Virgil Abloh is looking backward and forward to determine his place in fashion and art history. A rule-breaker in both spaces, he studied engineering and architecture before teaming up with Kanye West as a creative partner and the lead for West’s multidisciplinary DONDA design project. Then came Abloh’s initial fashion endeavor, Pyrex Vision, which led to the development of his sought-after, high-fashion streetwear brand Off-White in 2013. He has since partnered with brands from Nike and Moncler to Jimmy Choo and Vilebrequin—as well as Ikea and Evian—to put his distinctive stamp on joint design projects. Abloh reached the pinnacle of his many art and fashion initiatives last year, when he was named artistic director for Louis Vuitton men’s.
Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech is another apex moment for the designer that comes in the form of an exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Now open, the retrospective is the first exhibit dedicated to Abloh and was designed by Samir Bantal, director of the Rem Koolhaas-founded architecture think-tank AMO. The immersive showcase explores the evolution of Abloh’s dimensional creativity across his career and his ability to connect visual art, music, design, and architecture into a unique genre all its own.
A master of reference and reinterpretation, Abloh nods to irony and perception, which has set him apart in the design arena. He culls inspiration from a wide range of sources, including Michael Jordan, Tony Hawk, Marcel Duchamp, and Andy Warhol. These interests collide into a faceted worldview that blends established arts and the contemporary horizon. His vantage is thoroughly postmodern, favoring a spirit of inclusion and collaboration in all his ventures. Here, CR speaks with Abloh and Bantal about breaking barriers within the fashion and art industries, the importance of cultural connectivity in design, and why creativity best flourishes without strategy or limits.
Your creative approach connects many worlds: streetwear, luxury, art, music, and design. How do you balance the continuity of the varied parts?
Virgil Abloh: “For me, all is interconnected—each outlet is a source of inspiration for the other. The balance is natural.”
In what way does collaboration inform the interdisciplinary vision and reach of your work?
VA: “In my reality, things happen in conjunction with other people, and rather than projecting this idea that I am the inventor of everything, I just put to the forefront the way I work and the way I think, which is always in dialogue. I've always believed that if someone's on Earth practicing something that you admire, you should connect. I’m the type of person who calls them in on a project.”
You have referred to yourself as an outsider in the art world. Does a non-traditional view provide you better objectivity?
VA: “I think I’ve been an outsider, and still am an outsider, in most of these worlds. When I first started in fashion, I was cast as a new prototype. Fashion designers generally didn't look like me. I was first trained as an architect, and during those years from the early 2000s, when I was learning the practice of OMA, they were creating a type of architecture that allowed me to think beyond just constructing buildings—affecting the culture landscape through the lens of architecture. I think from there, I’ve been trained to think about the larger impact of everything, to look past what’s right in front of you.”
You have said that your larger goal is for streetwear to be perceived as an art movement. How do you envision depth and longevity for the genre?
VA: “I think this is really a movement in the early stages, it’s just getting started. ‘Streetwear’ is a placeholder—our culture is still finding value in this art form. It feels new. The next generation is full talents who want to make their voices heard. They’ll keep the movement going.”
How is the MCA exhibition organized to reflect different facets of Virgil’s practice?
Samir Bantal: “The work is organized along the themes ‘Fashion,’ ‘Music,’ ‘Intermezzo,’ ‘Black Gaze,’ ‘Art & Design,’ and ‘Architecture’ in order to make a first attempt at creating an inventory of serious involvement in each domain. Rather than a chronological overview, the work displays the interconnectedness of the domains through deliberate and unprompted collaborations in fashion and music.”
The retrospective spans two decades of vast creativity. What is the larger narrative that binds the work across time and media?
SB: “Essential in Virgil’s work seems to be his initial training as an architect. [As] an engineer, his analytical view to deconstruct, contextualize, and reconstruct prototypes rather than finished and polished products. The prototype is an open-ended position of dialogue and experimentation that always leads to refreshing insights. The prototype enables Virgil to get invited to new domains, free of preconceived doctrine.”
VA: “For me, Figures is an art exhibition rooted in advertising and ‘the projected image.’ Any time an idea takes shape on a particular surface—a photo print, a screen, a billboard, or canvas—it becomes real. This exhibition demonstrates how I wrestle with this concept freed from any one medium, looking for personal and specific solutions. This 20-year survey shows how I am constantly looking for a way to transform myself from consumer to producer, navigating a path between ‘Tourist’ and ‘Purist,’ between the literal and the figurative.”
Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago from now until September 22, 2019.