Virgil Abloh’s work channels a lot of rejection. Not in a negative sense, however, in an expansive, how far can I push this button before I get caught sort of way. But when one centers a large part of his exhibition at MCA Chicago, “Figures of Speech” on polarizing subjects such as fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, audio takes from the movie Pretty Woman, and commentary on how branding motivates and moves the modern world, even in anger, one is probably prepared to upset a few people.

West’s Yeezus album stands larger than life–and even larger than can be played back–in the center of the exhibit. Kanye West has upset quite a few people with his politics and outspoken opinions over the years, however, Chicago has never forsaken their boy. The respect Abloh has for West is also very clear. Their working relationship goes back at least 12 years and Abloh has designed for West in numerous ways, including within music and fashion.* Abloh co-designed West’s 808s & Heartbreak cover for example. 

“…Eventually getting KAWS in the fold for 808‘s deluxe edition artwork, Abloh would be credited and involved in album artwork for Kanye West’s following three projects with creatives from the art and fashion world collaborating on covers…”

Say what you will about West’s moves, his alliances or allegiances, his personal life, etc. The man has moved the needle in streetwear, music, and the midwest for years. Abloh’s exhibition would’ve been incomplete without any reference to some of his best collaborations.

Virgil Abloh’s installation MCA Chicago, “Figures of Speech”

Another section displayed visual and audio remnants and homages to the 1991 romantic comedy Pretty Woman, specifically a part of the movie where Julia Roberts’ character–a sex worker–is pointedly told her money is no good in a department store. The pieces invoked a sense of not quite belonging or even being told as much by supposed experts. Given Abloh’s long history in the fashion field, yet his background in architecture, one wonders how many nos he had to hear to get to his current yesses.

The most poignant No, yet one that may be considered career-making in its own right is a rather official No from the United Nations. Abloh exhibited a Cease and Desist letter he received from the international body requesting that he stop using their logos/labels in any of his work. The idea of music and fashion–particularly the excitement anyone in their corner of the world–unifying cultures and individuals in a more effective way than the UN is currently capable of is certainly an intoxicating idea.

 1 How Virgil Abloh Ascended in Fashion & Footwear, Nice Kicks, Jun 2019

Abloh seemingly considers logos and branding more iconic in today’s world than even a peacekeeping body. It’s fair to argue that to a certain generation and segment of the population, whatever is going on at Nike or in Hollywood might matter more than yet another war or threat of economic sanction. After all, one may also argue that more people of color have been served by the democracy of branding and commercial services than whatever modern-day wars are winning. Keep your guns and your uniforms. Give these boys a nice hoodie and a gassed up car. They’ll go farther.

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Tash Moore is bicoastal Detroit booster, social entrepreneur and activist deeply passionate about promoting diversity & inclusion in all spheres. She currently spends her time between Detroit & DTLA.

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