Art

Virgil Abloh’s New Retrospective Showcases His Skill for Making Hype-Worthy Art and Fashion

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Ayanna Dozier

Portrait of Virgil Abloh by Fabien Montique. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, NY.

Installation view of Virgil Abloh, Social Sculpture, 2022, in “Figures of Speech,” at Brooklyn Museum. © Virgil Abloh. Photo by Danny Perez. Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, NY.

Not everyone could turn a $40 flannel shirt into a $550 high-fashion garment, but that was the magic of the late Virgil Abloh, a multidisciplinary artist who transformed the most banal items into hypo-worthy spectacles. His first creative brand PYREX VISION, launched in 2012 and relaunched as Off-White in 2013, infamously “upcycled” deadstock (or unsold) Ralph Lauren shirts by screenprinting the word “Pyrex” and the number 23 (after Michael Jordan) onto them— then marking them up by roughly 1,000%.

Abloh’s knack for cultural hype landed him collaborations with Kanye West in 2009 and later Louis Vuitton, where, in 2018, he became the first Black director to oversee the company since its 1854 inception. Making design accessible to new audiences was crucial to Abloh, who received his master’s degree in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006. The artist, who passed away in November 2021, leaves a legacy of merging high and low culture and prioritizing BIPOC (Black , Indigenous, and People of Color) youth as the tastemakers of society. A new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum celebrates Abloh’s inclusive approach to art, design, and fabrication.

Installation view of “Figures of Speech,” 2022 at Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Danny PerezCourtesy of Brooklyn Museum, NY.

The show, “Figures of Speech,” is the most recent stop of a traveling retrospective; it was organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2019 and initially curated by Michael Darling. The Brooklyn Museum iteration opens on July 1st, with curation by Antwaun Sargent. Abloh had a hand in the design and layout for the exhibition, which was originally scheduled to open in 2020 but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The title refers to Abloh’s extensive use of quotation marks to turn the language within them into figures of speech. The curators have laid out the exhibition like a showroom and even included a merch store, “Church and State,” which allows Abloh’s flair for maximalist fashion to take center stage. One exhibition highlight is an all-white, winged garment, which hails from Abloh’s fall/winter 2022 show with Louis Vuitton, the last collection he oversaw. The angelic leather ensemble, inspired by both urban streetwear and Baroque fashion, captures the audience’s eye with its skeletal lace wings, leather harness, and grand scale. It does exactly what haute couture should do: overwhelm the body and turn it into a sculptural work of art.

Installation view of “Figures of Speech,” 2022 at Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Danny PereCourtesy of Brooklyn Museum, NY.

Such pieces situate Abloh as a descendent of the legendary Harlem streetwear designer Dapper Dan who, in the 1980s, cut up Gucci and leather goods to make extreme streetwear and turned 125th Street into a personal runaway for its residents. The numerous racks of clothes, arrays of shoes, sketches, and garment prototypes in “Figures of Speech” outline Abloh’s approach to fashion as both a conceptual art practice and a performance. He hoped his work, and the exhibition at large, would inspire a new generation of artists.

Abloh saw the show as an “invitation” for viewers to start sketching in notebooks or be creative in different ways. Abloh himself never stopped innovating or working in new forms, and his approach to exhibition construction translates his ideas about fashion and design to a new medium.

Virgil Abloh in collaboration with Pioneer DJ and OJAS, Transparent DJM-900NXS2-P1 and Transparent CDJ-2000NXS2-P1, 2018. © Gymnastics Art Institute. Photo by Danny Perez. Courtesy of Gymnastics Art Institute & Virgil Abloh Securities.

Abloh’s multihyphenate practice has always embraced inclusion, especially in traditionally sealed-off institutions—like the world of fashion itself. This is emphasized in the sculpture Transparent DJM-900NXS2-P1 and Transparent CDJ-2000NXS2-P1 (2018), where CD players and speakers—which harken back to Abloh’s DJ background—play audio from the 1990 Julia Roberts film Pretty Woman.

The audio coincides with the infamous sequence in which elicit showroom employees deny Roberts’s character access to a luxury brand store, due to her street walker attire. The scene reflects a universal experience for many lower-income or BIPOC youth who venture into luxury showrooms and face prudish employees who want to deny them access—though it’s those young, would-be customers who have actual fashion taste.

Installation view of Virgil Abloh, Social Sculpture, 2022, in “Figures of Speech,” at Brooklyn Museum. © Virgil Abloh. Photo by Danny PereCourtesy of Brooklyn Museum, NY.

The Brooklyn Museum show demonstrates how Abloh’s career as both a conceptual artist and director of Louis Vuitton centered such individuals as the trendsetters. It features a trio of green foam sculptures of BIPOC youth in hoodies and sweats that Abloh constructed for Louis Vuitton’s spring/summer 2019 collection, “Dark Side of the Rainbow.” The sculptures, restaged in this exhibition, were initially cast against a neon yellow sign that stated “You’re obviously in the Wrong Place.” Abloh welcomes a previously excluded audience into the space and exalts its presence through such sculpture and cultural programing.

Another example of Abloh’s BIPOC-oriented youth practice lies with the site-specific, participatory installation SOCIAL SCULPTURE (2022), a piece that resembles a house made from local hardwood store materials. The installation will be the site of the extensive public programming that centers BIPOC youth over the course of the exhibition. Sargent, the show’s curator, emphasized that BIPOC youth will also have a role in programming. “Abloh was known to staff his atelier and studio with BIPOC youth in key roles of production and artistic design,” he said, “[for] he was dedicated to providing the tools to support and train the next generation.”

Installation view of “Figures of Speech,” 2022 at Brooklyn Museum. Photo by Danny Courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, NY.

Anne Pasternak, director of the Brooklyn Museum, reiterated Abloh’s commitment to the next generation in her press preview remarks. She described Abloh as “passionately kicking open gates of opportunity. He wanted to give young people, especially BIPOC youth, opportunities to express their geniuses, and to shape culture and our society.” Abloh’s pulse on youth culture was ever-evolving, inclusive, and, ultimately, cut short.

“Figures of Speech” continues to tap into Abloh’s magic of knowing how to define and build hype. This is a difficult task for institutions as they now work to define the legacy of Abloh, for as Dapper Dan puts it: “How do you define air?”

Ayanna Dozier

Ayanna Dozier is Artsy’s Staff Writer.

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