There are a few things that the French would never consider changing: the height of the Eiffel Tower, the proportion of butter in hollandaise, and the classic Louis Vuitton print.
You can imagine how the traditional European customer reacted when Virgil Abloh laid his hands on the art direction of one of the oldest and most foundational brands in the luxury world. Confusion filled the streets of Old World fashion hubs like Milan and Paris as women looked for the traditional golden-colored monogrammed duffle bags, only to find rainbow patterns. Meanwhile, men in search of a classic Epi leather wallet were offered one with quotation marks on it.
Abloh’s arrival at LV shocked the intrinsically conservative European customer. His unconventional designs, often bridging the gap between luxury wear and street style, were foreign to the average European LV enthusiast. But this wasn’t the first time the Ghanaian-American shook up the industry. Abloh is well-known for bringing change wherever he goes; the music producer-artist-designer first pushed the streetwear world to new horizons with his brands like Pyrex and Off-White. He later became the first black man at the helm of LV.
For the people who have struggled to fully appreciate Abloh’s work, a solution can be found in the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago (MCA), the home of the designer’s new exhibition, “Figures of Speech.” However, in case you still have yet to visit, let me tell you what I have learned from walking through the white walls of this exhibition.
While popularly known for founding Off-White, to think Abloh’s career started there is to flip to the middle of the story. Walking through the “Figures of Speech” exhibit is like walking through a concrete representation of Abloh’s creative career. Visitors enter a room with a blown-up photo of Polo-era Kanye, posing with his crew. Among the entourage is Abloh, as he made his first foray into the fashion world as a creative consultant for Kanye West in 2007. He had a hand in everything from styling West to providing art direction on album covers to serving as the creative director at DONDA, Kanye West’s creative house named after his late mother.
As visitors continue deeper into the exhibit, they see old screen printing frames hanging on the walls accompanied by clothing nearby loudly labeled Pyrex. These pieces are all tributes from Abloh’s streetwear line that started in 2012, Pyrex Vision. Pyrex was comprised of all things from Champion sweatshirts and flannels to basketball shorts and polo shirts, all marked with collegiate symbols or Renaissance artwork. When you cut through the cult following and clout associated with Pyrex, you're left with screen prints on store-bought clothes sold for extremely marked-up prices. Some may call this genius, others thievery. I think it depends on whether or not you buy the clothes knowing exactly what you’re getting.
As visitors continue through the exhibit, they understand why it is hard to assign Abloh a single label. Highlighting Abloh’s architectural abilities, one room is solely dedicated to a model of Chicago’s downtown area. The model is an exact replica of the area colored in baby blue with a lone red building. It stands out not only in color, but also for its incongruence with the city’s existing skyline. The red building was a creation of Abloh’s, designed with angels and slants, not for aesthetic purposes, but to ensure unobstructed views of Lake Michigan.
At the core of street style, there is the notion that the mainstream needs to be disrupted. Continuing in the footsteps of Pyrex Vision, in 2013, Abloh created Off-White in Milan, Italy. Off-White kept design disruption and social preoccupations, such as racial inequality, as pillars of its artistic vision.
As the name of the brand hints, Virgil’s experience in a white-dominated fashion industry inspires a large portion of his work. This aspect of his work appears both in clothing and advertising. Even after moving to a fashion house of the size of LVMH, Abloh did not lose his passion for issues other than fashion.
The first commercial for his menswear line for LV, centered around a child of color posing as the Statue of Liberty, debuted on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019. Referencing a racist encounter he had in a luxury department store, Abloh’s exhibit dedicates a room to a yellow neon light that reads: “You are obviously in the wrong place.” If it weren’t for the sting of its relevance both historically and today, the sign would almost make the viewer want to chuckle at its ignorance.
Continuing to wander from room to room, visitors view work that spans Abloh’s career, ranging from diamond-encrusted paperclip jewelry to Serena Williams’ custom French Open Off-White outfit to and pieces from his Pyrex collection.
The people who are confused about Abloh’s story and doubt his transition from streetwear designer to the creative lead of Louis Vuitton need to understand that Abloh has been doing the same thing since day one. He did it with Pyrex and Off-White, and ultimately, he is doing it with LV—injecting tradition with innovation and change. This has become so central to his artistic belief system that he expects his customers to uphold him to the same critique that he gives to the mainstream. Customizing limited-edition sneakers with a Sharpie, Abloh invites consumers to copy his work, allowing them to replicate his Sharpie marks with ease, as by changing sneaker culture, he has achieved so much recognition to become part of the mainstream itself.
Abloh constantly innovates by cultivating a never-ending creative energy at the core of his production. From marks on shoes to a paperclip bracelet like many of us once made in elementary school, he keeps the world of luxury fashion youthful and utilitarian. Virgil Abloh’s career and success have opened doors to both creativity and diversity inside one of the most conservative pockets of fashion, which “Figures of Speech” allows us to witness.