Fixed to a gallery wall in New York City, are a pair of Nike Air Force 1 sneakers adorned in Louis Vuitton’s trademark Damier chequerboard. They’re assigned the number 1 because the design is the one Virgil Abloh – the brand’s late men’s artistic director, who died in November 2021 – wore himself. They, along with the other 46 Air Force 1 sneakers Abloh created for his Spring-Summer 2022 collection, are currently on display in an exhibition at the Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse in Brooklyn: it runs until 31 May. The public showcase marks the commercial launch of the Louis Vuitton and Nike collaboration, which will take place in June.
The sneakers have enjoyed an auspicious journey to the shopfloor. In February, 200 sneakers from the collection were auctioned through Sotheby’s to benefit Abloh’s Post-Modern Scholarship Fund. They raised $25.3 million, averaging $126,500 a box. The American artist Kid Cudi acquired three pairs for himself: one to wear, one to look at, and one to store. The demand for the nine limited-edition colourways Louis Vuitton will release this summer is expected to be so feverish that sales have been limited to the brand’s e-commerce channel only.
As far as footwear goes, their €2,000 price tag (€2,500 for the high-tops) sounds prohibitively expensive: to sneaker aficionados the investment will give them no cause for concern at all. A 1985 pre-production sample of Nike’s first shoe for Michael Jordan sold at auction for $560,000 in 2020. A Nike Air Yeezy 1 prototype, worn by rapper Kanye West on stage at the 2008 Grammy awards sold for $1.8mn.
The exhibition, as with the activations that will accompany it, is both physical and digitally immersive. Visitors are greeted with the words “DREAM NOW” as they enter the exhibition, but many of the features exhibited within it are best explored on screen. Inside, the material version of each sneaker design appears in various digital forms next to the real sneaker: a kind of hologram that responds to the movement of your hands, so you can pull the shoes apart and put them back together again. At the back of the gallery stands a massive treehouse furnished like Abloh’s rue du Pont Neuf studio, complete with DJ decks and vitrines holding some of the most precious of the “Air Force 1” designs – fur, graffiti, optical white leather. All were manufactured in Louis Vuitton’s workshops in Fiesso d’Artico using the materials Abloh developed for the Spring-Summer 2022 collection, which was shown in June last year.
“It’s completely not a shoe. It’s an art object. It doesn’t even need to be on someone’s feet,” Abloh explained to me last summer. “It distils everything I’m saying into an object. The ‘Air Force 1’ is a basketball shoe, but through hip-hop culture it has energised a representative sculpture. It means a lot to very specific people.”
As a designer who grew up surrounded by Chicago’s hip-hop community, Abloh developed his practice of merging wardrobe pieces defined as streetwear with the codes of the fashion establishment early on. It’s an approach he continued to employ at Louis Vuittton: which he saw as part of a cultural resolution of sorts. A mood board in the exhibition shows the scope of his many references: a picture of the hip-hop artist DJ E-Z Rock’s 1988 album cover for It Takes Two on which he was shown wearing an Air Force 1 altered with a Nike swoosh in the Louis Vuitton monogram, created by the Harlem designer Dapper Dan.
Abloh was fascinated by the cross pollination of high fashion and brand collaborations. “Look at fashion today: the idea of switching brands, the hack, the writing ‘fake’ on something,” he said last summer, indirectly referring to collaborations like Gucci and Balenciaga’s “The Hacker Project” and Fendace”, the capsule collection fusing Fendi and Versace’s brand iconography. “It’s so exciting to the formalised fashion world, but on the other side of the train tracks it’s already been iterated on. That was in the ‘80s: Dapper Dan, hip-hop.”
To Abloh, the “Air Force 1” project wasn’t simply about tapping into the lucrative sneaker market, but to highlight and celebrate the black subcultures that conceived these ideas. Abloh’s quotes are splashed across the walls in the exhibition: “Who did it first? Where did they get the idea? Is it new?”
As a natural link in the promotion of Louis Vuitton’s Spring-Summer 2022 men’s collection – which will be on sale this summer – the event is also an illustration of how Abloh’s ideas and ambitions can live on. “We’ve been working with Virgil throughout his time at Vuitton, we have lots of ideas we’d been working on that we never got to do. We banked all of it,” said Faye Mcleod, the director of what Abloh called the “Ideation Studio”, behind this show. “We designed this tree house for a pop-up store in Shanghai. And Virgil was like, ‘Wow, wow, wow’.” With shows such as this, the studio has been able to bring more of his unfulfilled ideas to fruition. “I’m so glad we got to build it. I really hope his legacy lives. His magic touched us all.”