The misinterpreted mastery of Virgil Abloh

The designer bridged the gap between Black culture and pop culture, and accrued as many detractors as worshipers in the process.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 29: A tribute to Virgil Abloh during The Fashion Awards 2021 at the Royal...
Jeff Spicer/BFC/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images
ByBonsu Thompson
Originally Published: 

“Life is so short you can’t waste even a day subscribing to what someone thinks you can do versus knowing what you can do.” –Virgil Abloh

Throughout his 41 years on Earth and well over a decade in the spotlight, Virgil Abloh may have accrued as many detractors as he had worshipers. The late leader of lowkey luxe fashion was catnip for envy. The man had the audacity to leave his physical as the only Black man to hold the title of Artistic Director at Louis Vuitton. This after he founded Off-White, a streetwear line that took just five years to leap over behemoth houses like Gucci and claim number one in the world. His entry into the zeitgeist was as Creative Director to the ballooned brand that is Kanye West. In 2009, he and Ye even did a six-month internship at Fendi together for $500 a month.

Virgil collaborated with kings. He commissioned Takashi Murakami to provide the artwork for Kanye’s Graduation album. Three years later, he and Ricardo Tisci, former menswear and accessories designer for Givenchy, designed the majestic cover for Ye and Jay-Z’s landmark album, Watch the Throne. McDonalds commissioned Virgil to imbue street swag into the packaging of the world’s most iconic burger, the Big Mac. In 2017, Nike gave Abloh the opportunity to reimagine ten of his all-time favorite swoosh kicks. He designed a plush hoodie for the Metropolitan Museum of Art that simply read: “THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART HOODIE DESIGNED BY OFF-WHITE C/O VIRGIL ABLOH.” Something is wrong in a world where Virgil doesn’t have haters.

What the son of Ghanaian parents did bigger and more impressively than most was grow the intersection of Black culture and pop culture so much that the junction became its own republic.

To keep it two Ablohs, imperfect was the head that wore his crown. On more than one occasion, Virgil’s business approach furrowed the brow of a suit. His original works distressed the nerves of purists on both the consumer and professional sides of the creative spectrum. He, at times, suffered from tone deafness. There was also the Louis Vuitton Jamaican sweater travesty. But even when execution was flawed, what the son of Ghanaian parents did bigger and more impressively than most was grow the intersection of Black culture and pop culture so much that the junction became its own republic.

Is there another video from 2021 that gifted culture and inclusion, while returning affirmation with heritage, more than the LV Fall-Winter 2021 Fashion Show? Sublimely textured, snowy, and monogrammed aesthetic aside; the soil-rich words of spoken word genius Saul Williams, King’s County’s Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def), and London-based poet Kai-Isiah Jamal penetrated. The latter orator became the first Black trans model to walk for Louis Vuitton. Abloh didn’t simply open doors; he tore down barriers. The salutes — from Baldwin, to Ghana, to Scottish tartan, to Clark Kent’s hurried sampling of ESG’s “UFO” — are as abundant as they are beautiful.

Edward Berthelot/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

There’s less irony than sly intention in Abloh weaponizing Jamal’s words against those who have attempted to paint him as a culture vulture disguised in West African melanin. Virgil was consistently transparent when it came to creation and consumption, whether as a collector or influencer; he didn’t possess a worshipper’s mentality. “Provenance is reality,” he said in the show notes accompanying his 2021 show, “while ownership is myth: man-made inventions are now ripe for reinvention.” In other words, from Virgil’s perspective, everything created is fruit from the tree of life. It is born to be reaped. Virgil Abloh was very much in the world’s most expensive organic juice business. He shined best when seen as a student, design historian, and curator. He was the same selector when picking fabrics and metals as he was when DJ’ing opulent parties in Paris and Ibiza. Nearly all of his visions are amplified by urban street music. After all, the Libra claims Black and pop culture as godparents. Virgil came in the vein of Pete Rock and Kanye, pouring Ahmad Jamal’s ivory cascades over and under the brilliance of a teenage Nas and resurrected Common. He, too, was a producer. He didn’t invent the remix, but he did create tidal waves.

Again, Abloh was not perfect. Yes, Off-White’s name and ethos (the space between Black and White) are painfully literal. As was the logo for his first streetwear line Pyrex Vision, which included the number 23, mirroring Biggie Smalls’s famous line referencing the low expectations and options for young Black men in the inner-city, “Either you slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot.” Did Virgil need to recreate the entire set of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean'' video for the 2019 Fall-Winter show? Perhaps not, but you can’t deny the ingenuity behind runway tiles lighting up under each model’s step. To dismiss Virgil’s portfolio as the workings of “artist see artist do” is to prove yourself blind to original design, and numb to the touch of art, as well as the effect of culture on business.

Who are the other art directors at major fashion houses giving flowers to Jacob the Jeweler through design? Or allowing Playboi Carti and Migos rapper Offset to walk the runway? Without Virgil, Kanye isn’t the visionary he is today; the prevalence of sewing or the art of “the drop” wouldn’t be restored amongst street designers. A new bar was set by a civil engineering graduate with a masters in architecture only interested in demolishing boxes and impressing his 17-year-old self. Today, I bet that kid from Illinois couldn’t be prouder. Despite all his early apparel ideas and architectural sketches, he never saw a crown being drawn above his head. Now it’s his forever.