Virgil Abloh: Vuitton Switches to American Time

At Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, which reopened on July 14, a retrospective of the work of Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, explores his unlikely journey, varied talents, and deep ambitions.
Virgil Abloh backstage during Off-White’s autumn/winter 2019 womenswear runway show. © Bogdan Plakov/Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

“Duchamp is my lawyer,” Virgil Abloh likes to say. Riding the wave that has merged streetwear with high fashion, the boundary-defying designer became artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear in March 2018 – the first African American to occupy such a position at a major European luxury label. “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp,” he recently explained to the New Yorker. “It’s this idea of the readymade… It’s like hip-hop. It’s sampling.”

While Marcel Duchamp signed a porcelain urinal “R. Mutt 1917” and titled it Fountain, Abloh prints “SCULPTURE” on purses; both gestures prompt us to rethink our perceptions of art and the objects around us. Such use of quotation marks is one of Abloh’s creative signatures; hence the punctuation of Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” the title of a retrospective that began at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019 before travelling to Atlanta and Boston.

Louis Vuitton menswear spring/summer 2019 fashion show. © Matthieu Dortomb/Louis Vuitton

Abloh was born to Ghanaian immigrants in Rockford, Illinois, in 1980. His mother, a seamstress, initiated him into her trade; he has no formal training in fashion. His wide-ranging creativity emerged early; as a teenage skateboarder, he was into tagging and DJing (an enduring passion he has pursued professionally at such high-profile events as Coachella). However, heeding parental pragmatism, he studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then pursued a master’s in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.

This placed him in the right place and time to connect with rapper Kanye West, who was early on in his own meteoric ascent. Abloh would spend years as West’s creative director; during that period, in 2009, the two interned together at Fendi under Michael Burke, now chairman and CEO of Louis Vuitton.

Louis Vuitton menswear spring/summer 2019 fashion show. © Matthieu Dortomb/Louis Vuitton

In 2013, Abloh truly came into his own by founding the cult streetwear label Off-White, which as of this writing has some 7.5 million followers on Instagram. Bold diagonal black-and-white stripes are the trademark of the line, which draws heavily on the graphic elements of the urban environment. Abloh’s rise up the fashion rungs was swift: In 2015, he was the only American among eight finalists for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers; in 2017, he was named GQ International Designer of the year. A year later, he was ensconced at Louis Vuitton.

The exhibition “Figures of Speech” probes this remarkable trajectory, exploring Abloh’s pursuits in fashion, music, art, furniture, and graphic design. Stylistic themes emerge across disciplines, notably transparency – the jewel case for Kanye West’s 2013 album Yeezus, adorned only with the red sticker that seals it; a Pioneer DJ turntable whose clear exterior reveals its inner workings; a see-through suitcase for luggage brand Rimowa. These projects are all also born of collaboration, which is central to Abloh’s approach and has led him to team up with companies from IKEA to Evian. His most famous partnership is with Nike; redesigned versions of sneaker models appear in the show, as do his designs for Serena Williams’ 2018 U.S. Open dresses (emblazoned with “LOGO” above the Swoosh and “SERENA” on their single sleeve).

Louis Vuitton menswear spring/summer 2019 fashion show. © Matthieu Dortomb/Louis Vuitton

Upon taking the helm at Louis Vuitton menswear, Abloh told The New York Times: “In a way, all of my output has been to make a compelling case for me to take on a role such as this. I think of it as kind of the ultimate collaboration.” His ambitions go beyond fashion design to changing the face of the industry itself. Founded in 1854 as a luggage company, Louis Vuitton seems uniquely suited for this endeavor; in an Instagram post about his début show in June 2018, Abloh wrote, “essential to my show concept is a global view on diversity linked to the travel DNA of the brand.”

Accordingly, a map in the show notes indicated the wide-ranging origins of the models who walked down his color-gradient runway in the gardens of Paris’s Palais-Royal. The central themes – The Wizard of Oz (an analogy to Abloh’s own wild journey far from home) and white light hitting a prism – revolved around rainbows, with all their positive, optimistic, inclusive connotations. Chains abounded, referencing the designer’s streetwear origins, but here made of ceramic in either white or vibrant hues. For the final look, the model, wearing a Tin-Man metallic poncho and brick-patterned pants, carried the company’s iconic Keepall bag, rendered in monogram-embossed PVC – iridescent and clear.

Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech”
From July 14, 2020, through September 26, 2021
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Article published in the July 2019 issue of France-AmériqueSubscribe to the magazine.