Certain terms are used at certain moments in pop culture every now and again: “Curator” is one that’s recently been used to describe a wide range of creative tasksIt is not related to its historical usage; “creator”Or “creative” as a noun is another that’s rapidly come to the fore. These words can be transformative, giving names and shapes that help us understand concepts that might seem beyond our reach.
These terms can also be criticised. They can be restrictive and keep some people in, while rejecting others. But in that liminal space is room to make paths, to draft new worlds, to — Octavia Butler put the idea. — write yourself in.
Virgil Abloh, 41, died November 28 from a rare form of cardiac cancer. His label Off-White is named after the space between polarities. As Black creative production has done for centuries, he played with language, altered it, and pushed it to the limits.
He adamantly resisted boxes — unless, of course, he could write “SHOEBOX”These should be written in all caps and in quotations. The both/and of it all was a part of Abloh’s aim. This middle space, this feeling of teetering on the line, was what Abloh wanted. People cheered, others laughed, and still others chuckled at his wit. Criticisms were made because they were not impressed, disappointed, or expected more.From him. It was a great conversation starter.
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 fashionsystem that has for so long excluded Black people. He chose the word “maker”His profession was difficult to describe. It began with his education in engineering, architecture, and then he discovered his love for music. design.
Abloh attending 2021 Met Gala
Abloh, who is able to wear many hats in the early 2000s was able balance his job at Chicago’s architecture firm with his writing duties for a streetwear blog called The BrillianceHere are his latest purchases and his opinions. design, and jaunts though major fashionand arts events (by that time, he had already begun a famed acquaintanceship to Kanye West). Calum Gordon, Garage writing in 2018, connected Abloh’s blog posts to the manifestation of his earlier designs, from screen-printing the name of his first fashionbrand “Pyrex 23”Ralph Lauren Rugby shirtshis use of quotation marks for everything from Nike Air Jordans, to a “Lewis Vuitton”Jumpsuit and jacketHe designed for His mid-career retrospective Figures of Speech2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
Such aesthetic moves fell under the rubric of Abloh’s contentious “3 percent” approach — the idea, as Doreen St. Felix was the New Yorker’s 2019 correspondent.You can create a new one. designBy changing the original by 3% These practices are what also keep you occupied. His actions brought him under fire. For him, spelling words in Helvetica fontsPlacing quotation marks around objects that grab his attention (or were hired to). design() was a reference to a sneaker that was more than a sneaker. “SNEAKER.”Abloh speaks out about his use of quotation marks Fast Company, 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 fashionHouse forward in compelling and more 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. Baldwin writes about his experience as the only Black person living in a small Swiss village. This prompts comparisons with his experiences as a Black man living in the United States. Baldwin begins his sentence with: “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.”The video component of the showAbloh split his runway and filmed models and performers in a Swiss village and on a Paris set.
Among others, they explored archetypes such as the writer, artist, and the drifter. Saul Williams and Kai Isaiah Jamal performed spoken word and Yasiin Bety performed musical numbers. In a review by Vogue’s Sarah MowerAbloh spoke highly of the collection, which included a printed fabric that was reminiscent of his Ghanaian heritage, but was 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 showParis Fashion Week
Peter White/Getty Images
One of the archetypes is Abloh, who was seen as the maker, as a stranger among all. 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.
Baldwin writes at the end of the essay: “It remains for him to fashion out of his experience that which will give him sustenance, and a voice,”Perhaps Abloh was also interested in this line.
Baldwin was clearly not referring literally fashionHowever, one could connect all the dots that lead to Abloh’s core responsibility as a maker “to a community that is trying to change the tide.”In 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.”
How do you remember someone who seemed to have done it all, but was still just beginning?
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 do you grieve someone with whom you have never had a personal relationship? How do you pay tribute to someone whose artistic practice was both challenging and highly respected? How do you remember someone who seemed to have done it all, but was just beginning? Perhaps we can do what he did: Make, create.
Abloh was a great example of what language can do and what it can cause one to do. Abloh created his own lexicon throughout his short but influential career. It was open to criticism and always up for grabs. He wanted it that way.).
He is undoubtedly a part a Black designer group. Inspirational 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. You can create whole communities of belonging around one T-shirt. Now that’s a “T-shirt.”
Rikki ByrdShe is a Chicago-based writer, educator, curator.