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The Arc of Virgil Abloh

An MCA retrospective highlights his path from emerging Chicago designer to global cultural force.

Virgil Abloh
Photo: Alex Majol/Magnum Photos

The Arc of Virgil Abloh

An MCA retrospective highlights his path from emerging Chicago designer to global cultural force.

Last year, Virgil Abloh made international headlines when he was named artistic director of the menswear division of Louis Vuitton. He was the first black man to take the reins of the revered Parisian house, and the appointment of Abloh, the proprietor of the cult-favorite label Off-White, signaled the arrival of streetwear — a mainstay of youth culture and hip-hop — to the front lines of fashion.

But even before upending luxury menswear, the 38-year-old globetrotting Abloh, who makes his home primarily in Chicago, had spent
his early career exploring various creative domains. Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” a retrospective running June 10 to September 22 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, underscores that. “Like Merce Cunningham or David Bowie, Virgil can go beyond his known field into other disciplines,” says MCA chief curator Michael Darling. “He finds it all endlessly fascinating.”

Here, Darling deciphers a few of Abloh’s contributions at the intersections of art, music, fashion, design, and culture.

Beyoncé dress
Photos: Courtesy of Museum Of Contemporary Art Chicago

Dress for Beyoncé, 2018

“Virgil created this for her for the cover of the September 2018 Vogue. But it wasn’t selected, so it’s become mythical.”

 

Pressing plate for Watch the Throne cover

Pressing plate for Watch the Throne cover, 2011

Abloh was nominated for a Grammy for his design of Jay-Z and Kanye West’s album. (Abloh was West’s creative director at the time.) “This is the actual plate that was used to emboss the album.”

 

Bag for Off-White

Bag for Off-White, 2017

“His use of quotes is something that has become a signature of his. The juxtaposition of this fancy handbag and this word speaks to the fact that this bag probably costs as much as a sculpture.”

 

Air Jordans for Nike and Off-White

Air Jordans for Nike and Off-White, 2017

“Virgil grew up in Rockford during the reign of Michael Jordan, and for a skateboarder, shoes were important signifiers of your level of taste. So Virgil deconstructed the first-ever Air Jordans to emphasize what made them iconic: He flipped material inside out, moved the swoosh, put ‘Air’ on the heel.”

 

Chrome grid table

Chrome grid table, 2018

This piece in some ways recalls Abloh’s training: He has a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. “He’s starting to work with Paris-based Galerie Kreo, which only works with the best furniture designers. Through furniture, he is finding new ways to make life exciting for himself.”

 

‘Dollar a Gallon’

Dollar a Gallon, 2018

“He has started to make objects that are more understood as art. This multimedia installation is from his first show, at a gallery Takashi Murakami runs in Tokyo. It’s a Sunoco station sign that’s blacked out, with blacked-out billboards surrounding it. It’s a dystopian, postapocalyptic view of the urban landscape.”

 

Windbreaker for Off-White

Windbreaker for Off-White, 2013

“This is from his very first collection, where you see the signature diagonal stripes. He used the word ‘white’ so often when he launched Off-White because he wanted us to think about why this color has so many racial, political, cultural connotations.”

 

Paper Clip Bracelet for Off-White and Jacob & Co.

Paper Clip Bracelet for Off-White and Jacob & Co., 2017

“As a kid, Virgil looked up to rappers with fancy necklaces, so stringing paper clips together would mimic that. He took that design to the most famous hip-hop jeweler and had him make it out of gold and diamonds.”

 

Rug prototype for IKEA

Rug prototype for IKEA, 2018

“For this collaboration, Virgil studied how millennials decorate their apartments to understand how people create and express their identities through furniture. Then he made receipts into rugs, making us think about objects that are under our feet every day.”

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