Exploring the Virgil Abloh Impact
(Photo: REUTERS/Benoit Tessier)
Virgil Abloh had many creative faces - visionary, architect, designer, artists revolutionary and one of the most influential African-American designers of his generation and beyond, and his stratospheric rise within the creative sphere. From wingman to Kanye West, he designed the merchandise and cover art; setting up his own brand heralded as a ”vision of Virgil”; reaching the apex of luxury fashion by taking on the role of Men’s Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton, the first black African American to do so, and reworking the definition of streetwear. Abloh who powerfully declared, “In some ways, my life has been one big performance art project, it’s not me at the centre stage but rather suggesting interesting ideas, working on them, helping an artist share them with the world and watching the response - using that mood to influence and inject new ideas”, was the physical embodiment of what could happen when the American Dream and fashion industry collide.
After graduating in Civil Engineering from the University of Wisconsin, completing a Master’s in architecture, interning at Fendi alongside Kanye West in the Summer of 2009, and opening his first brand, Pyrex vision in 2009, his first paint stroke (quote mark?) of notoriety began with Off-White. Built off of the foundations of his architecture degree with the aesthetic focused on diagonal black, white architectural lines, industrial style garments and the now famed quote marks which O32c’s Editor in Chief Thom Bettridge announced as “one of the many tool s that Abloh uses to operate in a mode of ironic detachment…Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations on favour of the copy-paste logic of the internet and its inhabitants. His new order is projected by a fortress of irony”. That wasn’t a metaphor riddled statement but one the designer took quite literally to the heart of his brainchild Off White. For his first collection staged inside a gallery in the Marais, Abloh was enlightened by Nicolas Ghesquiére’s “Join a wild trip” artistic stroke from Balenciaga’s Fall/Winter 2012/13 collection, enthralled by the concept of meshing together streetwise and logo mania, the concept become the emblem off Off White. The reveal co-existed with another seismic shift that was tearing throughout the wider fashion industry. Demands from consumers for fashion to adapt itself and reinterpret the at the time pretentious idea of elevated luxury saw the birth of streetwear, and a gravitation from consumers to Abloh’s Off-White, a brand which at the time had partnered with Levis, the designer declaring “I like the idea of couture Levis denim”.
“The whole show was based around this premise, this writing on the wall”, ‘Why are you here?’, Abloh explained at the time. “It’s my synopsis of fashion week. After the first show you go out to dinner and say, ‘What did you see?’ Everyone’s like ‘Oh, nothing’. ‘What’s really great?” ‘Oh nothing’. That’s why I started designing. It’s up to us to design something that’s good for people to look at. We can’t just complain”.
In 2015 Off-White was nominated for the LVMH prize and by 2015 when the industry underwent its usual card deck creative shuffle, this time within the menswear sector, Abloh was championed by Kim Jones to take on the role of Men’s Artistic Director at French fashion house Louis Vuitton. Alongside Balmain’s Creative Director Olivier Rousteing, he was inducted into a small guard of black designers who had a leading creative role within a Parisian fashion house.
(Photo: Sebastian Kim)
The afternoon on the 21st of June 2018, Abloh debuted his prophetical Spring/ Summer 2019 collection for Louis Vuitton, in front of 1,000 guests and 1,500 students on a prismatic runway at the Palais Royal. The show imagined the abstraction of “accessomorphosis” which the designer explained as the transformation of an accessory into a garment, apt for a house which in its young years designed steamer trunk. Accessomorphosis also formed the base of the 56-piece collection christened “We Are the World”, a reference to the 1985 charity single in support of Ethiopian famine relief. Psychedelic prints and shades cascaded down the runway, leather vests embossed with the LV logo, leather harnesses, fencing utilitarian vests and jackets with multiple pockets. Louis Vuitton being a heritage house with its DNA firmly entrenched in accessories, all eyes were of course firmly focused on what the models were carrying by their sides, over their shoulders and around their torsos, Abloh took the house’s signature silhouettes, the keepall, Runner, Petite Malle (a miniature version of the steam trunk from the 18880s) and translated them for the contemporary men and women, in vibrant reds, blues and iridescent plastics with black chain handles and hardware embellishments.
“Look around this room”, the African American designer declared - a child of Ghanaian Immigrants from a neighbourhood in Chicago. “There are people around this room who look like me, you never saw that before in fashion. The people have changed so fashion had to”. By people Abloh was referring to the consumers, who drove the idea of reimagining what fashion was and who got to tell its story.
