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A Black man in a dark suit with dots of color wears a white shirt and a dark tie that reads “A formality.”
The late Virgil Abloh attending Paris Fashion Week in July of 2021.
Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

Virgil Abloh’s stylish wordplay

The multitalented fashion designer, who died at 41, will be remembered for his genius, his sense of irony, and his many challenges to fashion’s status quo.

Certain terms crop up every now and then during particular moments in pop culture: “Curator” is one that’s recently been used to describe a host of creative tasks unrelated to its historical use; “creator” or “creative” as a noun is another that’s rapidly come to the fore. The use of such words can be empowering, giving names and shapes to concepts that might otherwise seem outside our grasp.

These terms also come under critique; they can be limiting, keeping some people in while rejecting others. But in that liminal space is room to make paths, to draft new worlds, to — as Octavia Butler put it — write yourself in.

Virgil Abloh, who died from a rare cardiac cancer November 28 at the age of 41, played with the contrary in language and art; his label, Off-White, is quite literally named after the space in between polarities. Like Black creative production has done for centuries on end, he bent language, played with it, funked it up, stretched it to its limits to see what words could do, to see what else was possible.

He adamantly resisted boxes — unless, of course, he could write “SHOEBOX” on them in all caps and with quotations. The both/and of it all was a part of Abloh’s aim. Of this middle space, this sense of teetering the line, people cheered, others laughed at his wit, and others critiqued because they were unimpressed, disappointed, or expected more from him. All in all, it got the people talking.

Never one to follow all the rules, Abloh’s very presence — most definitively his appointment as the first Black designer to helm a branch of Louis Vuitton — pushed against the grammar of a fashion system that for so long has excluded Black people. He chose the word “maker” to describe his profession, which spanned a host of mediums, beginning with his education in engineering and architecture that later melted into his love of music and design.

A Black man in an all-white suit with the word “Modernism” written across its front.
Abloh attending the 2021 Met Gala.
John Shearer/WireImage

Apt to wear many hats, in the early 2000s, Abloh balanced his job at an architecture firm in Chicago with writing for a streetwear blog called The Brilliance, offering details about his recent purchases, opinions on design, and jaunts through major fashion and arts events (by this time, he had already begun his famed acquaintanceship with Kanye West). Calum Gordon, writing for Garage in 2018, connected Abloh’s blog posts to the manifestation of his earlier designs, from screen-printing the name of his first fashion brand “Pyrex 23” on Ralph Lauren Rugby shirts to his use of quotation marks on everything from Nike Air Jordans to a “Lewis Vuitton” jumpsuit and jacket he designed for his mid-career retrospective Figures of Speech in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Such aesthetic moves fell under the rubric of Abloh’s contentious “3 percent” approach — the idea, as he told Doreen St. Felix in 2019 for the New Yorker, that you can create a new design by changing the original by 3 percent. These practices are what also constantly brought him under fire. To him, spelling out words in Helvetica fonts and placing quotation marks around them on any object that grabbed his attention (or that he was hired to design) meant a sneaker was not just a sneaker; it was instead a “SNEAKER.” Speaking of his use of quotation marks, Abloh told Fast Company in 2019, “It’s a device, it’s a contextualization of a word without getting into the design. It was always meant for that. I can be literal and figurative at the same time, or not.”

In his history-making role as the creative director for Louis Vuitton Men’s, Abloh continued experimenting with terms and language, pushing the fashion house forward in compelling and increasingly sophisticated ways. For his fall/winter 2021 show, he drew on James Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village,” first published in Harper’s in 1953 and then in his book Notes on a Native Son in 1955. In the piece, Baldwin discusses his experience being the only Black person in a small Swiss village, which then prompts contrasts and comparisons to his experiences as a Black man in the United States. In his opening sentence, Baldwin writes: “From all available evidence no black man had ever set foot in this tiny Swiss village before I came.”

As written in the show notes for that season’s collection, Abloh drew on Baldwin’s experiences and critiques to investigate “the unconscious biases instilled in our collective psyche by the archaic norms of society.” For the video component of the show, Abloh bifurcated his runway, filming models and performers in a village in the Swiss mountains and on a set in Paris.

Exploring archetypes like the writer, the artist, the drifter, among others, there were spoken word performances by Saul Williams and Kai Isaiah Jamal, and musical ones by Yasiin Bey. In a review by Vogue’s Sarah Mower, Abloh said of the collection, which also included a printed fabric that harked back to his Ghanaian heritage but covered in the Louis Vuitton monogram, “There are a lot of stories mixing cultures. And from that, a new language will be created.”

The Off-White Menswear fall/winter 2019-2020 show at Paris Fashion Week.
Peter White/Getty Images

Of all the archetypes mentioned, one is eager to wonder if Abloh saw himself, the maker, as a stranger of sorts. While in Baldwin’s essay no Black man had set foot in the Swiss village, none had stepped into the role that Abloh had assumed at Louis Vuitton. One can only imagine what it must have felt like to be one of a few in this world of luxury — a bastion of excess and exclusion — that for so long had not cared about Black people’s perspectives on and experiences of fashion.

Near the end of the essay, Baldwin writes, “It remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance, and a voice,” and perhaps Abloh saw something in this line, too.

Certainly Baldwin was not referring to literal fashion, but one could connect the dots that lead to the core of what Abloh said was his responsibility as a maker “to a community that is trying to change the tide.” In an audio component that accompanied Abloh’s Figures of Speech, his collaborator and friend Tremaine Emory said of Abloh’s design sensibilities, “He took the means that he had, somewhat meager, and made something beautiful because he told a story … what we have to say is important and what we care about is important. That’s what streetwear is to me. It’s communication, language.”

Returning to the contrary nature of language: It’s difficult to find what to say during some of the most difficult periods, including grief. How to mourn a person with whom you had no personal relationship, never met? How to pay respects to someone whose artistic practices were simultaneously thorny and revered? How to memorialize someone who had seemingly done it all and was also just getting started? Maybe we do what he did: make, create.

What Abloh displayed was what language does, what it provokes one to do. Throughout his short but industry-defining career, Abloh drafted his own lexicon that was often open to critique and always up for grabs (because he kind of wanted it that way).

He is arguably a part of a cohort of Black designers that has inspired Black youth, specifically Gen Z and millennials, to describe themselves as creatives — a term that allows for some space to shapeshift, experiment, explore, get it wrong if you need to a couple of times. Within Abloh’s lexicon one can create their own T-shirt line and have it never just be a T-shirt. Instead, whole communities of belonging can be formed around one. Now that’s a “T-shirt.”

Rikki Byrd is a writer, educator, and curator living in Chicago.

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