This summer, Virgil Abloh, the black artistic director at Louis Vuitton, found himself target practice when he criticised Black Lives Matter protesters for looting stores. When the designer also offered to match donations to an antiracism fund and posted a screenshot of a $50 (£39) contribution, he was lambasted for the “measly” amount. “What everyone ignored,” says Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s CEO, “was that this was Virgil’s first donation of many. Potentially he was opening himself up to contributing millions of dollars, but they didn’t give him three seconds before they attacked. The Twittersphere is close to a social lynching, but I believe eventually we’ll go back to more trusted, curated data”.
Louis Vuitton has had a tumultuous year with social media outrages over its handling of #BLM. It is stepping into another minefield by announcing its commitment to have 100 per cent of its raw materials responsibly sourced by 2025, eliminate single use plastic by 2030, foster diversity and act on climate change, taking in everything from cotton and viscose harvesting to equal opportunities.
In doing so it’s inviting intense scrutiny – and rightly so, because there is so much green washing in the fashion industry.
Burke, a thoughtful, generally upbeat 63-year-old, is not losing sleep about finding himself in a business that is now held to account about its moral viewpoint on everything from gender and race to its tanning process. “I’m proud of having to deal with all these new situations,” he tells me.
“I’ve been in this business 42 years and it was never just about economics. But now it’s about everything. I honestly believe it’s about leaving behind a better world. When it comes to environment and race, I think Louis Vuitton, because it’s so well known, is held to higher account than others but you’ll never hear me complain. If my job was just selling handbags, I’d have burned out very fast.”
Environmentalists hoping to hear Burke say that Louis Vuitton is about to ban fur (as Gucci, Versace and Michael Kors have) and exotic skins as Chanel has, or that leather is old fashioned (à la Stella McCartney), are in for a robust defence about the sustainability of both materials providing they’re farmed humanely and ethically. He is satisfied that this is the case with Vuitton.
“It’s not in any luxury label’s interests not to uphold good animal welfare,” he says. “If you look at alligators in the wild, their hides are wrecked. They’re vicious animals. You couldn’t use any of their skins. If you want beautiful, pristine materials, you have to treat the animals well. I can say 100 per cent hand on heart our animals are humanely farmed. And we’re protecting the habitat of exotics. If you really want to talk about animal welfare, speak to the food industry. Ninety per cent of the food out there should be banned.”
As someone charged with safeguarding – and growing – a 166-year-old luxury institution, Burke is familiar with most sides of the debate and scornful of brands making ethical claims that don’t hold up to examination. “Look at diamonds – is it better to stop mining them altogether, which would leave a country like Botswana high and dry, and cultivate them in a laboratory using who knows how much energy, or to find better ways to get them out of the ground?” he asks.
He’s good at delivering inarguable observations, and less interested in drilling down into the minutiae. When I ask how big Vuitton’s sustainability and ethics team is, he sounds almost affronted. “The entire company is signed up and absolutely educated in using certified, audited product,” he says. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t going to be an oops here and there. But you don’t look for excuses, you change it.”
The recent cruise collections included upcycled looks, complete with a looser, juicier LV logo designed to flag up their sustainable credentials. That’s a big leap from 10 years ago when “eco” clothes were seen as worthy and dull. Unlike other CEOs, he doesn’t claim that the impetus for ethical and sustainable change is coming from the customer. “It’s coming from the people who work for Louis Vuitton,” he says. “British consumers care about sustainability and animal welfare. I’d say the British are leading the way as consumers. But the majority of first time luxury consumers are not looking for ethics. What makes them loyal is when you show them behind the scenes.”
As megalithic fashion brands go, Vuitton is well placed to align itself with awakening sensibilities about the environment and welfare. It controls all its supply chains and was founded on the idea that it created not fashion, but heirlooms. It may mount colossal catwalk spectaculars, but if fashion is going out of fashion, Vuitton has plenty of heritage to fall back on.
“Everyone thinks Louis Vuitton’s big brainwave was the flat-topped trunk,” he says. “Wrong. It was to create an unpickable, customisable lock. Loyal customers could buy as much luggage as they needed, but all the locks would be the same on their set, so they only needed one key. And they were encouraged to bring their Vuitton back for repair even decades after they bought it.” The house still repairs half a million bags a year. “It costs us a fortune – we don’t make money on it but it’s central to our values,” concludes Burke.
Lisa Armstrong's column appears each Saturday in The Saturday Telegraph and is published online every Saturday at 7am on Telegraph Fashion.