Pharrell Williams, Louis Vuitton’s New Don

Earlier this month, Pharrell Williams was in the men’s atelier on the second floor of Louis Vuitton’s corporate office in Paris, sunglasses on, surveying his new perch.

“Listen,” he said conspiratorially. “This window is different.”

The window by his desk looks out over the small plaza on the north side of the Pont Neuf, where in just a couple of weeks, his first show as Louis Vuitton men’s creative director would take place. A 50-foot statue of the artist Yayoi Kusama, a Vuitton collaborator, hovered just outside. The rapper Pusha T and the streetwear innovator Nigo were milling about.

Since Mr. Williams’s appointment was announced in February, he has spent a great deal of his time here, in this office and in the workshops that abut it, getting accustomed to holding the reins of the huge business he had been put at the creative helm of — the first time a musician has been given such a grand platform in luxury fashion.

“I pinch myself every day,” he said. “This is the equivalent of a castle to me. I mean, the Seine River right there — it’s like the moat.”

The long path from his childhood in Virginia Beach through hip-hop producer stardom to streetwear design impact to pop music ubiquity to here was very much on his mind. “I’m a Black man — they have given this appointment to a Black man,” he said. “This is the crown jewel of the LVMH portfolio. It’s everything, and I was appointed to rule in this position. So No. 1, a ruler of a position is usually like a king. But a ruler of this position for me is a perpetual student. It’s what I intend to be.”

A little bit later in the afternoon, Mr. Williams, 50, slipped off his blazer and slipped on a brown motorcycle jacket in full LV monogram print leather. Emblazoned on the back, in studs, were the words “PUPIL” and “KING.”

His appointment to the helm of Vuitton’s men’s business is, depending on your perspective, a full-throated acknowledgment of the power of Black cultural capital on a global stage and a watershed moment in the absorption of hip-hop class politics into luxury fashion. Or it’s a bellwether of challenging times to come for traditionally trained clothing designers who aspire to top posts, and a suggestion that global celebrity moves the needle more than directional design, even for the most successful luxury brands.

Either way, Mr. Williams did not apply for the job — he was chosen.

In December, Alexandre Arnault, a scion of the LVMH dynasty and a longtime friend, sent Mr. Williams a text: “Please call me. The time has come.”

Mr. Williams at the Vuitton men’s atelier with Nigo, the innovative streetwear designer with whom Mr. Williams founded Billionaire Boys Club.Credit…Sam Hellmann for The New York Times

Mr. Williams thought Mr. Arnault was perhaps going to run some name options by him for the Vuitton job. “I had been pushing somebody else,” he said. “I had been pushing Nigo. My brother, always.”

Nigo — the founder of the brands A Bathing Ape and Human Made, the co-founder with Mr. Williams of Billionaire Boys Club and one of the most significant streetwear innovators — had already been named artistic director of Kenzo, another LVMH brand.

Instead, Mr. Arnault extended the offer to Mr. Williams. “I had always wanted to work with him, in any way, shape or form since I started working in the group, which is already 10-plus years ago,” Mr. Arnault said. “And it was just never the right time because either the companies were too small to work with someone as big as him, or there were already people in charge, or he was working with Chanel. And stars were so aligned now, finally.”

Mr. Williams said, “I’m not calling it fortune — I’m calling it favor.”

Hiring Mr. Williams was one of the first decisions overseen by Pietro Beccari, a longtime LVMH executive, who was announced as chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton in January. “After Virgil, I couldn’t choose a classical designer,” Mr. Beccari said. “It was important that we found someone having a broader spectrum than being a very fantastic designer, which is great for the industry and we have many of them. But for that particular place, at Louis Vuitton, after Virgil, I thought we needed something more. Something that went beyond just pure design.”

Mr. Williams signed the contract on Valentine’s Day and soon relocated his wife and four children and much of his team. “Listen, I miss my house in Miami,” he said. “And my house in Virginia. I really do. But right now, Paris is the center of the earth for me.”

Playing the Game, or Not

His skin is as good as you think it is — the additional pressure, or labor, or scrutiny of his new position has left no creases.

There was ease in his silhouette, too: a tight black double breasted vintage Vuitton blazer and well-worn white LV Trainer Snow Boots peeking out under bunched-up, flared dark bluejeans embroidered with faces derived from paintings by the Black artist Henry Taylor. The pants — one of a few pieces Mr. Williams has deployed Taylor’s work for — will appear in the spring-summer 2024 collection, which will be shown in Paris on June 20.

