Virgil Abloh, designer of Off-White and Louis Vuitton, leaves behind a fashion legacy
Certain terms crop up from time to time at particular times in pop culture: “Curator” is one that is recently been used to describe a multitude of creative tasks unrelated to its historical use; âCreatorâ or âcreatorâ as a name is another which quickly established itself. Using such words can be empowering, giving names and forms to concepts that might otherwise seem beyond our grasp.
These terms are also criticized; they can be limiting, holding some people back while rejecting others. But in this liminal space, there is room to trace paths, to draw new worlds, to … as Octavia Butler said – you write.
Virgil Abloh, who died of rare heart cancer on November 28 at the age of 41, played the opposite in language and art; his label, Off-White, is literally named after the space between polarities. As black creative production has done for centuries, he bent language, played with it, inflated it, pushed it to its limits to see what words could do, to see what was. possible else.
He adamantly resisted boxes – unless, of course, he could write “SHOE BOXâOn them in all caps and with quotes. Both / and it was all part of Abloh’s goal. From this middle space, this feeling of swinging the line, people clapped, others laughed at his mind, and others criticized because they weren’t impressed, disappointed or expected more from him. In short, it got people talking.
Never one to follow all the rules, Abloh’s very presence – and most notably his appointment as the first black designer to head a Louis Vuitton branch – has pushed back the grammar of a fashion system that has so long excluded blacks. He chose the word “maker” to describe his profession, which covered a multitude of mediums, starting with his background in engineering and architecture which then merged into his love of music and design.
Able to wear many hats, in the early 2000s Abloh balanced his work at an architectural firm in Chicago with writing for a streetwear blog called Shine, offering details on his recent purchases, design opinions and getaways through major events in fashion and the arts (by this time he had already started his famous acquaintance with Kanye West). Calum Gordon, written for Garage in 2018, linked Abloh’s blog posts to the manifestation of his earlier designs, from the silkscreen printing of the name of his first fashion brand “Pyrex 23” on Ralph Lauren Rugby shirts to his use of quotes on everything from Nike Air Jordans to a “Lewis Vuitton” jumpsuit and jacket he designed for his mid-career retrospective Figures of speech in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago.
Such aesthetic movements fell under the rubric of Abloh’s controversial “3%” approach – the idea, as he told Doreen St. Felix in 2019 for the New Yorker, that you can create a new design by modifying the original by 3%. These practices are also what constantly put it under fire. For him to spell words in Helvetica fonts and placing quotes around them on any object that caught his eye (or that he had been hired to design) meant that a sneaker was not just a sneaker; it was more of a “SNEAKER”. Speaking of his use of quotes, Abloh told Fast Company in 2019, âIt’s a device, it’s a contextualization of a word without going into the design. It was always made for that. I may or may not be both literal and figurative.
In his historic role as Creative Director of Louis Vuitton Men’s, Abloh continued to experiment with terms and language, moving the fashion house forward in convincing and increasingly sophisticated ways. For his fall / winter 2021 show, he was inspired by James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village”, first published in Harper’s in 1953, then in his book Notes on an Aboriginal son in 1955. In the play, Baldwin discusses his experience as the only black person in a small Swiss village, which then prompts contrasts and comparisons with his experiences as a black man in the United States. In his opening sentence, Baldwin writes: âAccording to all the available evidence, no black man had ever set foot in this small Swiss village before I arrived.
As written in show notes for this season’s collection, Abloh drew on Baldwin’s experiences and critiques to investigate “the unconscious biases instilled in our collective psyche by the archaic norms of society.” For the video component of the show, Abloh branched off her trail, filming models and performers in a village in the Swiss mountains and on a set in Paris.
Exploring archetypes like Writer, Artist, Wanderer, among others, there were spoken word performances by Saul Williams and Kai Isaiah Jamal, and musical performances by Yasiin Bey. In a review of Sarah Mower from VogueAbloh said of the collection, which also included a printed fabric reminiscent of his Ghanaian heritage but covered with the Louis Vuitton monogram: âThere are a lot of stories that mix cultures. And from there, a new language will be created.
Of all the archetypes mentioned, one is eager to wonder if Abloh considered himself, the Creator, to be an alien of some sort. While in Baldwin’s essay no black man had set foot in the Swiss village, none had taken on the role Abloh had assumed at Louis Vuitton. One can only imagine what it must have been like to be one of the few in this world of luxury – a bastion of excess and exclusion – who for so long had not cared about prospects and prospects. experiments of blacks on fashion.
Towards the end of the essay, Baldwin writes, âIt remains for him to shape from his experience what will give him nourishment and a voice,â and perhaps Abloh saw something in this line as well.
Baldwin was certainly not referring to literal fashion, but one could connect the dots that lead to the heart of what Abloh said is his responsibility as a designer “to a community trying to change the trend.” ” In a audio component that accompanied Abloh Figures of speech, his collaborator and friend Tremaine Emory said of Abloh’s design sensibility: âHe took what he had, a little bit meager, and did something beautiful because he was telling a storyâ¦ this what we have to say is important and what is important to us is important. This is streetwear for me. It is communication, language.
Go back to the opposite nature of language: It’s hard to find what to say during some of the most difficult times, including grieving. How do you mourn a person with whom you have never had a personal relationship, never met? How do you pay homage to someone whose artistic practices were both thorny and revered? How do you remember someone who had apparently done everything and had just started? Maybe we are doing what he did: make, create.
What Abloh has shown is what language does, what it prompts to do. Throughout his short but industry-defining career, Abloh wrote his own lexicon that was often open to criticism and always up for grabs (because he sort of wanted it like that).
He is undoubtedly part of a cohort of black designers who have inspired black youth, especially Gen Z and Millennials, to describe themselves as creatives – a term that leaves a bit of space to shape-shift, experiment, explore, go wrong if you need to multiple times. In Abloh’s lexicon, you can create your own line of t-shirts and never just make a t-shirt out of it. Instead, entire communities of belonging can be formed around one. Now it’s a T-shirt.”
Rikki Byrd is a writer, educator and curator living in Chicago.