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Virgil Abloh, Ambassador and Infiltrator




In recent years, he could often appear as if there were several Virgil Ablohs, all working at the same time. There were the multiple annual collections of Louis Vuitton, of which he was the artistic director of men’s clothing, and Off-White, his own brand, which he had founded while still in Kanye West’s orbit. There were seemingly endless collaborations, with brands as disparate as Nike, Ikea, Evian, Rimowa, Vitra, Chrome Hearts and more.

And perhaps just as important, there were his daily Instagram missives. Apparently, no one has published more than him a few dozen images on his story, easily, consisting of new designs, new music, screenshots of conversations, adapted photos published by the super famous adapted photos published by the unknown. He was a geyser of ecstatic creativity.

What he was doing did not flaunt his ubiquity and success, but rather offered the model for how to replicate it. The community of ideas did not meet in private, he knew that; it was fortified by exposure to the sun and scrutiny. His mind was constantly restless, and his solution was to create a real-time archive, which anyone could absorb.

Take a look around you at the way young men now think about clothes, design and music, and how these activities overlap: it’s hard not to see Abloh everywhere.

Mr Abloh, who died at the age of 41 on Sunday, re-used this ethos of hip-hop and skateboarding, two cultural pursuits based on the provocative and ultimately correct abuse of what came before. He succeeded at the highest level of luxury by importing the bootleg, the remix, the alternative point of view. Above all, Mr. Abloh was part of a generation raised to believe that they were entitled to the luxuries offered by high fashion houses, an idea and a fuss he inherited from West. In his framing, however, the difference between those on the inside and those on the outside watching was only a question of who had placed the window and where. Mr. Abloh just smashed that window.

In this he was part of a deep lineage. Since the 1980s, hip-hop had done parallel work to reinforce the power and cultural relevance of high fashion, whether it was the cut-and-sewn remakes of Dapper Dans in the 1980s or the Embrace from Versace’s Notorious BIGs in the 1990s or ASAP Rockys. avant-garde gestures from the early 2010s.

And yet, there had never been a designer of the hip-hop generation let alone a black designer running a French luxury house until Mr. Abloh took over Louis Vuitton in 2018. He becomes its ambassador, and infiltrator.

In recent years, many high fashion companies have attempted to incorporate hip-hop language, swagger, or silhouettes into their collections, but these conversations have generally felt strained, clearly the product of observation. Mr. Abloh’s contributions were a product of immersion. In Louis Vuitton stores right now, for example, there is a stunning patterned quilted leather jacket inspired by those made by the Detroit store Al Wissam which were a hip-hop staple from the late 1990s to early. years. He understood that hip-hop was luxurious long before LVMH called it.

Hip-hop had long been a knight of luxury, he said in a recent text exchange with this journalist. Always surreal, it’s my daily job to come full circle.

At the top of Louis Vuitton, he suddenly became the model for a generation of young designers, stylists and fashion dreamers who came into the Abloh mold, an astonishing victory. He helped incubate the hype culture that started with streetwear and sneakers and has now become the dominant philosophy of luxury. He made limited edition products for seemingly any occasion, a statement of fervent and insatiable creativity and also the feeling that every gesture deserved to be commemorated.

And while he reached out to Elders to work together in various formats, Arthur Jafa, Goldie, Futura and more, Mr. Abloh also showed a granular interest in the creativity of others, especially the young. He was dizzyingly accessible in his DMs, several people posted screenshots of his private encouragement, free and invisible emotional labor, but not without consequence.

For this reason, the magnitude of its impact cannot be measured in clothing or collections. Rather, it’s in establishing a universe in which Mr. Abloh was not just a fashion designer but a folk hero and a superhero. Yet at its root he was a voracious fan.

It was a position he understood only too well. As he rose through the fashion ladder in the 2010s, he was often reminded of his status as an outsider by naysayers, critics who sometimes smacked of babysitting and, at worst, racism. When Raf Simons, a designer admired by Mr. Abloh, dismissed it as unoriginal in a 2017 interview, Mr. Abloh responded by titling his next collection Off-White Nothing New.

