm mauve glow of a perfect Parisian sunset. The show closed with a surprise performance by Jay-Z. Vuitton had named Pharrell Williams as its newest men’s creative director back in February, but it wasn’t until this spectacle of extravagance that his arrival was well and truly announced.
It should be noted that there was plenty of navel-gazing and hand-wringing by the fashion press when the Pharrell news broke, but in a way, his appointment is simply the evolution of a narrative going back 100 years or more. Designers such as Chanel, Saint Laurent, Lagerfeld, Armani, and Tom Ford all became celebrities in their own rights; Ralph Lauren, like Pharrell, was not a trained fashion designer in the traditional sense but managed to expand his mega-brand on the strength of his world-building vision and impeccable taste—a formidable talent shared by LV’s new polymath creative. Really, what’s the problem with flipping the script and starting with a global celebrity, especially one with Pharrell’s bona fides?
Before you answer, it’s worth considering the current moment, a time when it has become difficult to see where the entertainment world ends and the fashion world begins. NBA players use their locker-room walks as personal runway shows, the Barbie-movie marketing team pulled off a coup by colonizing the color pink for the entire summer (you may recall Ryan Gosling in a sharp, blush-colored Gucci suit at the premiere), and The New York Times ran breathless style recaps of HBO’s Succession during its final season. Meanwhile, fashion brands have been traveling to L.A. to let Tinseltown know the industry is ready for its close-up, with Gucci showing on Hollywood Boulevard, Versace in West Hollywood, Fear of God at the Hollywood Bowl, Ralph Lauren near Pasadena, and Chanel on the Paramount lot—all within the past two years.
Pharrell’s appointment, in other words, could be seen as the culmination of fashion and entertainment’s long merger. “LVMH has bigger aspirations than just consumer goods,” says Robert Burke, founder of Robert Burke Associates, a luxury-retail consultancy firm. “They touch the high-end consumer’s life at all angles, whether it be fashion, jewelry, accessories, beverages, even hotels.” Vuitton is saying much the same thing by referring to itself in recent years as a “cultural maison.” What they need from Pharrell in this context, then, goes beyond the traditional creative director role of designing collections into something approaching a brand avatar—part designer, part artist, part influencer, part spokesman, part party thrower.
“A brand the size of Louis Vuitton has technical design already covered on their staff,” Burke notes. Pharrell’s role, he says, “is more about seeing the bigger picture and setting the tone for the product and direction.” He calls it a win-win for both parties: “LV gets their big-name-celebrity designer who can keep the brand exciting and fresh, while he also brings a wide network of top global celebrities, entertainers, and athletes who will support him. Pharrell is able to tap into LV’s resources and infrastructure to make his creations and ideas come to life.” Which is all to say, the man who overshadowed an entire Grammys broadcast just by wearing a Vivienne Westwood mountain hat will now be staging such moments for Louis Vuitton.
It’s not without its risks. First, all of his part-roles will also be part-time: LV CEO Pietro Beccari confirmed recently that Williams is required to devote only one-third of his working hours to Louis Vuitton, which is an astonishing admission. (Imagine even the biggest-name designer spending two-thirds of his professional effort elsewhere in a similar role.) Plus, much of Williams’s sartorial magic comes from his brilliantly idiosyncratic tastes—the way he mixes luxury and mass market, streetwear and formalwear—and his genius for perfectly unexpected accessories. Does he lose some of that dynamism (contractually or otherwise) now that he’s married to Vuitton? And while Williams has an impeccable track record as a collaborator, brand partner, artist, and entrepreneur, high-profile celebrity collaborations always come with the risk of scandal (see: Kanye and Adidas) or the loss of a fan base.
Ultimately, it’s not really about Louis Vuitton or Pharrell at all—it’s about what comes next, for everyone else. Celebrity runs on hype, and the hype machine needs to be fed; it isn’t hard to imagine the wildly disjointed effects of a fashion industry suddenly forced to chase Q scores across channels to find the next symbiotic publicity bonanza. As such, does the role of designer at even the most prestigious house become little different than that of a celebrity chef with a line of cookware at Saks? There’s also the eclipsing power of celebrity, illustrated by the fact we’ve just spent 1,000 words discussing Pharrell’s first menswear outing at Louis Vuitton without mentioning the clothes themselves (a solid mix of boxy streetwear and louche tailoring in digitized camouflage prints). It’s a potential natural development for an industry that needs to get consumers’ attention in an increasingly distracting landscape—to stop them mid-scroll, as it were.
And yet, there’s excitement in the air. While Pharrell’s first show may have taken place at sunset, for Louis Vuitton, it felt like a new day.
Max Berlinger is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He covers fashion, culture, and lifestyles for a variety of publications including The New York Times, Bloomberg, and the Los Angeles Times.