Some call him crass and commercial, others see him more as the millennial Karl Lagerfeld, but whatever your viewpoint, Virgil Abloh has managed to revolutionize streetwear borrowing tactics and an intelligence that speaks across generations. His passion for merchandise and fusing high with low might offend the stodgiest of us, but it also broadens the cultural public, spreading a new word to a maximum audience.

Pure unadulterated wanderlust on loop, Virgil Abloh is the art director for Louis Vuitton menswear in Paris, where it just so happens his favourite building is located. I read that somewhere. There is always something somewhere to read about Virgil. The building is the Pantheon, which is an 18th century architectural exploit that generously and magnanimously appropriates the original in Rome, and, interestingly enough whose initial purpose was radically switched through a chasm of revolution from church to mausoleum.

Virgil, hailing from the American Midwest, was also meant for something else, an engineer or interior architect, with the suitable middle-class values and skill-set in which that societal construct implies. But somewhere between his undergrad and masters, he met Kanye West and began stretching and swerving, to see where cultural appropriation, unmitigated energy, and multilevel dissemination could eventually shape his own path. Music, fashion, youth and any cityscape would set the stage for an enviable life-defining arc for Virgil.

Efllorescence, round table. Photo © Sylvie Chan-Liat , courtesy of Galerie kreo

When there are cultural uncertainties, economic priorities or social responsibilities, will we have space for such a personality, or does Virgil reach beyond the current confinement, or critical cultural sterilization, that at least Vuitton had been facing since the ‘thanks anyway’ departure of a personality like Marc Jacobs? Maybe Virgil’s a temporary cure, or might he just be a much-needed inoculation for the luxury industry?

One must begin with Virgil himself. A few years ago a friend in Milan told me that her eldest son was going hyphy, or bat-shit crazy, for Virgil. “Who is he?” I asked. “Well he’s a black American, super famous, you really should know him,” she replied. Apparently her kid, who for some reason calls everyone over the age of 30 a ‘boomer’, had started ordering Virgil’s products online then stockpiling the merch, to eventually sell to the highest bidder on digital streams.

Off-White, "WALKING BOOTS", Cowboy Boots, Resort collection 2020

Virgil had not yet taken the helm of LV’s menswear, but his brand Off-White, which he had created in 2013, had fast become a coveted treasure trove of teenage closet-spaced entrepreneurship, while Virgil himself was unwittingly preparing himself for a highly coveted position, one that would give the French luxury goods industry a much-needed pause for is the first African-American not only to steer a division of LV through the 21st century, but also a welcome cry-out to the vapid homogeneity, creative or otherwise, of the entire sector, and Vuitton in particular.

Virgil has creatives at his behest in London and Milan where his brand Off-White is stationed, and then there is Paris for LV. One must wonder where home really is for Virgil, even if he maintains that all roads lead to Chicago. However there is another question of equal significance, which is why whenever the hell his name is mentioned there is such a divisive draw from praise to disquiet?

I talked with him in Paris right after his first major gallery opening of limited-edition design and just before the global quarantine to find out what he thought about the colour pink, but I really just wanted to figure out why everyone I talked to that had ever worked with him or  refer to him as just simply the nicest guy in the world.

Virgil Abloh: ‘I'm super colour sensitive. Colour is at the root of art and design. Colour immediately gives you an emotion and it's no coincidence that one of my major projects is called, Off-White. When it comes to the colour pink, it reaches back to what you possessed in childhood when your brain becomes programmed that pink is feminine and blue masculine. I think in that short narrative, there lies the root of my artistic practice, which is to sort out these preconceived notions based on adopted truths, which as you get older you realize is not found on anything factual, just consensus.’

12-INCH-VOICES, 2019 © Martin Argyroglo, Lafayette Anticipations, Paris

According to a study in 2017 by the global luxury goods consulting firm Bain & Company, millennials already represented 30% of global luxury sales. Ever since his debut for LV at a Tokyo pop-up store in January 2018, his designs had a substantial impact in ready-to-wear sales even before hitting the immense network of LV stores.

Virgil's self-made talent to generate media coverage on any of his projects does create a far-reaching socio-economic demographic. This factor cannot be ignored when confronted with the accepted but whispered murmur that luxury houses have not been in the clothes business for ages. All eyes must look deferentially, digital or otherwise, to the global brand image. What better way to illustrate and execute this definition of luxury as something awe-inspiring and yet attainable through the imagination of all that can glimmer in the digital realm. The industry has been searching fervently for someone like Virgil, who reaches out to inaccessible market segmentations. This is not your grandmother or even your mother’s Vuitton.

