Virgil Abloh, the multihyphenate creative who passed away on Sunday, inspired a clear and rapacious passion from his fans, which in addition to athletes, celebrities, and everyone in between, included legions of young people around the globe — devotees of his many aesthetic whims.
But for Abloh’s detractors, the relationship was possibly even more emotional. He was an enthusiastic connoisseur of Nineties and 2000s subcultures — skateboarding, DJ’ing, graffiti — offering a reflection of underground concerns in the mainstream. His ascent offered nothing short of an internal reckoning for people who grew up with a particular set of niche sensibilities. How was it possible for Abloh not to feel a reflexive sense of suspicion towards elite purveyors of luxury and fashion, historically and likely irreparably aligned with the forces that push people into the underground as a matter of necessity? From one vantage point, the designer was sharing the secrets of a population defined by recoiling from pop culture. From another, he was radically generous with the things he cared about.
In his brand Off-White, as well as in his role as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division, he introduced garments inspired by the looks of graffiti artists, rappers, and punks. He proffered a pro-model shoe to the skateboarder Lucien Clarke. Abloh didn’t see a need to hide the things he loved because he loved everything and everyone. On his own accord, he was known to reach out to countless young creatives, offering them a push forward. No matter what pocket of the culture you find yourself in, your Instagram feed is no doubt filled with deeply personal tributes to Abloh, memories of encounters, and words of encouragement.
In the wake of his death, there has been an admirable and significant reflection on Abloh’s impact as a Black designer within the historically white world of high-fashion, and on his role as a gate-crasher, opening the doors for new voices and new imagery.
Still, there is an impulse to protect totems of culture from co-option by oppressive forces. We bemoan Hollywood casting decisions and seek the proper credit for TikTok trends as a matter of political urgency, redressing longstanding systemic cruelty. Abloh saw a different route entirely. A rejection of the existing cultural framework as a whole. In a 2019 op-ed for The New York Times, he wrote that “in the digital world, the myth of power persists as a construct. To believe that you have power is to have it.”
To Abloh, the current generation “have been graced with equity at birth,” making all of our worldly political concerns irrelevant. Back then, it was easy to imagine forcefully picking apart the idea as naive. Surely, Abloh understood what the oppressed were up against: That it is harder to create power from lack than from plenty.
Or is it?
Abloh continues, describing this generation of digital natives as possessing a “self-earned influence.” One that has made way for “a new species of power that has less to do with silver spoons or nepotism, and everything to do with the numbers that quantify influence.”
Abloh’s view of digital culture is strikingly utopian, but rooted in what feels like a necessary optimism. His project wasn’t simply making space for more designers who looked like him, but of rendering useless a framework that sees the need to preface a designer’s work with their identity.
The same goes for the cultures that inspired him. A Louis Vuitton skate shoe, on its face, is a confounding mash-up of disparate ideas — a luxury sneaker made to be destroyed by an activity that (despite endless efforts) can never be metabolized by the world of luxury fashion. And yet, there are now scores of young skateboarders around the world with keys to rooms they’d never been allowed into otherwise.
What Virgil Abloh accomplished, what made him truly brilliant, wasn’t that he simply made elite spaces more diverse. His project was in diffusing their power. Put simply, he knew what happens when you invite a bunch of skaters, graffiti artists, and DJs to a high-brow function.
Last month, around Halloween, he DJ’d an afterparty for a Lower Manhattan gallery opening. How I found myself in attendance remains a puzzle. I’d gone to the opening at the invitation of a friend, and in a series of events reserved for premium-cable series, found myself strolling through Manhattan with one of Abloh’s longtime collaborators.
Outside the venue, the two young women tasked with watching the door were intent on not letting me in. Here, I thought, was the universe humbling me. Surely someone had seen my various tweets or text messages hating on Abloh’s output. I braced myself for the blistering recognition of hypocrisy when our generation’s magic words wafted through the air: “I’ll text Virgil.”
Inside, filled with a needed dose of humble pie, I watched the crowd undulate to Abloh’s eccentric method of spinning. Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy” made way for Wizkid before, at some point, Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA.” It was probably the only time in my life I’ll ever hear MF Doom on a dance floor.
There was no one like Virgil Abloh, and it bears repeating that we lost him far too soon. He was gone before his biggest haters could realize they might have been his biggest fans.
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