“QUESTION EVERYTHING” reads the black and white flag waving in front of Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, coyly relabeled “City Hall” for the duration of Virgil Abloh’s new exhibition, Figures of Speech, which opens Monday.
Abloh has certainly faced his share of questions, starting with how a first-gen Ghanaian-American from Rockford, Ill., rose to the heights of the fashion world within less than a decade of launching his own line. Or whether his tongue-in-cheek, often utilitarian and “meta” design trademarks are more gimmick than genius—and derivative, at that. And most recently, do the predominantly white design and production team behind Abloh’s Off-White belie our expectations of one of the few black designers to make it to worldwide recognition and influence?
Speaking with an auditorium of assembled press on Friday, Abloh didn’t apologize for the demographics of his design team—instead, he scoffed, “I show my office for two seconds, and then I get in trouble for that ... I’m not going to pretend that Off-White is just me, doing the work of 80 people in Italy.” Neither did Abloh attempt to qualify his aesthetics or the role consumerism plays in his success.
“‘Consumer,’ obviously in my language, isn’t a bad word. it’s free education; it’s curiosity,” he told the crowd during a Q&A.
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“I’m a consumer,” he later laughed.
But whether Abloh’s designs resonate with you personally, there’s little argument that he’s prolific. Though lauded as a fashion designer, the former architect creates in multiple mediums, including sculpture, painting, furniture, jewelry and product design, graphics, and ceramics, amassing an output of work that more than filled the galleries at MCA.
Of course, it’s a commendable feat for any living artist to warrant his own museum exhibition; particularly one who has only risen to the zeitgeist in the past five years. It’s an accomplishment not lost on Abloh, who said, “I took it with great responsibility, the opportunity to show in a museum at this stage of my career. You know, that’s not afforded to everyone.”
“With this exhibition, we are very, very proud to be part of breaking through this latest barrier with Virgil,” Pritzker Director of the MCA Madeleine Grynsztejn told the audience. “But we’re also interested in breaking down the barriers of entry for Chicago youth, today, more than ever—many of whom will be coming to the museum for the first time and will be inspired [and] encouraged to create as a result of this exhibition.”
Inspiring and empowering Chicago youth has been the theme of Abloh’s most recent return to his hometown, which kicked off with the launch of the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center c/o Virgil Abloh on nearby Michigan Avenue. From the installation itself to the exhibition’s over 500-page monograph (already available for discounted preorder at Amazon), Abloh has the next generation of unexpected visionaries as his focus.
“[T]his exhibition, this book are kind of like the ‘cheat codes’ that kids can take to go out and forge a career like himself,” said MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling. “He wants this exhibition to create five more Virgil Ablohs.”
The exhibition, framed as “a tour through Virgil’s career” centers on Abloh’s seeming survival—and success—strategy: Create, at all costs. The collaged “Culture Wall” which opens the exhibition serves as a visual autobiography chronicling Abloh’s many early influences, from skateboarding to Jay-Z and Pharrell to German-American architect Mies van der Rohe (who also made a home on Chicago). But as Abloh tells it, his biggest inspirations came just a short block away from the MCA.
“The grid system of the city itself—the way that Chicago is set up, obviously is like, pretty distinct markers ... but everything sort of connects to the center; you know, just where we’re at [at MCA],” Abloh explained. “Me and the collective of artists such as Kanye [West] and our, sort of, crew, we all met at that center, but a block away from the museum [on Michigan Avenue], because we always felt the museum wasn’t in dialogue with anything that we were interested in, but Louis Vuitton was, or Nike was, or Ralph Lauren was.”
Along with Chicago-based artist Theaster Gates and frequent collaborator Dev Hynes (Blood Orange), Kanye got his own look at the exhibit ahead of its opening. Speaking with the press, Abloh reminisced on how far the two fashion-obsessed friends had come since the days that they would “fly to Paris, get dressed up to go to a fashion show, and then somebody with like, an earphone mic, would be like, ‘Your whole trip stops here.’”
“I started out screenprinting shirts from the South Side of Chicago to convince the head of the biggest luxury group that I should steer one of the arms of the biggest quotients of it,” Abloh remarked.
Abloh’s ascension to the helm of menswear at Louis Vuitton was what Figures of Speech exhibit designer Samir Bantal, director of AMO (the research studio of Abloh influencer Rem Koolhaas’s renowned firm OMA) called an “Obama moment in fashion.” But Abloh spoke about his evolution more plainly; specifically addressing remarks many perceived as admitting to imposter syndrome when he spoke to Vanity Fair last year.
“There’s all these sort of preconceptions in the world about what a designer is. Being a rational person, I was like, ‘I’m not a designer, I’m a consumer,” Abloh explained. “There’s sort of this prototype for what a ‘designer’ looks like, and I didn’t look like that.”
That dichotomy was the impetus for the gallery within Figures of Speech titled “Black Gaze,” which Chief Curator Darling calls “the beating heart of the exhibition.” It opens with a tableau of mannequins Abloh designed for Louis Vuitton, many of which depict casual young male stances, posed beneath a flickering neon sign that reads: “You’re obviously in the wrong place.”