VA: “As I moved through my practice and analysed the things that I conceived or was taught while I was young, [I can now] produce workthat has the ability to let the viewer sort of reset their own calibrations (...) So, you know, the colour pink to me is at the hue of any colour. You can use it for the conceived notions of what it means, but then you could also play against that very much, and to me that is the freedom I find within my own work.”

Galerie kreo in Paris, founded by Didier and Clémence Krzentowski, is known for embracing designer-slash-artist A-listers, and celebrated its 20-year anniversary this year. Virgil was given centre stage in January for his first exhibition dedicated to contemporary design with 20 commissioned pieces, including benches, consoles, seats, vases, and mirrors. Entitled (in lower-case e), efflorescence, the show set off to fervent acclaim. When I arrived at rue Dauphine for the opening, I couldn’t believe the hundreds of people that were queuing up outside. This fandom ranged from the unmistakably hip to the not yet fashionable crowd. It felt like a like a trend forecaster's wet dream, but somehow not. There was too much innocence in the air.

Off-White collection

No matter what project he is attached to it is always Virgil the character that comes twinkling into the foreground. This guy’s a star and like all stars he has an inexplicable but potently palpable appeal. After looking at the work one is left wondering, does the afterglow come from seeing the work or him? Or maybe it’s just both.

In most of the kreo exhibition it is easy to see the fragmentary memory of Brutalist architecture, which, at least in the States, took firm root in Chicago. This architectural movement grew out of the early-20th century modernist phase, emerging from a post-war construction renewal in the 1950s and characterized by a monolithic form and a severe geometric style accomplished by the use of large-scale, poured concrete. Across the States these buildings have been destroyed to local and national outcry, including Chicago with the 2014 demolition of the Prentice Women’s Hospital.

VA: “I've always had an affinity for Brutalism, you know, I love the materiality and formal expressions, and Brutalism at its high point could be subconsciously implied. It wasn't a direct comparison more what was the direct emotion that is bestowed when coming in contact with an urban environment. You know, very similar to your question about the colour pink and what it means and what you believe it means is also like this style of architectural impact on the viewer and when it comes to dealing with different modes of design that have pre-existed.”

Off-White collection

Virgil’s kreo collection echoes the city pavements, graffitied concrete walls or columns, those very ones that you would find underneath a highway overpass or an elevated railway. And that’s just it. The work reiterates any city, not just Chicago, and not even Brutalism per se. He has figured out how to singularly individualize the collective, or universal idea, of what the remnants or extractions of a latter-day 20th city could or should look like.

VA: “These buildings were very much a part of my growing up, and even if those structures proved to be less-than-humane, you can still look at the form-work, techniques and history to the extent of the experiment of public housing. All of that definitely has had a lasting impression on me, and is still an aesthetic that I can appreciate.”

It’s about a hour-and-a-half drive from Chicago to Rockford, Illinois, where he went to a private Catholic high school till he left to study civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, before returning to Chicago for a masters in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He talked a bit about what has informed his practice and what shaped his studies.

VA: “Having an understanding of where we are in the world, both in an art history timeline and in the political sense, my art education started with the Renaissance where I immediately drew parallels to now. Like the spread of information through the internet today, a whole new cultural movement can be engaged, and so many people with diverse opportunity can find themselves at the root of a culture advancing forward. My practice today is about engaging within this new demographic where the world of art, fashion, and music can meet.”

True enough. When scrolling though his IG or any #virgilabloh there is a very young and not-so-young(er) generation that does find in him their mentor and guide. There is an infatuation with the man and his medium, and all of his followers seem to speak of him in their own feeds with a certain intimacy of acquaintance. Virgil himself says that his success is not due to any nepotism or particular adoption into the family of fashion or art, because “the genesis of the work is to be in dialogue with the kids you were talking about in Milan, I don’t have to come from the typical background, I let the work show that I just come from a different place”.

What I think he is trying to say is that his work, meaning a coupled vision of ideas and execution, murmurs and roars in an arena that he appropriated and then cultivates for his output. One might scoff at such a positioning; after all he was born in 1980. Yet never before has an outsider said more to an entire generation of the ever-awake-and-aware global millennial. And certainly Bernard Arnault of LVMH was waiting for just that worldly hyper-sound in a fashionable scream, making Virgil artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear in March of 2018.

