Virgil Abloh on his Rimowa collaboration: 'My premier position is to translate brand into current culture'

Virgil Abloh in a campaign for Rimowa in October 2018

When American designer Virgil Abloh landed the job as artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, one of the highest profile jobs in fashion, he wanted a younger generation to know "there's someone listening," he told British Vogue.

The 164-year-old French fashion house owned by the LVMH luxury conglomerate and known for its monogrammed leather goods, hired Abloh in March, with Louis Vuitton Chair and CEO Michael Burke praising his disruptive approach to fashion and popular culture.

It's also this millennial-friendly style that attracted German brand Rimowa to Abloh, a LVMH majority-owned luggage company that hired the designer to star in a campaign video for its 120th anniversary. The film, released Tuesday, shows Abloh's musings on travel as he leaves a hotel room and takes a flight.

"My premier position is just to translate brand into current culture… The brands that I choose to work with are usually best in category and they also have some heritage to them," Abloh told CNBC on the phone as he waited for a flight from Chicago to Paris. "And my goal is to sort of articulate that heritage in a new refreshing way to a younger consumer."

Last week, Abloh hosted an Ikea pop-up shop in Paris to tease his rug collection with the store. He designed the Nike tutu outfit Serena Williams wore at this year's U.S. open and has a radio show with Apple Music. He documents some of his collaborations on Instagram, where he has 3 million followers, and said he's thinking about what an even younger generation will want from brands.

"My baseline consumer can sometimes be 12 years old and, you know, that is an incredible task, but I like the challenge of translating a brand that could be 100 years old to someone who's 12. I specialize in that." But he added that good design in general should work for all ages.

Abloh was born to Ghanaian parents and grew up in Rockford, Illinois, and calls himself a "citizen of the globe" in the Rimowa video. "Being a citizen of the globe is sort of being at home traveling. It's being comfortable with the idea that things aren't the same all over the world. If the world adopted some sort of attitude just as such, there would be less division amongst human beings," he says.

He said this is not a political statement but more about understanding different cultures, when asked by CNBC. "It's not political by any means, it's just an observation if you travel the world and mix and see different cultures, you can become one with the world."

Designer Virgil Abloh stars in an ad for suitcase brand Rimowa, September 2018

LVMH bought an 80 percent stake in Rimowa for 640 million euros (then $716 million) in 2016 and is run by Alexandre Arnault (one of the sons of LVMH's billionaire CEO Bernard Arnault) and Dieter Morszeck, grandson of Rimowa's founder.

Abloh said that Alexandre Arnault, as well as Rimowa's Chief Brand Officer Hector Muelas and the film's director Dexter Navy, share his idea that advertising campaigns should not simply be product shots on billboards. "We are part of a generation that is rethinking campaigns, campaigns that have sort of gotten to be like a dirty word in a way, with sort of like here, hold this product, put the image on a billboard, and hopefully people buy it because they see an image," he said in a video interview Rimowa released as part of the brand campaign.

But Abloh's video is not necessarily a film that will directly sell products, in a world where marketers are under pressure to prove their campaigns lead to short-term sales. "In my mind, you know, there is sort of two types of commercial. One that's sort of like directly selling a product. And then there's another type which is sort of framing up the product and messaging, why this product exists and what makes it special," Abloh told CNBC.

"I would say that this commercial is the latter of those two scenarios. It's about the people behind the product and the types of people that connect with the product and connect with the brand."

Serena Williams on new Nike clothing line
Serena Williams on new Nike clothing line

While the campaign film shows Abloh using a Rimowa case, the focus is his reflections on the experience of traveling. "Everyone is talking about this shift from property ownership to experience ownership," Alexandre Arnault told the Financial Times in January, and he hinted the company might expand beyond cases. "Rimowa could potentially be your one-stop destination, not only for travel goods but for services and recommendations," he said.

Abloh has long used Rimowa cases. When he founded his hip fashion label Off-White in 2013, the luggage company was one of the first he called to suggest a collaboration. In June, when the two launched a transparent case, it quickly sold out. More designs are in the works. "Our initial product got off to a great start. And sort of opened a lot of eyes, you know (to) what my language can bring to such a quality product and historic brand… We're still in phase one (of) working together and building a body of work," he told CNBC.

Tennis star Roger Federer, restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa, model and activist Adwoah Aboah and Dior jewelry designer Yoon Ahn also star in videos for Rimowa's anniversary campaign. "We selected a group of likeminded travelers that have embarked on ambitious, lifelong journeys, and that happen to be Rimowa customers," Muelas said in an emailed statement.