“[It was] for me, as a black male from Chicago, to exist not only in spaces that I’m a stark minority but also to sort of vent and voice the inherent boxes that we place ourselves in,” Abloh said. “With just the idea of being born on a specific place on Earth, we draw lines between each other.”
One of the most striking installations in “Black Gaze” is “Options,” a piece comprised of 16 yellow evidence markers (actually soft mini-sculptures) arranged on the gallery’s floor. The piece immediately calls to mind the 16 shots fired into Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald by CPD officer Jason Van Dyke in 2014. Juxtaposed against Abloh’s inverted reinterpretation of the iconic cotton logo, evoking the fiber’s long association with black labor and exploitation, “Options” also inevitably nods at the prison industrial complex.
“Our city is sort of known—which is a shame—amongst these other beautiful things, it’s always known as like, these stark statistics of reality,” Abloh said. “To me, [Options] is a work of me having a dialogue with the youth of Chicago that have the same skin tone as me ... [to say] this is an unfortunate circumstance, but the work that surrounds it is your option.
“Essentially, if you choose a life that is devoid of that scenario, you can work at Louis Vuitton; you can make paintings about your circumstance; you can work for Nike, or you could work at Ikea,” he continued. “You can be a Chicago kid who looks like me and create everything around it and not be a victim to the statistics.”
While the sentiment may feel overly idealistic, Abloh assures us his intent is serious—and has been at the heart of all of his work.
“The ‘Black Gaze’ is the place for the serious twist in my work, where it’s not all fun and games with graphics and clothes,” he explained. “This is the moment, I call it ‘The Trojan horse.’ Once you enter that room, it’s like, ‘that was the message from the very first moment.’...
“[If you] understand the ‘Black Gaze,’ you understand that’s been the sort of mid-layer of the work the whole time,” Abloh added. “It was all about getting to a megaphone loud enough and pointing it enough for me to let that message come up to the top, and that was that the idea of luxury fashion in 2019-20 doesn’t sort of fit one person, or one type, or one assumption...I was just sort of presenting a moment for me and my community to kind of have a seat at that same table....it was my mission to see if luxury could be inclusive in a real way.”
In the context of the entire exhibition, the “Black Gaze” also seems to translate to Abloh’s ability to shift between disciplines. Each gallery seems to represent a type of creative code-switching likely familiar to any black aspirant; the compulsion to be not only well-versed but that much better than our white counterparts at whatever is thrown our way.
And yet, Abloh is also pragmatic about what consumerism entails; how it fuels his success and impacts our interpretation of everything, including art. Unsurprisingly, the exhibit is accompanied by a pop-up store Abloh named “Church & State,” which features collaborations between the artist and the museum and Off-White reissues at a variety of price points, released throughout the exhibition’s run. (For example, a “Culture Wall”-inspired Off-White MCA handbag retails for $1,800, but so too are there pencils, notebooks and smaller items.)
“That show upstairs, on one hand, is a bunch of stuff,” Abloh said prior to our viewing. “On the level that it is art, it’s a dissection and understanding about what advertising is; advertising in a metaphorical sense, because of all of us, or me as that kid on Michigan Avenue, I just looked in images for value. I looked to see what I should wear; I looked to see what I should think...after this journey that I’ve been on, I just realize that we as a society put so much value on this ‘swoosh’,” he said, pointing at his blue Nikes (one of his own Off-White x Nike designs, of course) and jokingly referring to them to as “institutional Nikes,” as they are now products of the fashion industry.
“There’s no better education than for the kid who wants these blue pair of sneakers to just go into Foot Locker two blocks away, buy them for $60, paint them blue, and find a reg tag at the Home Depot, and of a sudden, you have a one-of-one version of my shoe,” Abloh laughed. “That’s the brilliance of youth culture—that’s what I would do.”
To foster and hopefully further that brilliance, on Monday, Abloh and the museum introduced the MCA Chicago x Virgil Abloh Design Challenge, an Instagram-based, multi-disciplinary design challenge for Chicagoland youth aged 14 to 21 with the open prompt to “take something boring or broken and make it extraordinary.” Open through July 12, many of the competition’s submissions will be displayed in the museum later this summer.
“The design challenge is a way for all of us to sort of put some skin in the game, in terms of fostering something new and sort of opening the door for a wider audience that relates to contemporary institutions,” Abloh said.
“That’s what this exhibit is about,” he added. “[I]t’s to make that journey from what I had to do to get this stage in my career, make it 10 times shorter for those looking for that avenue,” quickly making it clear that he was referring to “all cultures.”
“I’m very much like a ‘kumbaya’ [type]; not just one section of one part of the globe,” he said, explaining that his egalitarianism extends to creation. “I don’t feel responsible to a preconceived notion of art. I feel more responsible to community that is trying to change the tide or to sort live in an optimistic society that art, design, music and fashion actually change the world for the better.”
Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech is on view at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art through September 22; the MCA Chicago x Virgil Abloh Design Challenge runs through July 12. Information on both is available here.