VA: “As you can imagine my place within the art or fashion world is not something that I was immediately adopted into. The body of work doesn't come from the typical art or fashion background, you know, I come from a different place. So I think my work is about a dialogue with a new demographic, so that's why the kreo Paris opening looks like it does or that's why my practice does. And I think that the young kid in Milan, or anywhere, and I speak the same language, and that’s about communicating my ideas on a peer-to-peer basis with him, or her or anyone, rather than speaking from a place of hierarchy.”

Efllorescence, graffiti session.  Photo © Marie Canciani, courtesy of Galerie kreo

It is no surprise that his academic degrees in civil engineering and architecture lend itself to a pluridisciplinary methodology, and that many great creative endeavours begin on the routes of cross-fertilization – something that is hardly new within design discourse. Bauhaus was founded on those same values, and its first director Walter Gropius who ended up chairing the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1937, and last director Mies Van der Rohe brought the very same values to Virgil’s alma mater in Chicago. And at any rate this is a methodology that has been around for a hundred years, and scattered across the globe because of the Second World War, which brought the Bauhaus ideals from these two German expats to the American pond. Yet to put those principles into practice in a world of academic specialization or digitally embedded growth obligation is something altogether different. And honestly does anybody really get it right?

VA: “I think there is no right or wrong way in this new era to build a creative practice. The only thing I advocate is that there needs to be a well-calculated split in learning. It is important that young people are not just immersed in the history, or the way things have been done before, but what that means to what is happening now in contemporary culture.”

There is an A-side to this vinyl beginning with his creative collaborations and his first connection with English graphic designer, Peter Saville, who co-founded Factory Records in Manchester in 1978 and designed some of the most epic album covers (Joy Division, New Order…) of the century. And remember Virgil’s side-hustle is as a DJ. Well, Virgil reached out to Peter to do the music for one of the Off-White shows, and Peter did it.

Time magazine (whether we or his followers for that matter read it) named Virgil one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In the spring of 2019 he did a powerful (and pink) performative sound installation and sculpture for the three-day multidisciplinary festival, Kaleidoscope Manifesto, at Lafayette Anticipations in Paris. Last December during Miami Art Basel he launched a limited-edition collection for Baccarat, and there’s the collection for Ikea, the collaborations with high-power artists from Takashi Murakami at the Gagosian to a T-shirt with neo-conceptual extraordinaire Jenny Holzer for Planned Parenthood, and the wall of 999 consecutively numbered orange bricks – doubling as storage objects – that sold for €140 a pop at a summer exhibition on the Vitra Campus Fire Station.

His first museum retrospective would be that very same summer. Chief curator, Michael Darling, who co-curated, Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, would highlight over 20 years of Virgil’s work in fashion, music, art, furniture and graphic design in partnership with Samir Bantal, the director of the research wing of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA. (Not bad for a 38-year-old Virgil.) The exhibition then went to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art, and is due at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art and the Brooklyn Museum. Europe is scheduled for sometime too, but apart from Atlanta all dates have been affected by Covid-19. From what I glean from the press it deals with guns, glamour, shoes, product, image, socio-economic bias, the black gaze, luxury, and so on. At each exhibition both Samir and Virgil reconsider the museum space, recontextualizing the show in collaborations with local curators and partner frameworks, and ends with the much lauded or disdained, pop-up, Church & State, where there is merch. Needless to say the guy knows how to get people in a room that will give his vision light.

What can he possibly do next? Those that are most unconvinced from the Guardian newspaper to Frieze magazine might say: oh fuck me, not him again? One thing’s for sure, it’s pretty safe to say that he is here to stay. Not just because of what he says or how he says it, but because of what he sells and how he does it, which reaches far beyond the glam-fam or super-rich. It’s a story about making and making it. About collaboration and kindness. The not so simple task of carving a path with help from the like-minded, a solid education, and a pretty happy outlook at a world that tends to shy away from such a reflective resonating force on viewers and the parlayers that devise the current modes of cultural production.

I blush to think of what comes next... In June, there was a backlash on social media and retracting of what he originally posted about looting and the right to rage during the ongoing protests in America. It all ended a bit confusingly because he stated the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd were in the same week - they weren't. He finished the post talking about the merits of Bar Basso, Dumbo, the Mercer, and I believe the Mondrian. I'm not really sure because he, or his PR, has since deleted the post.

Admittedly, even with such an uninformed or comprehensible back-paddle, his voice resounds high and low in any and every discernible dataset as long as you are keeping up with Virgil Abloh.


This article appeared in DAM76. Order your personal copy.