The Legacy Of Virgil Abloh Transcends Art And Fashion
By Natasha Gural
Virgil Abloh, the tireless, multi-talented 41-year-old American artist, fashion designer, and entrepreneur was on the verge of otherworldly triumph, transcending what we perceive as fame in an Instagram world. He took the reins as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection in 2018 while overseeing, as CEO, the Milan-based fashion label Off-White™, which he founded in 2013. He was inexorable until he died yesterday, of cancer.
Welcoming journalists to the opening of his Figures of Speech exhibition at Fire Station in Doha, Qatar earlier this month, he was exuberant. His work became a cornerstone of #QatarCreates—a cultural celebration intersecting art, fashion, and design through a wide array 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. Fire Station, home of the first civil defense authority in Qatar from 1982-2012, was repurposed two years later to host their artist residency. It was the ideal location to fully appreciate a site-specific iteration of Abloh’s first museum exhibition dedicated to his pioneering mastery of art.
In its obituary, The New York Times compared him to Andy Warhol and Jeff Koons. I was in Doha last week, as part of #QatarCreates, to meet and interview Koons and to walk through Figures of Speech, which gave me pause as I contemplated how awestruck I am of his unrivaled, inimitable oeuvre. Walking through the exhibition, spanning two buildings and a vast outdoor area on an intimate tour led by Issa Al Shirawi, project manager for Qatar Museums, I thought of my father who also died of cancer, in 2002, as I observed, from various angles and two floors, the black flag imploring us to “QUESTION EVERYTHING.”
That mantra, that ethos, was ingrained in me from early childhood. My red-listed, Democratic Socialist father taught me to never accept anything less than questioning every authority, every obstacle, every barrier, every suspicion. At that moment, the social became personal. Yet, not for a second, did I imagine that Abloh’s life was so precarious at that moment, or for many decades.
Figures of Speech is Abloh’s curriculum vitae in real time, an intimate engagement with his singular clothing collections, his unique video documentation of iconic fashion shows, his meticulous furniture and graphic design work, and his collaborative projects with contemporary artists. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Figures of Speech was first installed in an immersive space designed by OMA + AMO, the firm of Dutch architect, architectural theorist, urbanist, and professor, Rem Koolhaas, who also designed the Qatar National Library that I visited last week as part of #QatarCreates.
Abloh borrows a quote from Pretty Woman, the 1990 American romantic comedy film directed by Garry Marshall and starring Julia Roberts as a prostitute who falls in love with a rich businessman played by Richard Gere. Abloh subverts and amplifies, using all capitals letters, the rejection of someone deemed unworthy by walking into a Beverly Hills shop wearing the wrong boots: “YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY IN THE WRONG PLACE.” Born in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Abloh never shed his outsider status in the United States. His experience as a younger person at elite fashion shows and in art galleries made him feel like an alien “in the wrong place,” a place he could conquer as a ferocious creative master.
Abloh’s art creates a cogent narrative among visual artists, musicians, graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects. His electric and comprehensive early body of work spanned album covers, concert designs, and merchandising. He embraced design and music as a child then cultivated his passion and earned a Master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. His pieces masterfully connect all of these passions.
Take the dress he designed for Beyonce’s 2018 Vogue cover photo shoot, for instance. Though never published in the magazine, you don’t need to be a fashionista to appreciate the understated yet magnificent elegance of the dress. A traditional billowing silhouette mingling flawlessly with Abloh’s trademark black-and-white diagonal stripes, his architectural training speaks through the structure of the dress—a testament to feminine might.
Provocative art, regardless of the medium, is essential to understanding how other folks think, feel, believe, and experience everyday life. Abloh left us with more than his wide-reaching ingenious legacy during a prolific career that obliterated boundaries of race, sex, class, and genre. He gave us agency to draw our own conclusions about art and, perhaps, more importantly, to see ourselves as individuals but also as a collective.
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Natasha Gural is a multiple award-winning journalist, writer, and editor with 30 years of editorial experience, including executive roles at The Associated Press, Dow Jones, and Markets Media. A student of literature, art history, and studio art, Natasha has learned from leading scholars at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Oxford University, Clark University, and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. Natasha has been writing about art since 2002, for multiple publications, including The Associated Press and Forbes. She has traveled extensively to cover major art fairs and events, interviewing a wide array of world-renowned and emerging artists, as well as curators, art historians, collectors, scholars, and aesthetes. Her last contact with the global art world was covering TEFAF Maastricht in 2020. Natasha enjoys observing every level of the creative process, from inception to installation, in studios, galleries, and various spaces. Passionate about the art world, Natasha embraces every opportunity to engage key players to better understand and explain the changing dynamic. She seeks to accurately portray the art ecosystem in an ongoing process that immerses her in the art world. A first-generation American, Natasha was raised bilingual and has always been drawn to the innovators, rebels, and outsiders who break down boundaries and strive to broaden the continuum of art history. Her goal is always to fairly and accurately represent the accomplishments of artists in an effort to collectively celebrate the arts.
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