Reflections on Virgil Abloh and his legacy in fashion

Photo courtesy of Myles Kalus Anak Jihem via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s rare that an artist’s passing is accompanied by a release of their own work. This is the case with Virgil Abloh, perhaps the most important fashion designer of the 2010s. And while this article is not a review, nor an elegy, it’s impossible for me to talk about his passing without mentioning his final collection for Louis Vuitton (LV) – not  only because it took place approximately 150 feet from where I went to high school in my hometown of Miami—but because this is the closest that many of us fans will get to a funeral. It’s true that most fans don’t get to say their goodbyes within that context, but Abloh was so radical in his inclusivity that this may well be the case with his Spring Summer 2022 collection (SS22): a communal, celebratory appreciation of his work, which ultimately is directly representative of himself. The colors of the rainbow (a motif within his Vuitton tenure) were projected onto the same empty, graffitied stadium that I remember sneaking into with my friends after school. The short film accompanying SS22 features a boy riding his bicycle on the same beach that I spent my adolescence on, which just so happens to be the period of time I started looking at clothes in ways that weren’t strictly functional, in part through reading about Abloh online. Even though every rational bone in my body is telling me it’s dumb coincidence, I still feel as though it isn’t. Abloh’s work was about boyhood. Abloh’s work was about playing. It was about precisely the kind of kid who would sneak into places, just like he would sneak into Comme des Garçons runway shows back in his day. 

Fashion is an industry built on elitism. Its currency is exclusivity, and yet as an outsider Abloh achieved the position of artistic director at LV, making history as the first black man to take on the role. What Abloh achieved even in his relatively short time there is already beyond influential, but if you begin to consider everything else he did, he rises above the label of fashion designer, above the more generous label of artistic director, above curator, to the position of true Renaissance Man. Abloh created the massively influential streetwear labels Off-White and Pyrex; helmed DONDA, Kanye West’s creative agency, for years;  and collaborated with Nike, Jimmy Choo, IKEA and artists Jenny Holzer and Takashi Murakami. He was a DJ, a sculptor, one of only two designers in TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. 

Speaking on the full-circle nature of Abloh’s appointment to LV, author W. David Marx told me: 

“The American brand Stüssy started streetwear as we know it. That brand influenced Hiroshi Fujiwara and Nigo in Japan, who turned streetwear into a serious industry with luxury quality and made rarity and drops a central part of the value. Virgil took influence from Nigo, and as he took over at LV, represented the full merger of luxury and streetwear. Now Nigo is designing for Kenzo. This interplay between Japanese street fashion and Virgil defines modern day fashion, far beyond ‘streetwear.’”

 

That is why I consider him the most important designer of the last decade. His position at LV perfectly encapsulates how 2010s streetwear’s lust for life and accessibility was directly injected into the corpses of monogrammed giants, themselves perfectly encapsulating how fashion is, at times, nothing more than decorated exploitation. Abloh was often controversial for accusations of plagiarism–these accusations are, and have always been, largely ignorant of his ideology, which he borrows from streetwear. While being interviewed for a New Yorker article, he stated,  “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp… It’s this idea of the readymade. I’m talking Lower East Side, New York. It’s like hip-hop. It’s sampling” (The New Yorker, 2019). His famed “three percent rule” stated that a new design could be created by stealing another and changing it only by three percent and can be seen exquisitely manifested in one of his IKEA collaborations. The chair is lifted from a mid-century design by Paul Cobb, yet one of the legs is noticeably shorter than the other. The only way to make it work as a real piece of furniture is to prop it up with the small block that also accompanies it. Abloh’s three percent contribution is the block itself, and you know it’s his because of its characteristically bright industrial orange-red color that marks the tags on his Nike shoes and many Off-White pieces. Toxic fashion vigilante Instagram brand Diet Prada–and the side of the industry they represent–will never fully comprehend the irony in trying to ‘expose’ him with regards to this chair, or any other of the countless times Abloh recontextualized, redesigned and released work that others merely deemed ‘a copy’. 

Fashion analyst and content creator Bliss Foster shared an anecdote that summarizes Abloh’s impact and inclusivity: 

“The thing I’ll remember most about him is that Virgil was kind. Two years ago, he and I started texting over Instagram. I had a very small following and he had nothing to gain from me. But I reached out, said I loved his work, and we started talking. No one else in the industry would talk to me because my following wasn’t big enough yet. Virgil was the first one to make me feel welcome. He got my address and sent me four sets of show notes and a LV kite from his third show. I cried when that package arrived.”

 

Show notes–the slips of paper designers hand out at shows to explain influences and points of reference–are notably and frustratingly rare. Abloh shared these freely. The appearance of the rainbow at Abloh’s last show is a reference to his first one, and a marker of his desire to get everyone a seat at the table. At Louis Vuitton Spring Summer 2019, Abloh covered the physical runway space in sand spread in rainbow colors, and in an unprecedented move, he invited hundreds of fashion school students to populate the audience of fashion insiders. He dressed these students in t-shirts that mirrored where they sat along the runway, and when the show ended, they mingled, blending every color on top of every other color. If nothing else, SS19 is deeply moving because Abloh went from sneaking into these shows to running them–and in doing so, brought everyone else along with him. Shortly after, Abloh posted an image of himself moved to tears on the runway, with the caption: 

“You can do it too.”

 

Thank you, Virgil. 

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