He requested a tailor to come take a look at the hem of the jeans, which was a smidge too long on one side, and then sauntered over to the main conference table in the room, where he asked some colleagues to pull up images from his first ad campaign. It featured a pregnant Rihanna clutching multiple Louis Vuitton Speedy bags in primary colors, one of the first playful tweaks Mr. Williams is bringing to the company’s heritage. The Speedy, one of Louis Vuitton’s most recognizable designs, dates to 1930 and resembles a doctor’s bag.

“I am a creative designer from the perspective of the consumer,” he said. “I didn’t go to Central Saint Martins. But I definitely went in the stores and purchased, and I know what I like.”

Mr. Williams’s first ad campaign for Vuitton stars Rihanna, who clutches multiple Speedy bags.Credit…Louis Vuitton

He told Mr. Beccari something similar. “He said, ‘I don’t feel like a creative director here, I feel like a client,’” Mr. Beccari recalled, adding that he trusted Mr. Williams’s natural instincts despite his never having managed a business of this scale. “I didn’t even have to speak to him about the commercial importance of what he does and the importance in terms of turnover and volume of sales, but just the importance in terms of impact.”

Mr. Williams looked at his Rihanna ads the way one might pose after a particularly athletic dunk. He pointed to one and said, “That’s the golden ratio.” For emphasis, he had an associate pull up the same image overlaid with the long golden spiral, the center of it landing directly on Rihanna’s belly.

“What I love about this is, it’s the biggest fashion house in the world, and that is a Black woman with child,” Mr. Williams said.

Sarah Andelman, the founder of the pioneering Paris retailer Colette, and a collaborator of Mr. Williams’s, said he makes creative choices “not just for the sake of doing things. There is a story and, I would say in French, profondeur, a meaning to what he will do.”

Mr. Williams basked in the refracted shine from the screen full of Rihanna images.

“I know there’s a game,” he said. “I’m just not here to play it.”

Mr. Williams at the men’s atelier. “A ruler of a position is usually like a king,” he said. “But a ruler of this position for me is a perpetual student. It’s what I intend to be.”Credit…Sam Hellmann for The New York Times

The Two-Decade Crash Course

Almost since the beginning of his career in music, Mr. Williams had found ways to incorporate, and create, fashion. In 2003, he founded Billionaire Boys Club with Nigo, perhaps his closest creative ally in style.Explaining the creative kinship between the two men, Nigo, through an interpreter, said, “The first time I went to Pharrell’s house in Virginia, when I looked in the wardrobe, everything was the same as what I owned.”

In 2003, Mr. Williams met Marc Jacobs, then the men’s creative director of Vuitton, who invited him to collaborate on a pair of sunglasses. The result, known as the Millionaires, became a hip-hop luxury staple in the mid-2000s and an updated version of them is still sold today.

“He was just so incredibly generous to give me that opportunity when nobody had ever given any of us an opportunity to be creative,” Mr. Williams said of Mr. Jacobs. (The Millionaires were designed by Mr. Williams, with Nigo.)

“I thought the way forward for Louis Vuitton was to collaborate with other creatives,” Mr. Jacobs said. “It didn’t matter to me whether they were from music or art or other fashion designers, whether it was Stephen Sprouse, Takashi Murakami or Pharrell.”

Back then, when Mr. Williams arrived in Paris, Mr. Jacobs gave him vouchers to shop in the stores. “I was very nouveau riche at that time,” Mr. Williams said, tilting his head down and offering just the tiniest hint of a knowing smirk. Mr. Williams also designed jewelry for Vuitton a few years later.

Other collaborations followed: Moncler, G-Star, Moynat, Reebok, a long partnership with Adidas and an almost decade-long affiliation with Chanel and Mr. Williams’s close friend Karl Lagerfeld.

Mr. Williams met Marc Jacobs in the early aughts, when Mr. Jacobs was the men’s creative director at Vuitton.Credit…Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Mr. Williams and Karl Lagerfeld shared a close friendship and had a decade-long collaboration at Chanel.Credit…Swan Gallet/WWD, via Getty Images

But none of those gigs had the complexity, or stakes, of his current assignment.

“Over the past several weeks he’s had a crash course in design and how to run a studio and how to manage a team of 40, 50 people and how to take criticism and work with the people at the top because, you know, it’s a blend of creativity and also running a business,” said Matthew Henson, who has been a personal stylist for Mr. Williams for the last couple of years.

