For many in the fashion, art and cultural spaces, Virgil Abloh was the pinnacle of cool.
From his championing of streetwear fashion, a clothing aesthetic influenced by hip hop and Black culture, to designing for one of the most prominent luxury clothing brands in the world, Louis Vuitton, his name was always connected to the chicest projects and people.
The barrier-breaking artist died at age 41 in November 2021 after a two-year battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. But his legacy and work live on, and are now the subject of an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” surveying his many ideas.
“He was always about sort of kicking down the door, so to speak,” said writer Antwaun Sargent, the show’s curator, ”and making sure that young people in particular had the keys that they needed to succeed in creative fields where they had previously not been welcomed, because that's his story.”
The exhibition was initially organized by Michael Darling and opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019. It was meant to make its way to New York City in 2020, but was delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Well before the pandemic, Sargent said he received a call from Brooklyn Museum’s director Anne Pasternak, asking him to curate the show. He said the offer piqued his interest, but he needed to have a conversation with Abloh first.
“We had a really great conversation about creativity and about ideas, and I was like, I'd absolutely love to do this,” Sargent said. “And he said he wanted the show to change completely from the previous iterations. And I was like, absolutely!”
Functional Art and Social Sculpture
Housed on the first level of the museum, “Figures of Speech” unravels like a long walk through Abloh’s creative process. The show includes videos from his runway shows, racks of unreleased prototypes and archived pieces from his fashion lines Pyrex Vision and Off-White, designs made for Louis Vuitton, and collaborative projects like a record player he made with the company Braun titled “Functional Art.”
Most of the pieces in the exhibition are laid out on sandy brown tables Abloh designed himself, so attendees can hover to fully digest what they are viewing. For sneakerheads, the most enticing section of the exhibition will be the rows and rows of brightly colored, highly coveted Nike shoes that Abloh designed – some of which had hit the market, others that were custom or unreleased.
While some of these pieces have been seen in other iterations of the exhibition, the Brooklyn show includes the added installation called “Social Sculpture,” a large house made out of wood that’s meant to represent the idea of holding space for Black artists and designers. The museum will host public events in the space throughout the exhibition, prompted by Abloh’s art and interests.
“He really wanted to make sure that folks understood that his journey as an artist really starts with architecture and engineering,” Sargent said. “This social sculpture is his last realized project as a living artist. And it's going to be programmed by his community, and so you'll have artists, musicians, architects and designers coming and exchanging information and ideas.”
If the exhibition overwhelms patrons with a canon of ideas, that’s part of the point, since Abloh was a multi-hyphenate artist, meaning he explored a variety of mediums, Sargent explains.
“What was interesting to me particularly was that he often made things that came out of dialogue with him and his creative friends. And he didn't release them. He just made them and then sent them one,” Sargent said. “He was just constantly sort of working on ideas. And I just wanted to show that sort of process: that he was just so committed to getting his ideas out in the world in a way that did not necessarily mean it needs to be sold or shown in a museum.”
From Rockford to the runway
Abloh’s unorthodox rise to mainstream prominence began in Rockford, Illinois, in 1980. He was born to Ghanaian immigrant parents, and at a young age showed varying interests in skateboarding culture, music and art. He walked a traditional path in education, majoring in civil engineering at University of Wisconsin–Madison and receiving his Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Still harboring a desire to work in a creative field, Abloh began to pursue a career in fashion. In 2007, he met rapper Kanye West, and started designing albums, concert merchandise and overseeing the creative think tank Donda, named after West’s deceased mother.
“His working relationship with Kanye definitely did help propel him to a more mainstream place, but I think he was really one of the trailblazers of streetwear fashion,” said Shelton Boyd-Griffith, a fashion writer. “Pyrex Vision, his T-shirt brand, was huge.”
Abloh launched Pyrex Vision in 2012 with a film and collection of sportswear, made up mostly of vintage Ralph Lauren T-shirts the designer bought for $40 and then screen-printed designs onto. Abloh would shut down Pyrex that same year, saying it was never meant to be a full-fledged brand. The next year he became more intentional, launching Off-White. With its use of quotation marks around words, trademark zip-ties, capital letters and barricade tape, the brand became one of the most recognizable streetwear lines.
“I think being in spaces, these cultural spaces, and just being in these rooms with so many different creatives, I think people just took notice and you had no choice but to take notice,” Boyd-Griffith said. “Eventually Louis Vuitton was like, ‘Yeah, we need you!’”
Abloh’s ascent to artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection began in 2018 and was widely viewed as a grand step in diversifying the overwhelming white luxury business. Abloh was one of the few Black designers at the helm of a legacy French fashion house.
“He always talked about touching back into a child's innocence, and how when you're a child, you just are so unafraid to create, try things and to do things,” Boyd-Griffith said. “And looking back at his career, he did so many things.”
"He opened the doors to everyone"
Jesse Walk, a multi-hyphenate designer and artist with his own agency and clothing line, has been a fan of Abloh’s since the Pyrex days, and actually met the designer last year in Paris.
“We went to the Louis Vuitton store, and I jokingly asked the employee as we’re looking around, ‘Where’s Virgil?’” Walk said. “And she goes, ‘He's actually like right outside – good luck!’”
Walk and his friends found Abloh and his team celebrating the release of a new collection, and followed them to a nearby movie theater where a movie made for the new collection was being screened. As the event began to wrap up, Walk approached Abloh to congratulate him.
“I'm like, ‘Congrats on the event, that was super cool!’” Walk recalled. “He was like, ‘Thank you so much!’ And I was like, ‘I'm not gonna lie – I snuck in.’ And then he goes, ‘I would do the same!’” Walk said.
Walk said he’d been aware of the exhibition since its inception in Chicago, and couldn't wait for it to come to New York City.
“I still think about Virgil's work all the time,” he said. “He showed everyone again just through kindness and generosity that you can do it too. And he opened the doors to everyone.”
"Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech" is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 29th, 2023; brooklynmuseum.org