Meaningful cross-pollination of visual art, music, architecture, and fashion generally involves direct collaboration among cross-disciplinary experts. The late contemporary polymath Virgil Abloh collaborated with a far-reaching array of fellow masters, but his own oeuvre serves as a singular triumph that defies boundaries and categorization.
Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech at the Brooklyn Museum is a fungible journey through the pioneering creator’s prolific career, which ended abruptly with his death from cancer at age 41 November 28, 2021.
On view through January 29, 2023, the exhibition, originally conceived by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, showcases objects from Abloh’s fashion label Off-White, designs from Louis Vuitton, where he became the first Black person to serve as menswear artistic director of the multi-billion-dollar French luxury behemoth, and a selection of his myriad collaborations with artist Takashi Murakami, musician Kanye West, and architect Rem Koolhaas.
I was fortunate to experience an iteration of the exhibition days before his death at Fire Station in Doha, Qatar, during a press trip for QatarCreates. Viewing Abloh’s diverse achievements across multiple rooms and floors in the repurposed space was a highlight of the cultural celebration intersecting art, fashion, and design, through a wide range of exhibitions, awards, public talks, and special events in the capital and most populous city of Qatar, situated on the coast of the Persian gulf.
Unique to the Brooklyn Museum show is Abloh’s “social sculpture,” focalized in the central atrium of the Museum’s Great Hall, which underscores his training as an architect. Architectural elements abound throughout Abloh’s career in subtle and overt ways, such as the structure of the black-and-white striped gown he custom crafted for Beyoncé’s September 2018 Vogue cover, his foam and plexiglass Illinois Institute of Technology Master’s Thesis Building, his audacious Nike prototypes, and the font he uses to inscribe messages on merchandise like “All Your Leaders Get Persecuted”.
The “social sculpture” welcomes visitors for gathering and performances, and draws us back to his academic roots and into his creative multiverse and legacy. As we explore the interior space within an interior space, we’re reminded that Abloh strove to break down physical, racial, and social barriers. Working within Louis Vuitton, he informed the gaze of a brand that’s best known for its ubiquitous LV monogram handbags and accessories, subverting its static styles and colors. Even as it broadened Abloh’s profile, his contribution to Louis Vuitton is inarguably a bigger win for the subsidiary of LVMH, which reported revenue of €64.2 billion in 2021.
The Brooklyn Museum exhibition also explores Abloh’s relationship with New York City, where he worked as a guest designer for Black fashion innovator Shayne Oliver’s label Hood By Air, and became part of rapper A$AP Rocky’s collective A$AP Mob. Emerging and rising to fame in Chicago, where he broke into international fashion alongside Kanye West when they interned at Fendi in 2009, Abloh’s influence on and interactions with street fashion and hip-hop isn’t bound by geography.
An homage to and an extension of Abloh’s commercial savvy and prowess, the exhibition incorporates a shop, Church & State, selling apparel and accessories that Abloh conceptualized Abloh designed in 2019 exclusively for the Brooklyn Museum.
Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech is organized by Michael Darling, former James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. The Brooklyn Museum presentation is organized by writer and curator Antwaun Sargent.