Mr. Henson is also styling the show, along with Cynthia Lu, Mr. Williams’s former assistant who is now a quiet powerhouse of idiosyncratic streetwear with her brand Cactus Plant Flea Market.

When Mr. Williams walks through the studios, his awe for the specialized design teams appears genuine. “Presto, things get turned around so fast,” he said. “I’ve had more resources than I’ve ever had in my entire life. They just don’t miss. Like at all. None. Nobody.”

That was something he was prepared for, in part, by conversations he had with Virgil Abloh, after Mr. Abloh was hired for this same job in 2018. In the three years at the helm of Vuitton’s men’s wear before his sudden death in late 2021, Mr. Abloh upended ideas about how a luxury house might function, and what story it might be able to tell in dialogue with those who had long been held at arm’s length from luxury fashion. Just outside the atelier hangs the crucial, defining image from Mr. Abloh’s first ad campaign for Louis Vuitton: a Black toddler draped in a “Wizard of Oz”-themed sweater, one of Mr. Abloh’s first signature pieces.

Mr. Williams recalled Mr. Abloh’s awe at the scale and efficiency of the atelier. “He would always talk about how they never say no, which they don’t,” he said. “So that’s a responsibility not to abuse them.”

Mr. Williams is now the second consecutive Black American in the role. “Over here, they lift us,” he said. “They appreciate what we do. They see the talent that we have.”

Mr. Williams, in 2016, with Virgil Abloh, who as artistic director of Vuitton upended ideas of how a luxury house might function,Credit…Amy Sussman/WWD, via Getty Images

The Arnault family, he said, understands how crucial the Black American dollar and aesthetic has been to the growth and cachet of Louis Vuitton: “One hundred percent they know it,” he said. “We’ve had some conversations about how important the community is to them, and how being supportive to them is a natural and a prerequisite.”

He is looking to expand the house’s brand ambassador program beyond the usual musicians and actors to Black academics, Black authors, a Black astrophysicist, even a Black bass fishing champion.

“They have to be supportive of the culture because the culture contributes to the bottom line,” he said.

A New Humility

There are some things that Mr. Williams simply will not say. In public settings, at least, he speaks with the deliberateness of someone who wants no word to be misapprehended. His sunglasses stay on. (“I need something for myself,” he said.) Rhetorically, he returns to familiar narratives and motifs — the seismic changes in his life every 10 years, the eternal quest for learning, the continuing practice of gratitude.

“He never speaks the truth of himself, and I hate it,” said Pusha T, who has known Mr. Williams for three decades. “It’s my pet peeve about him. He knows he’s great at things, but he wants that to walk him through the door versus him saying, ‘Hey guys, come on. Let me through.’”

Squint hard, though, and you may see the faintest flickers of the mid-2000s Pharrell Williams, a more boisterous and boasty person. A whiff of the old self popped out in a video Mr. Williams posted in late January, backstage at the Kenzo show with Nigo, when he knew he was on the verge of signing his contract. “You know what rhymes with 2023? Money money tree,” he said into his phone camera, nodding intensely. He didn’t lick his lips, but he might as well have.

When the appointment was announced, Tyler, the Creator, a longtime acolyte and style guru in his own right, FaceTimed Mr. Williams. “He just has this look he gives me where he kind of just goes like, ‘Yeahhhh, I did that.’ He didn’t say anything,” Tyler said. “And then he gave me the praying hands.”

Mr. Williams performing at Roseland in New York in 2004. Credit…Rahav Segev for The New York Times

On his 2006 mixtape “In My Mind: The Prequel,” a dizzying display of Dionysian ostentation, a peacock at the peak of his peacocking, Mr. Williams rapped, “We wanted this life, we salivated like wolves/ Blow a hundred grand on LV leather goods.”

Mr. Williams almost flinched at the memory: “I was greeeeeasy on that.”

Now, he said, “I promise you I really love being humble.” But luxury fashion is not a business built on humility, and Mr. Williams is keen to make a splash.

The theme of his debut show, Mr. Williams said, will be “lovers.” The first inklings of his vision emerged in April, at a Virginia festival that Mr. Williams organizes called Something in the Water, for which Vuitton made merch. It was received coolly.

Of potential negative criticism, Mr. Williams pleads equanimity. “I’m a student — students learn,” he said.

Mr. Henson said he didn’t think Mr. Williams was expecting any “grace or favor” because of who he is. “He’s expecting even more criticism and harsh critique,” he said.