Abloh’s impact travelled will also be remembered as travelling beyond the design studios. It was during one of his first interviews before his inauguration into the world of Louis Vuitton that the designer enthused “But all of a sudden, because I’m here, he knows he can do it too. That’s why the Harvard lecture exists. I’m not doing that for myself. I’m doing to be a beacon of hope for someone. This is the legacy of any artist or creative: you want to make sure that your work makes an impact”. His greatest design was the creation of opportunity for others hoping to breach the titanium walls of fashion and society. In 2017, he designed a soccer kit for Melting Passes, a team of players who had immigrated from Paris, and whose lack of residency excluded them from playing officially, Virgil later included them within the audience at an Off-White presentation, there were 3,000 students at his inaugural Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2019 fashion show and his website had a pop up with the quote “FREE GAME” containing 12 categories where he offered free mentorship to prospective creatives.
In 2020 he set in motion the “Post Modern scholarship Fund” in response to the Black Lives Matter movement that had gained prominence during the summer before, to support black students hoping to pursue a career within the fashion industry and raise funds for black owned businesses.
During one of his penultimate interviews before his death from cardiac angiosarcoma, the designer proclaimed that “i operate by my own rules, in my own logic and I’m not fearful”, the declaration later drove him to see the fashion industry as a vessel for change. This was as he described, “making a global community regardless of the elitism of sort of territorial-ness that can happen in subculture”.
Abloh was driven by the possibility of a changed world. During the shaw interview he excitedly discussed using technology to create an alternative world in which “humanity can be a sort of utopia”.
(Photo: Christophe Meimoon)
“And that’s why I focus on design, while I’m also focusing on asking what and who can I shine a light on. You know it’s not just about making art or fashion for its own sake: there are kids in Accra who can become attached and engaged in the skateboarding community if someone builds a bridge. And there are kids in the South Side of Chicago that need education and health: how does what I’m doing tie into that? What’s the bridge for that? That’s sort of the ethos of my career. You know, I started the Post-Modern Scholarship Fund and raised a million dollars to help in the education of black students. Those things, they’re critical to me.”, the multi-disciplinarian added.
Abloh’s final collections were the physical embodiment of that very mindset which carried him through decades in the industry.
Set inside a revamped 19th century industrial building and set against the background of a blue model house with a vibrant fire engine red roof, Abloh’s final posthumous collection for Louis Vuitton took place. Reflections of gender binaries, the stalwart idea of what defined identity and expressions was turned on its head, Louis Dream-house was an alternative dimension which explored “originality, provenance, reference and self-reference”. Masculinity and womanliness clashed, and guidelines were eradicated. Models emerged wearing domineering tailored suits with extra wide shoulders, tulle skirts, and saccharine coloured puffer jackets, through the show Abloh appeared to be eradicating and developing the notion of masculinity and humanity. Etherial wings constructed from lace, tule and cotton poplin accentuated the notion of ‘rebirth’.
Off White Autumn/Winter 2022 was Virgil’/s final collection and an echo of Ablohisms. Christened “Imaginary Experience” dedicated “to cultural reinterpretation and transformation as a means of instigating a new dialogue and format of the future”. The show was split into two parts with the first dedicated to exploring Abloh’s version of a more “adult” Off White, which was prominent than ever; one model strutted out in an introspective monochromatic charcoal blazer paired with trousers, a skirt and lace up derbies, part of a new collaboration with Churches the heritage man’s shoe brand. Models came out carrying billowing foreshadowing white flags stamped with “QUESTION EVERYTHING”, the show’s most transparent tribute to a metaphorical man. Besides the bag’s bearing the Off-White badge’s the enduring messages were classicism and fluidity, Herringbone tailored suit sets were paired with cut out subversive basic tank top’s flashing a hint of the male model’s chest and layers underneath. Models were decked out in slouchy check suits with pleated and Tull skirts flowing around tailored trousers which sat underneath, the whole presentation was the culmination of Abloh’s long held fascination with tailoring during his final years, calling for a human fluid approach to dress unconstrained by sex. At one stage, Serena William’s strutted out clad in a figure-hugging net dress over a the dye form fitting bodysuit.
The true fireworks though, happened during part two. After Abloh’s models and muses, rapper Jim Jones and skater Ishod Wair, cleared the pure white spherical runway, singer Ian Isiah with a cigarette in hand and outfitted in a black velvet tuxedo waltzed to the centre and trumpeted the first collection for Off White Haute Couture. As techno titan Jeff Mill’s sounded his house music - 30 iconic models, including Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford proceeded to strut and pose in the room wearing vampy tulle skirts paired with cropped blazers, varsity sweatshirts and graphic-shirts and varsity jackets with each look named to represent a character of femininity, Abloh introduced views to, The Bride, The Businesswoman and the Diva, all female emblems of sexual and societal power with their feed shoed in stiletto heels and athleticism enthused sneakers with bags emblazoned with “LIFE” and “BAG DESIGNED BY OFF WHITE”, swaying by their sides.