Inside the New Chicago Exhibit Dedicated to Fashion Designer Virgil Abloh

Courtesy of Hanna García Fleer
Fashion designer Virgil Abloh signing the 500-page exhibition catalog for “Figures of Speech."

“Virgil Abloh: ‘Figures of Speech’” at the Museum of Contemporary Art offers a 20-year survey of Abloh’s multi-disciplinary work in the music, fashion and furniture realms.

His creative direction for friends like Kanye West, his envisioning of experimental fashion labels like Pyrex Vision and his groundbreaking approach to using social media to market luxury fashion have cemented Virgil Abloh’s position as a pop culture icon. In just under 10 years, the 38-year-old Abloh (a native of Rockford, Illinois) has managed to craft a career worthy of an early retrospective by Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

"Virgil Abloh: 'Figures of Speech,'” which opens to the public on June 10 and will run until Sept. 22, focuses on how the artist is redefining fashion, art and design. His meteoric ascension to the top of the fashion world has occurred thanks to collaborations with Nike and his own Hollywood-favored Off-White brand — spring boarding into his 2018 appointment as artistic director of Louis Vuitton Menswear.

And while there is at times so much “influencing” surrounding Abloh thanks to his famous friends and proteges such as Travis Scott, Kylie Jenner, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, the exhibit itself is surprisingly devoid of hype. “I take it [as a] great responsibility, the opportunity to show in a museum, at this stage in my career," said Abloh. "I thought it equally meant that I had to deliver. And then to work in there, especially the context of Chicago, which is an obvious marker. In no way shape or form am I going do a show in Chicago for a T-shirt. And [show just my] bright objects — like, eye candy.”  

From Pyrex Vision’s $750 T-shirts and his work as the artistic director for the 2011 Jay-Z-Kanye West album Watch the Throne to furniture he made for an unrealized Ikea collaboration and dozens of never-seen-before prototypes for the Ten Nike Icons project, the exhibition offers a fascinating look at the methods of Abloh across multiple disciplines and genres.

“Figures of Speech” is set in an immersive space designed by Samir Bantal, a director of AMO, the research studio of Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm OMA. “I started off screen printing shirts on the south side of Chicago to convincing the head of the biggest luxury [brand that I should] steer the arm of the biggest portion of it,” Abloh said. “Clothes are clothes, we all have them on. There's only so much that they can do and speak. The context as to why the clothes are important is ten times more interesting to me.”

Abloh, who has a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, invites the city he calls home to embrace his “question everything” philosophy — there is a flag with that mantra flown outside the museum for the duration of the exhibit and he has labeled the building “city hall,” with vinyl lettering stretched across its fourth-floor windows.

“For me, 'Figures of Speech' is an art exhibition rooted in advertising and the projected image," Abloh said. "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."

He continued. "I went to all of this school, eight years of higher education, but that pales in comparison to landing in London or landing in Paris or Japan and looking for my favorite T-shirt or looking for the T-shirt that I saw on the internet. Consumer obviously, in my language, isn't a bad word. It's free education. It's curiosity.”

The words “tourist” and “purist” are shown on orange walls at the exhibit entrance alongside a collage of the makers of Abloh’s upbringing, known as the "culture wall,” which range from Michael Jordan and Axl Rose to 9-11 and designs by Mies Van Der Rohe. “Virgil’s work often times calls attention to figures of speech that we take for granted. He tries to make us think about these phrases and words by putting them in quotations,” says MCA chief curator Michael Darling. “So much of his fashion work involves signs, symbols, words and so people wearing his clothes as they're out in the world become figures of speech, they spark dialogue by the things that they're wearing on their back, on their shoes or their pants.”

Dedicated to the youth of Chicago, the multi-room collection starts with fashion designs for Pyrex Vision and Hood By Air and then transitions into his groundbreaking brand Off-White, which has bridged the gap between streetwear and high fashion since it was launched in 2013.

The rooms dedicated to music are the biggest and boldest parts of “Figures of Speech.” A professional DJ, Abloh performs music all over the world and his graphic design work can be found on concert merchandise, album packaging and stage designs, for West and other artists. There is a large-scale version of the album art for Kanye West’s Yeezus (2013), which famously reduced the packaging to only the necessary elements. In another work, a one-of-a-kind DJM and CDJ turntable (2018), Abloh partnered with Pioneer to make transparent turntables.

