In a short video clip during Figures of Speech, Virgil Abloh’s show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) in Chicago, he mused on his upbringing and influences. Born the son of Ghanaian immigrants in a small town in Illinois, he discussed the wonders of growing up “in the middle of nowhere,” and the freedom it gave him to explore, and to create, without feeling beholden to any predominant ideology or method of production.
Chicago was located almost 100 miles east on the coast of Illinois, close enough for trips every now and then but far enough away that his artistic influences and point of view developed in tandem with and also independent of the city. His educational influences were many: he learned sewing and the business of clothes from his mother, a seamstress by trade, but like many first generation children of African immigrants, was pushed towards a more ‘stable’ career in the math and science fields. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering in 2002, and received a Master’s Degree in Architecture in 2006. He became disinterested in architecture shortly thereafter and interned at Fendi in Rome in 2009, a part of the cohort that also included rapper Kanye West (and he went on to become West’s de facto stylist and design collaborator.)
The very title of the show was a play on words, as meant to describe the influential figures of note in Abloh’s life: he idolized Chicago heroes like basketball player Michael Jordan, but also named such luminaries as rapper Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter, producer/clothier Pharrell and his partner in the BAPE fashion line, Nigo, and the iconic Seattle grunge band Nirvana. All were pictured in large-scale images impressed upon the walls at the entrance to the exhibit, among others (the Twin Towers aflame after the 9/11 attacks were also featured prominently). Each image included a blurb explaining the significance of the figure or event in Abloh’s life: Jay-Z’s, for example, stated “A musical hero to Abloh, Jay-Z eventually brought attention to Abloh’s Pyrex Vision and Off-White brands by wearing them to highly publicized events such as the So So Def 20th Anniversary Concert.”
High fashion has always walked hand in hand with high art, but several contemporary designers appear to careen down a path straight through the middle of the two, creating fashion as wearable art pieces and performance art masquerading as designer shows. Figures of Speech, seems a penultimate mixed-media spectacle of one such artist-designer that included video installations, paintings, sculptures, multimedia fine art pieces, and, of course, clothes; as previously mentioned, he also trained as an architect and engineer before moving on to fashion, and projects such as his architectural senior thesis – a scale model of a residential building on the edge of the Chicago River — were included, as well.
After passing through the entrance, the viewer immediately entered a hall where video clips of youth in his street wear brand Pyrex Vision brand played on an eternal loop. Abloh has long conceptualized his fashion brands as commentary on race, art, branding, and society, and this sensibility began with Pyrex, his very first line. Created by screen-printing Jordan’s basketball number, 23, on five dollar Hanes t-shirts and no name plaid shirts then selling them on his website for upwards of $200, Abloh produced a skewering artistic commentary on the nature of advertising and culture: he gave the shirts away for free to the low-income, majority-minority urban youth of cities like Chicago and New York, filming said video clips of them doing things like skating and standing around with the garments on, and then observed as the who’s who of hip-hop and fashion wore the pieces, skyrocketing them into the annals of mainstream cool. The line was often criticized as incredibly overpriced for what amounted to his now-signature block lettering and white symbols (oversized X’s, 23’s, horizontal lines across the top and bottom of a garment) on cheap tees, but Abloh was deliberately experimenting with the concept of branding, and how the very ‘idea’ of cool can increase the value of something that was previously seen as value-less. It was part performance art, part social experiment, and proved wildly successful in a time where everything from neighborhoods to vegetables can be deemed ‘trendy’ and see their price/monetary value skyrocket as others clamor to get in on it, and price out those who originally popularized it in the first place. After several years of selling the clothes, which never evolved beyond their simple design premise but remained popular, Abloh abruptly shut the line down and moved on.
Walking through the expansive exhibit, which looped around the entire first floor of the museum in a circle, one was able to witness firsthand the nature of Abloh as a chameleon designer known for reinventing his brands. Racks upon racks of clothes were dedicated to his famed Off-White line, street wear that was born out of the ashes of Pyrex and eventually partnered with Louis Vuitton (LV) when he became the artistic director for menswear at the famed fashion house. There were flashes of more sociopolitical commentary in the inspiration and execution of the pieces: an outfit designed for tennis superstar Serena Williams with her name printed on the side, an all-Black tulle tutu meant to deliberately flout tennis’ standard uniform of white pleated skirts and to accentuate Williams’ own blackness and curves; a windbreaker jacked created in collaboration with artist Arthur Jafa, with ‘Wakanda Never’ emblazoned across the back serving as contemplation of both artists disappointment in the film ‘Black Panther’ and its portrayal of Black Americans; a North Face collaboration that deliberately spelled Louis Vuitton as ‘Lewis Vuitton,’ as it is commonly mispronounced in more lower income communities, on plain fleece pullovers.
