BY J. Howard Rosier in Opinion | 02 DEC 21

Remembering Virgil Abloh (1980–2021)

J. Howard Rosier honors the designer whose work with Off-White and Louis Vuitton profoundly transformed the fashion industry

BY J. Howard Rosier in Opinion | 02 DEC 21

After my wife sent me a text asking if I’d seen the news about Virgil Abloh’s passing this week (I had not), I sat waiting for the fair-weather well-wishers to pile on overcompensatory praise. Given that I don’t own any of the clothing he designed, I am wary of characterising myself as a true devotee, but one of Abloh’s more durable ideas is the purist-tourist paradigm. The former – connoisseurs and specialists with deep knowledge – form a sort of aesthetic conscience for the latter, who are visiting the scene out of personal curiosity and whose perspective is therefore unencumbered by history or conventional wisdom.

Flossmoor, my hometown, is a couple hours southeast of Rockford, where Abloh grew up, in the clusters of strip malls, construction sites and suburbs known as Chicagoland. Its accent is the butt of jokes and its south and west sides are the target of inner-city violence stereotypes, but residents of the area have managed to become global icons four times since I have been alive: Michael Jordan, arguably the all-time greatest basketball player; Kanye West, who once held the same status in Chicago as Dr. Dre in Los Angeles or Jay-Z in New York; Barack Obama, the first Black president of the United States; and – with a design range that encompassed clothing, furniture, jewellery, packaging and visual art – Abloh, the city’s fourth. As I write this, I’m staring at the album cover of Watch the Throne (2011), West’s album with Jay-Z. Opulent and imposing, like a chapel ceiling or a coat of arms, its brass tile pressing was designed by former Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci at Abloh’s request. One of the last CDs I bought is Yeezus (2013), the industrial-gesturing cover design Abloh produced for West’s sixth album, which so elegantly conjured the feeling of emptiness that it spawned the opposite: a DIY tradition of drawing images on its spartan jewel case and blank CD. In both instances, Abloh’s attention to detail led the artist and his collaborators down wildly different paths, but the realms where they wound up (maximalist graphic design and deconstruction) have arguably become as telltale as Abloh’s construction motifs and quote-bracketed phrases. The covers point toward both an architect’s sense of auteurship and grandeur (he held a masters degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology), and a shamelessness at showing his creation’s guts.

Virgil Abloh attends the Ketel One Vodka and The Hole present Other Worlds and The Vibes Experience at De Nolet for Art Basel at Soho Studios on 6 December 2014 in Miami, Florida. Photo: Alexander Tamargo. Courtesy: Getty Images for Ketel One

Despite its notable outerwear, and gowns made for the likes of Serena Williams and Beyoncé, the bread and butter of Off-White, the fashion brand Abloh founded in 2013, is humbler: the T-shirts, hoodies, denim, flannel shirts and snapbacks that emanate from hip hop and skate cultures, which Abloh fell into as a teenager. The criticism of Pyrex Vision, Abloh’s first label, was always that the repurposed deadstock on which he screen-printed his designs didn’t justify the garments’ price tags. But, like the expensive tailored staples and evening wear that many other fashion houses are invested in, Off-White’s pieces are made by an atelier in Milan with the finest materials – though producing a hoodie takes a lot less labour and is therefore less expensive. As Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, pointed out in his catalogue essay for Abloh’s 2019 exhibit, ‘Figures of Speech’, the cachet afforded by his fine fabrics and pricing led consumers to expect more from items that were previously deemed basics, which in turn encouraged future designers not to settle ‘for the crowded and fleeting landscape of $30 T-shirts’. Much of the criticism levelled at Abloh – that he was one-dimensional or lacked ‘real’ design chops or that he was too derivative – smacked of transparent saltiness at him having beaten the fashion industry at its own game. Regardless, if the powers that be were serious about their calls for originality, they wouldn’t have followed him down the road of streetwear so voraciously.

Virgil Abloh (centre) and models walk the runway during Off-White Menswear Fall/Winter 2019–20 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on 16 January 2019 in Paris, France. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain. Courtesy: Getty Images

Abloh’s appointment, in 2018, as the first Black artistic director at Louis Vuitton, seems inevitable in retrospect. In the art world, debates about representation had been energised by the portraiture of Black artists such as Kerry James Marshall, Deana Lawson and Amy Sherald, and these conversations spilled over into fashion. LV had built-in credibility in the Black community, based on Dapper Dan’s counterfeited custom garments and Kanye West sporting the label’s backpack as a symbol of his complicated relationship with so-called conscious rap. Yet, Abloh’s debut LV show, a mash-up inspired by Pink Floyd and The Wiz (1978), managed to allude to both the smallness of the metaphorical man behind the curtain and the complicated issues of identity that pertain to a Black man running the show – the designer himself as the symbolic pot of gold at the end of fashion’s rainbow. Abloh addressed this dichotomy beautifully, beginning with dark-skinned models dressed in white and gradually diversifying the looks and the models’ ethnicities over the course of the show.

Designer Virgil Abloh, models Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid and Karlie Kloss during the finale of the Off-White show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2019–20 on 28 February 2019 in Paris, France. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain. Courtesy: Getty Images

Abloh’s short stint at LV agitated luxury fashion in ways that Marc Jacobs could have only dreamed of. Harnesses with zip pouches gesture towards the aughts rap era when wearing gun paraphernalia was popular while also elevating the lowly belt bag; luggage resembles stickered instrument cases and quilted jackets, or it’s adorned with thick security chains. My favourite is a trucker jacket in white mink. If it were floor-length, it’d be pimpin’; if it were denim, it’d be rockin’. In Abloh’s hands, it’s just cool. Notorious for their lack of conspicuous branding, these items don’t have the usual allure of a label. People lined up to pay for Abloh’s ideas, which, in an industry that’s profoundly logo-driven, might be the artist’s greatest achievement of all.

Main Image: Virgil Abloh walks the runway during the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring Summer 2020 show. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain. Courtesy: Getty Images

J. Howard Rosier is a board member at the National Book Critics Circle and a lecturer in the New Arts Journalism Department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.