Mr. Williams shrugged. “It’s not where my mind is, just because I think I err on the side of working with master artisans, and we’re just literally working on the details,” he said.

Staying Curious

An afternoon with Mr. Williams in creative director mode is a little bit like playing a first-person shooter. Requests pop in from unexpected directions, at erratic rhythms. Just when things get calm, someone emerges from around a corner with a mood board, or a vintage garment and a swatch of fabric it might be reimagined in. After being shown a hood with a novel but useful zipper, Mr. Williams nodded. “I don’t want anything to be just for aesthetics,” he said. “Everything has to have a real function.”

For the second day in a row, he was wearing a Mickey Mouse T-shirt by Human Made, this time underneath a soft black leather biker jacket, and his flared jeans were in a Damier pattern.

A tailor brought out a mock-up of a double-breasted blazer for Mr. Williams to try on. One of the designers asked if he wanted “a very sartorial pocket” added to the design.

“Sartorial,” Mr. Williams said. “Do you follow that guy on Instagram? The Sartorialist?”

At the Louis Vuitton workshop in the days before his debut collection is unveiled. Credit…Sam Hellmann for The New York Times

For his first collection, he is leaning heavily on the checkerboard Damier print but reworking it in clever ways — digital camo or, in Mr. Williams’s parlance, “damouflage,” and tweaking the colors away from the familiar browns and grays.

“Every season it’s going to be a different colorway,” he said, likening the playfulness to Takashi Murakami’s neon monogram print during the Jacobs era. The soles of various shoes will be a modified Damier pattern. On a conference table were a pair of damoflage sweatsuits set aside for his parents (“My dad is a player,” he said.)

Mr. Williams, who made waves in 2007 with his oversize purple crocodile Hermès Haut à courroies bag, is most tickled by the opportunity to innovate on the Speedy, which he is remaking in several primary colors, and also in an exaggerated, oversize silhouette. A yellow Speedy in meltingly soft leather sat on the pool table that serves as an impromptu work space in the atelier, almost slumping under its own very light weight.

“I want to give you that same experience that you get when you go to Canal Street, a place that has appropriated the house for decades, right?” Mr. Williams said. “Let’s reverse it. Let’s get inspired by the fact that they’ll make some colorways that the house has never made. But then let’s actually make it the finest of leather.”

The day before, Mr. Williams had taken a moment to chat about designing a custom look for Naomi Campbell, including a zipped sports bra and zipped miniskirt, all in monogrammed leather (“’60s vibes, go-go”), and debating skirt lengths. “It’ll work, but I don’t know if it’ll be as sexy,” he said.

He also surveyed a pair of ship-shaped bag options, one steamer-like, one a bit shorter, and picked from various trim color and font options. “This seems to be the crispiest,” he said, pointing to a white trim. He held one bag in each hand, then handed them to Nigo, who stomped off down the office in a mock model walk.

What Nigo did for Mr. Williams two decades ago, Mr. Williams is now doing for those who grew up admiring him.

“Me and him have a 20-year difference in age and man, what that does for me at my age is like, oh, it’s still no ceilings,” Tyler said. “To see someone at his age with his milestones, with his résumé, to not only still strive for a new world, stay curious, look for something new and something to challenge himself and let his creativity bleed into something else aside from just a drum pattern. And then actually get it. He not only strived for and did it, but actually nailed it — it means so much to me.”

Mr. Williams’s new designs include printed leather jerseys and rugbys, quilted denim, Mao-neck blazers and ghillie camo with LV logo cutouts. He was excited to walk to the back of the studio, where the footwear designers work, and go over some eccentric ideas: Mary Janes and bowling shoes, a stone-encrusted snowboard boot, a design that initially scanned as a soccer sneaker but is actually a hard-bottom shoe. “I ain’t even gonna lie,” he said. “I was trying to do that at Adidas for years.”

A little earlier, he was in front of his window, where he’d set up a small studio, and while fiddling with his Keystation 88 — a keyboard and sound controller — he asked his engineer to cue up a new song, tentatively called “Chains ’n Whips,” that he was considering using as part of the show’s soundtrack. Over a fusillade of psych-rock guitar flourishes, Pusha T rapped along to a pointed line in the chorus: “Beat the system with chains and whips!”

“That was made in this room,” Mr. Williams said. “We just start walking around and looking out this window and you just see all of this. I mean, we beating this system, bro.”

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