Abloh gives off the impression that he took his creative control at LV almost as a challenge, and attempts to deconstruct the upscale, high-class understanding of the line as something that is in reality gauche and tasteless. Plucked from street wear to the design house specifically because street fashion is the new high fashion, Abloh appears disturbed by the co-opting of urban, low class, youth, and Black culture for designer branding, and almost mocks his own Louis Vuitton garments. By far the most underwhelming aspect of the show visually, as it was literally just clothing racks pushed up against the wall, it was also the most crowded, with people crowding around the ‘Do Not Touch’ signs to take pictures with the LV symbols and, in particular, a dress designed by Abloh for Beyoncé to wear on the cover of Vogue Magazine. Irony abounds that the basest, sparsest corner of the show was also the most popular due to its proximity to luxury fashion.
Once a person passed through that corridor, however, there were no more clothes. There was a set of rugs made in collaboration with Ikea, which included a Persian with the words ‘KEEP OFF’ printed in his standard white letters — a play on the expensive designs being kept in the homes of upscale, overbearing clientele. A display of his outrageously expensive Off-White x Nike Air Force One collection sneakers dominated a gallery that also included examples of the iconic cover art he designed for Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ and ‘Watch The Throne’ albums, the latter being a collaborative effort with Jay-Z where Abloh worked with then-Creative Director of Givenchy Ricardo Tisci to create an embossed gold Baroque print. Idolizing the diamond jewelry of rappers while growing up in Illinois, Abloh created chains out of paper clips and aluminum foil as a child; gigantic reproductions made of real gold and diamonds were encased under glass at the exhibit.
Blown up ads conceptualized by Abloh for his LV and Off-White lines were lined up next to acrylic on canvas paintings, creating inescapable social and racial parallels. When a black toddler pulling colored pencils out of an oversized LV bag is positioned directly across from an acrylic on canvas reproduction of the ‘Cotton of our lives’ logo, you can’t help but think of the child picking cotton. Plastic neon shackles are introduced as accessories for the Louis Vuitton duffel bag, meant to symbolize our attachment to capitalism as expressed through our purchasing of luxury goods. Images of Black woman in elaborate gowns held cards that stated ‘Border Patrol;’ 3-D printouts of the models from his inaugural LV collection were positioned under a neon sign that stated “YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY IN THE WRONG PLACE” (what Julia Roberts was infamously told in ‘Pretty Woman’ when she attempted to shop in an upscale boutique). Abloh clearly never lost his sensibility as a black child of immigrants from the middle of nowhere, who somehow ended up at fashion shows and in art galleries. “You’re in the wrong place.”
The most important aspect of Abloh’s show is its unwavering dedication to his communities. He states, “I don’t feel responsible to a preconceived notion of art,” rather, he pledges his allegiances to the collectives he is representing, those made up of youth culture, urban/street culture, and Black people. In fashion, Abloh unpacks the innate artsy-ness of street wear and Black culture, and even his paintings, video clips, and other creations explore the meaning behind the ideas of arts and culture in inner-city, predominantly Black environments. His concept of a ‘tourist’ versus a ‘purist,’ where he questions if a person, brand, or corporation is familiar with and a representative of a culture, or merely taking a ‘tour’ through it for fun on monetary gain, is bracing. He states we’ve reached a point where branding and advertising is pushing culture and art more than ingenuity, more than creativity, and more than a responsibility to culture and community, and so he tries to move as far away from that as possible with his work — and he succeeds. Such scathing, sociopolitical and borderline anti-capitalist critique never looked so good.
Seren Sensei (@seren_sensei) is an activist, writer, cultural critic and new media maker. Focusing on finding the bonds between race, politics, and pop culture, she creates race-based video contentand also released her first book, entitled So, About That… A Year of Contemporary Essays on Race and Pop Culture, in 2015. She was a 2016-2017 fellow for at land’s edge, an art and activism fellowship program in Los Angeles, and her work has been exhibited in the art space human resources la as well as the Vincent Price Art Museum.