The Critical Issue Virgil Abloh is Solving

Abloh’s rise to success is more than a fashion statement – it’s a sociological statement.

By Izzy Howell

“Virgil Abloh isn’t a real designer.”

As the first African American appointed as an artistic director of Louis Vuitton, Abloh has proven himself to be a revolutionary figure in the realm of high fashion. Abloh’s runway show was truly unique due to his unrelenting attention to detail, his forward thinking in regards to fashion, and his authentic adherence to inclusivity in every facet of his presentation. Before showing his 56-look collection, Abloh explained on his Instagram account that he wanted to create a “new vocabulary…a liberal definition of terms and explanation of ideas.” Stemming directly from his desire to re-engineer the words used to describe his garments, the designer ingeniously re-contextualized accessories in a process that he refers to as “acessomorphosis”: the bags and luggage that Louis Vuitton is known for were re- imagined as pieces of clothing themselves, providing a stunning symbol for Abloh’s larger re-imagination of what a luxury brand can look like, and who can participate in it. His commitment to modernizing fashion was underscored again in his choice to amalgamate street wear and luxury wear – a signature of Abloh’s that is perfectly in keeping with his own globally recognized label, Off White.

Abloh’s use of specific vocabulary associated with his designs surfaced again in the title of his collection: Color Theory. This title, combined with his masterfully color- blocked looks and his rainbow-painted runway, was a not-so-subtle nod to inclusivity on all fronts. It was a deliberate embrace of all genders, sexual orientations, ethnicities, races, and levels of ability – a firm statement that individuals who have long been barred from the world of high fashion were now being welcomed with open arms.

Many of the models, artists, and influencers studded the runway and the audience who, perhaps five – and certainly ten – years ago, would not have even been invited to such an event. Diversity was the (much needed) mainstay: the designs, models, audience members, and the designer himself all symbolized a shift in the fashion industry towards inclusivity and representation.

At the end of his show, after so many remarkable feats had seamlessly been brought together, Abloh embraced his longtime creative partner, Kanye West, in a hug that was teary, lengthy, and perceptively emotional. Abloh’s poignant display of male vulnerability ushered in a new definition of what success can look like for a man, 2 and proved that empathy and a public display of emotion can be fundamental components of that definition.

Remarkable too, is Abloh’s ascent to success: as the child of Ghanaian immigrants with a background in engineering and architecture – and no formal training in fashion – the designer has broken down barriers in more ways than one.

Therefore, in the wake of Abloh’s persistent remarkability, it is important to analyze why such comments questioning his creative capabilities arose in the first place. Before Abloh’s work for Louis Vuitton, he experimented with a street wear endeavor, Pyrex Vision, in which he silkscreened images, logos, and designs onto vintage flannel shirts. Many called Pyrex vision “anti-fashion,” claiming that, by repurposing vintage flannels, Abloh was not really designing; he was merely reconstructing. Abloh shut down Pyrex vision, explaining to Dazed Digital that it was “super…short minded” – more of an art project than a fashion project. Instead, he turned his attention to Off White: an artful melding of street wear and couture. Like Pyrex Vision, Off White was difficult for the fashion industry to process. At the time of Off White’s inception, accepting street wear and the community who predominantly wears street wear into mainstream fashion seemed nearly impossible for the fashion world to comprehend. Yet, Off White captured the attention of the world’s most distinguished retailers, catapulting its sales and renown.

However, even after Off White’s stratospheric success, and Abloh’s unrelenting commitment to creativity in a number of different realms, Abloh faced public criticism once again: after his appointment as the artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear, Abloh was criticized for being an unlikely choice for the position. Many believed his appointment was based solely on the grounds of his ample social media following, and his work with Kanye West. Even though Abloh had proven his capabilities and creativity again and again with Off White and his achievements as a creative director, his abilities were questioned repeatedly simply because he had no formal background in the predominantly white world of fashion design.

Abloh’s persistent rise to success, despite the comments questioning his legitimacy, raises vital questions in regards to our societal structure: why are there so many individuals who argue that there must be a barrier between the majority of the population and “real” designers, entrepreneurs, artists, writers, innovators, or CEOs? And what do these perceived confines have to do with what individuals really can or cannot achieve?

Virgil Abloh’s accomplishments give voice and meaning to those who have been shut out of creative industries, and offer a new blueprint for what a creator can be, and what a creator can look like. In this way, Abloh’s success is solving a critical issue: he is not only vital to the modernization of fashion, but also to the democratization of creativity.

The idea that creativity belongs only to people of a certain background or degree of privilege is not only erroneous – it is dangerous. When we assign a barrier to entry to the realms of creativity and innovation, we shut out people – mainly, people of diverse races, sexual orientations, genders, and socio-economic backgrounds – who are not able to break down these barriers due to their lack of societal privileges. What’s more, if the same types of people from the same types of backgrounds are our only innovators, we inevitably incur a stale loop of ideas. When we willingly surrender ourselves to the type of hierarchy that is socially, economically, and racially biased, the result is that we destroy the very definition of innovation, and we halt the ability of our society to move forward and evolve.

Abloh is so important because he is an example we can revere for his persistent work against a system that implies that power and privilege are more important than innovation and creativity.

If we buy into the boundaries that are prescribed between ourselves and who we want to be, we are not likely to achieve even half of what we can conceive. Instead of examining the kind of background or level of education it takes to attain an external stamp of validation, it is essential to question institutional boundaries in the first place, and to persist in the face of any outside voices that attempt to say we are not already enough as we are.