It was a reminder of his playfulness. With his approach to references in quotation marks, he has chosen to favor accessibility over preciousness. That’s not to say he wasn’t intellectually engaged in his practice, but rather emphasizes that iteration is a kind of innovation, something that is often overlooked in creative fields. In his lectures and public conversations, which often ricocheted across social media as quickly as his sneaker designs, he discussed what he called the three percent rule: altering something so lightly, he said. he insisted, was more than enough. It was a wisdom received as a provocation but conceived as an encouragement.

Mr. Abloh often didn’t talk about a finished product; he spoke in pieces, peeling off the fourth wall, and also the third, the second and the first too. In some of his designs, especially his collaborations with Nike, visible signs of production have become part of his finished designs. He was modern in his process, he conducted most of his business on WhatsApp and embraced the transparency of the social media age and made it part of his business and aesthetic plan.

But Mr. Abloh most certainly understood the traditional power he held. The section of his website devoted to cataloging his myriad of projects was titled Land I Own. The section where he detailed the steps necessary to create a brand was called Free Game.

Rappers, of course, loved him. When Drake needed a design for his personal Boeing 767, he turned to Mr. Abloh, who gave him back the palette of a cloudy sky. Virgil was sending me a drop just to see if I like it, Young Thug rapped. Mr. Abloh sat Pop Smoke and Westside Gunn who rapped, Tell Virgil to write BRICK on my front row of bricks in Paris.

This was the ultimate cheer for Mr. Abloh, who was also a curious and expansive DJ in the 2010s, he apparently traveled the world more to spin records than to work on collections and who made his own. music. He was a connoisseur of emerging sounds from around the world, from Atlanta hip-hop to British jazz to Ghanaian drill.

In this, as in all things, he gave priority to the power and innovation of black art. In his early promotional campaigns for Louis Vuitton and up to the video showcasing the collection Louis Vuitton will showcase in Miami this week, he has highlighted black children.

At his first Chicago museum exhibit in 2019, he installed a piece of artwork that referred to the police murder of Laquan McDonald amid the ads and sneakers (along with a photo of Chicago drilling pioneer Chief Keef). In his collections he wove direct references to Africa and Martin Luther King Jr. He also imported a sense of hip-hop community into his clothing, once delivering an intarsia sweater depicting the outline of 38 people. who worked on her clothes.

Mr Abloh had gained a secure footing after years of working alongside West the two internees together at Fendi in 2009 who had long agitated for the opportunity to run a luxury house but were turned down; Mr. Abloh finally made that dream come true. The embrace the two men shared at the end of his first Vuitton presentation was one of the most emotional moments to occur on a catwalk in recent years, and also a euphoric outing celebrating a designer’s rise. black in the highest realms of luxury fashion. . On the same show, at the end of his parade, Mr. Abloh did a rap squat and posed for pictures.

In July, LVMH announced that Mr. Abloh had been promoted to a position in which he would work across conglomerates of several dozen brands, spanning clothing, spirits and hotels. (This also took a controlling stake in Off-White.) It was a vote of confidence not only in Mr. Ablohs’ design work, but also in his vision for luxury and how it would stretch across. various properties. He recognized that the type of cross-pollinated cultural engineering that Mr. Abloh naturally excelled in was indeed the most promising avenue, even for a company as steeped in tradition as LVMH.

It was a version of Mr. Abloh’s future. But he was equally concerned about an alternate parallel path. He has been the mentor of fashionable black aspirants. He organized scholarships for black fashion students. He waved behind the scenes for more diversity in the high fashion industry. He helped build a skate park in Ghana. He sold t-shirts that read I Support Young Black Businesses and donated the proceeds to charity.

So many seeds, strewn in so many places, guarantee flowers for generations to come. Look around in a few years, and it will be hard not to see Ablohs everywhere.




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