Fresh off his Louis Vuitton menswear debut, Pharrell Williams talks legacy, light and lvers

Straddling multiple creative fields comes easy for this 21st-Century renaissance man.

Harper's Bazaar India

It seemed like an impossible task. The biggest luxury fashion brand in the world, whose menswear division for the past few years has been a cultural hotrod when it was spearheaded by Virgil Abloh, the visionary disruptor, needed someone new in the driver’s seat. In his time there, Abloh broke down countless barriers and redefined what luxury looked like, along the way making space for people who’ve never been given a seat at the table. How do you fill shoes as gargantuan as that? The position of men’s creative director was left vacant for almost two years after Abloh’s passing while the House considered names from every corner of the industry. In the end, and in the spirit of Abloh, the brand went with a left-field choice in Pharrell Williams, the multi-hyphenate best known for his music, but who has also left an indelible mark in different domains of design, from Adidas all the way to Chanel. 

When Williams’ appointment was announced this past February, it sparked off an intense debate about traditional training vs. cultural credentials. The designer silenced naysayers with a spectacular debut in June that was part fashion show and part pop culture Event (yes, with a capital E)—attended by the likes of Rihanna (who is also the face of Williams’ debut Louis Vuitton campaign) and A$AP Rocky, Beyoncé and Jay-Z, along with a roll call of some of the biggest movers and shakers of our time. Shown on the iconic Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, Williams’ first collection for the House remixed long-established signatures such as the Damier check— given a pixelated, camouflage makeover—and the Speedy bag, turned out in pop brights and every size imaginable. Here in this exclusive Q&A, the designer and musician tells us about his vision for Vuitton, and the Black legacy he inherited and is now carrying forward.

HB: How did you approach your first collection for Louis Vuitton?

PW: In moments like this, when you’ve been chosen to do something, the sun is shining on you. The quintessential question that I ask myself all the time, and people I care about, is, “Hey, if the sun is shining on you, what would you do with the light?” When the sun shined on me for an opportunity like this, it changed my life. If I’m going to get this appointment, I’m going to use it to do two things: one, to share all my learnings as a perpetual student; and two, to share my love and appreciation. I’m choosing to shine a light back on this city, these people, all my friends here, who have kept me lifted all this time.

HB: What is the premise of the collection?

PW: For me, LV means LVERS. If you appreciate Louis Vuitton, you’re a lover of the curation. You love the product but deeper than that, it’s a love for the culture that embodies a like-mindedness of taste. The humans who wear Louis Vuitton have five modes: dandy, which is tailoring for business and events; comfort, which is what you wear at home and to the gas station; resort, for the beach; sport, for activity and working out; and finally, the core staples of the House, which I’m going to iterate on every season. It’s thinking across the board of the demographic. Everything you want to do, we made something for you.

HB: Why did you focus on the Damier pattern?

PW: I came into this wanting to make some indelible marks, the first of which was: I know the Monogram is historically a very dominant force within the House. I have the Bastille bag in Damier, I have shoes and boots in Damier. I saw it as an opportunity. The fact that it has the chessboard setup, we could use the grid as a platform to play with different artistic techniques. The first was to treat the blocks like 8-bit Atari graphics. I worked with ET Artist, who’s really good at it. The super powerful one is the Damoflage, which fuses Damier and camo. I wanted to make a print that makes people say, “Okay, that’s P. And that’s Damier.”

HB: Why reimagine the Speedy bag for your first campaign?

PW: It was always a men’s canvas bag until they made a smaller version for Audrey Hepburn in 1965. I wanted to take something I felt would be unisex and just make a great bag for humans. It is an everyday icon conceived for every walk of life. It’s inspired by Canal Street in New York. It’s flipping it on its head. I want to come in on a bag level and make a splash. Primary colours are where you start. Then you see the bag has wrinkles in it and that it’s droopy, and you know instantly that it’s not a regular Speedy. That’s not canvas. It’s butter-soft leather. 

HB: How has your personal relationship with Louis Vuitton evolved over the years?

PW: I was introduced to Louis Vuitton through rappers and the aftermarket clothing by Dapper Dan in Harlem. You’d see rag tops on cars made out of Louis Vuitton bag materials. We were blown away by that. I never thought I would be able to afford it. I didn’t even know if I was necessarily interested in it because it was just so next level. I started working in music and as things evolved, I met Marc Jacobs. In 2004, he asked Nigo and me to collaborate on the Millionaire sunglasses. In 2008, Pietro Beccari, who was at Louis Vuitton at the time, asked me to design a jewellery collection for the House. My first foray into fashion was because of Marc’s generosity, and it only grew from my relationship with Pietro. Over the years, we stayed in touch. When he offered me the job as men’s creative director, I was excited, not only for the job, but to work with him again.