Stranger in the Village

Louis Vuitton FW21
Fashion | 21 January 2021

Before almost suffering a mental breakdown, the writer James Baldwin travelled to the Swiss village of Leukerbad for his first time in the summer of 1951. He described the snowed landscape as “a white wilderness”. It is a precise expression in more ways than one, for no one living there had ever seen a Black person in the flesh before, and his 1953 essay Stranger in the Village conveys the noetic experience of such a profound alienation, and holds it as a mirror to the racist relations in America.

Under the helm of Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton’s FW21 unravels this restless experience, querying in the vain of Baldwin, “what is normal, and who has the privilege to look normal?”

The collection is titled “‘Ebonics / Snake Oil / The Black Box / Mirror, Mirror”. As a means of dramatising our conditioned biases toward strangers, it is structured through a sequence of archetypes, such as “the Artist”, “the Salesman”, “the Architect”, “the Drifter”, “Me”, “My Parents”. Each is animated through stylised silhouettes: broad shoulders and trailing coats, the nuanced peak of a cowboy hat. Rappers Saul Williams and Mos Def, alongside Black Cracker, Steven Sowah, boychild and Kandis Williams, brought the characters to life in a multidisciplinary performance film.

The objective was to “keep the codes, but change the values”. Irony, punning and riffing – what Abloh identifies as “Black cultural traditions” – make these subversions. Aphorisms by artist Lawrence Weiner stamp bag handles: “YOU CAN TELL A BOOK BY ITS COVER”, “SAME PLACE AT THE SAME TIME”, “SOMEWHERE SOMEHOW”. Ghanian Kente cloth is rendered in Scottish tartan to question both’s sense of provenance.

The answer? To Abloh, is in the mythology of ownership, a concept that pulses through racial discourse. There’s pages of such meaning to parse out from the collection – indeed, the label compiled a small-typefaced 70-page companion. It’s as Abloh worded in his 2020 manifesto: “Within my practice, I contribute to a Black canon of culture and art and its preservation. This is why, to preserve my own output, I record it at length.”

GALLERYCatwalk looks from this show