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  • Writer's pictureBill Fischer

Why Louis Vuitton's Choice of Pharrell Williams As Men's Creative Director is So Inspired

but there are so many reasons to celebrate Louis Vuitton’s choice of Pharrell Williams as its new creative director for men’s fashions, and to assume the role that became vacant with the tragic loss of Virgil Abloh.

In yesterday’s announcement, Louis Vuitton chairman and chief executive officer Pietro Beccari said “The way in which he [Williams] breaks boundaries across the various worlds he explores aligns with Louis Vuitton’s status as a Cultural Maison, reinforcing its values of innovation, pioneer spirit and entrepreneurship.” These are exactly the sorts of values that we will be seeking more of in our complex organizations, no matter what the industry, and therefore it is not an exaggeration to suggest Pharrell Williams epitomizes many of the characteristics of creative leadership that will be key to innovative success in the twenty-first century.

A brief review of some of these characteristcs reveals not only why the choice was such a promising one, but also what other industries, besides fashion, might consider in choosing innovative leaders for their future:

Pharrell isn’t an insider to the fashion industry: Remember, disruption always starts at the edges. In so many ways, Pharrell Williams has been on the edges of the hip-fashion scene for quite a while, and, for sure, he was not one of the fashion-namesconsidered to be the front-runners in filling this position. This is a good example of hiring talent for what they have done, rather than where they did it. Williams, by the very outfits he sports, has certainly influenced popular fashion, and Louis Vuitton has not shied away from selecting leadership with unconventional backgrounds. Abloh was educated as a civil engineer and in architecture, and Williams is best known for his music triumphs, notably songs as popular as “Happy.” In an age where Ferrari’s new CEO comes from semi-conductors, having a popular music icon as creative director seems to bestow a creative edge to a venerable fashion house.

Pharrell is not entirely an outsider either: If Williams is not a fashion-insider, neither is he really an outsider. After all, he co-founded the Billionaire Boys Club, and has worked with, among others: Channel, Tiffany, Nike and Adidas. Even more important, Pharrell has long been an ambassador of hip-hop’s cultural vitality, which has profoundly influenced fashion, and few play that role as well as Williams does. Do yourself a favor and watch the “Happy” video yet again; look at all the costume changes that Williams makes, and each looks great on him!

Williams is a neo-generalist, T-shaped connector: Vogue has referred to Pharrell Williams as a “multi-hyphenate musician and entrepreneur” and that “multi-hyphenate” tells it all. Neither a specialist, nor a pure generalist, Williams, is a true neo-generalist, someone who feels comfortable in more one expertise domain, and who, as a result, is able to transfer ideas from one to the other, to create change. In their book, The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin, have added the sub-title “Where You Go is Who You Are,” and bemoan how traditional labels all too often constrain our potential to contribute our ideas. It is instructive that neither Abloh and Williams allowed such funneling to define their career trajectories, and laudatory that Louis Vuitton has not been bothered by them, either, in their hiring choices.

Williams is an experimenter: So much of what is happening today involves navigating the unknown, and that inevitably calls for experimentation; experimentation has been at the heart of many of Williams’ success. His best-known musical hit is the song “Happy,” which he wrote for the movie Despicable Me 2. According to Williams, it was not a slam-dunk project success: “nine songs in, they were like ‘this isn’t right, this doesn’t work’, so I’m bummed out … my ego is shot … but we get to the tenth one and at that point I had nothing else”; fortunately, the tenth worked. An even bigger experiment, however, was the eleven-day making of the twenty-four hour “Happy” video, featuring 400 people, some random, some not, lip-syncing and dancing four-minute versions of the title song. All of this fits-in with an underlying awareness of Williams’ that “If anything, I've learned that I'm not in control. I'm not in control. And as much as we think we are as artists, …. we're going to do this, we're going to do that, and really at the end of the day it's the fans that make that determination.” So, inviting fans in to interpret the song as they feel it, made abundant sense, and made the whole effect of the video, and ultimately the song, as well, so much better.

Williams is an ecosystem builder: Somewhere along the way, Pharell Williams admitted that while he, alone, wrote the song, it was the thousands of collaborators, who made it theirs, that made the song such a success; “Happy” is as much the success of the people who are joyously dancing in the video, as it is the author’s. Out of this, comes an ecosystem of shared-involvement that is arguably unparalleled in popular culture; as of this writing, more than one billion, one-hundred million viewings of the “Happy” video have been recorded on YouTube. Only an experimental, neo-generalist, willing to give up illusions of creative control, could have achieved this. Mary Kaye Schilling, of Fast Company, suggested that the result is that a secret of Williams’ innovative success is that he “aspires to something like Andy Warhol's Factory, a hive of creativity that is also profitable, with a heavy dose of altruism." Not such a bad outcome for a fashion house seeking to be innovative and successful in the marketplace.

Five key traits, outsider and insider, neo-generalist, experimenter and ecosystem-builder, fit very nicely with what is needed to turn Louis Vuitton’s values of innovation, pioneer spirit and entrepreneurship, from aspirations to reality. While they do not necessairily guarantee Pharrell Williams’ future success as an organizational creative director, they are very much in-line what contemporary observers see as traits we need more of in innovation leadership for the future. In addition, and not to be under-estimated, is that Pharrell Williams lives his craft as a creative catalyst, in everything he does; innovation is his life-style. He exemplifies what we hope for in an innovative leader, not only for fashion, but for every industry.

This originally appeared on on February 15, 2023

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