There is a wall of 18 images of rapper Chief Keef wearing the new Abloh-designed box-logo for Supreme done in the colors of the pan-African flag alongside a custom “testing” belt created for ASAP Rocky. In testament to the bravado and branding of rappers, a Nike display case reveals a set of gold, diamond-encrusted paperclip necklaces and earrings by Jacob the Jeweler that recall the utilitarian jewelry created by Abloh as a kid to mimic the chains worn by hip-hop personalities.

Truly gracious to his contemporaries, Abloh never misses an opportunity to salute those who he has worked with. “I was the naïve idiot that believed if your name was on the label, it was just you making everything," he said. "That took me eight years to get through, to be like, ‘Oh, damn. That's not true.’ I'm not going to pretend Off-White is just me. They need to be in a museum too. It's not just me. Streetwear wasn't made by me. I'm just one kid that worked within it. There are brands that came before me.”

The “Black Gaze” space showcases his high fashion work and the threads of politics and race that have influenced it, including the images of a 3-year old black boy wearing a brightly colored Louis Vuitton sweater shot by Inez and Vinoodh. “There are also mannequins that he designed for his first Louis Vuitton collection, which depart from the typical mannequin that you would find in fashion stores. The clothes are actually imprinted on the mannequins,” said Darling.

“There are all these preconceptions in the world about what a designer is," Abloh said. "And me, a rational person, was like, ‘I'm not a designer, I'm a consumer.’ I'm a fan of more things than I dislike. Kanye would wear a pink sweater, a Polo, so I go to Polo and get it. That made me happy, to just find something that I saw on a TV screen, or find something that I saw in a magazine or music video, and own it.”

One of the most fascinating parts of Abloh’s process is the prototyping he does. “If they fail, or if they succeed, he keeps pushing them and keep iterating on them,” Darling said. “There's a real effort to pick objects apart, show us their constituent structure, make things transparent. You see this in shoes the same way you would see it in a suitcase or in chairs.”

This is most evident in his Nike collaborations; in the exhibit, sneakerheads will have a chance to see many of the prototypes that never made it to production. “[This is integral to] understand his process, and his thinking, and how he's deconstructing these shoes, remaking them, trying to have us look at shoes in a different way,” Darling said. “What I recognize in Virgil's work is that a lot of what he develops never stops at a certain moment. It always invites you to respond, but also invites you to rethink and to question everything. In order to construct, you have to deconstruct.”

No showing of Abloh’s work would be complete without a store. Inside “Church & State,” located on the fourth floor of the museum, floor-to-ceiling graphics of photographs related to the exhibition taken by German fashion photographer Juergen Teller serve as a backdrop for limited-edition collections of merchandise done in collaboration with designers such as Simon Brown, Futura and Tom Sachs, as well as a retrospective of best-selling Off-White items that are sold out but are being reinvented and released exclusively for MCA. These include the Off-White Diagonal Caravaggio T-shirt, the Bernini T-shirt, the Mona Lisa T-shirt, the Annunciazione Hoodie and a women’s white motorcycle jacket.

“Figures of Speech" will travel to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art in November, Boston’s ICA in July 2020 and to the Brooklyn Museum in winter 2020. Around the city, Chicago is embracing the “summer of Virgil” in different ways. On Saturday night June 8, Chance the Rapper, Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and more than a thousand guests pinned with large black tags that said either “tourist” or “purist” came out to celebrate, praise and selfie with Abloh for a preview of “Figures of Speech” during the ArtEdge Gala at the museum.

“I created these tags so people would have something to take home,” said Abloh, wearing his own design for the occasion, a Louis Vuitton white belted shirt with pockets. The theme of the evening was "urban ruins" with guests arriving at the loading dock of the museum and being transported up a large freight elevator into the exhibition space. After the private viewing, everyone made their way down into the reimagined concrete parking garage. An appropriate place in that many of the themes and motifs in Abloh’s work come from very common industrial symbols, construction and roadmakers such as arrows, diagonal lines and caution tape.

The dinner, which took place over multiple levels in the garage, was illuminated in black light to emphasize Abloh’s signature neon orange color and was followed with a performance by English vocalist Dev Hynes. Until July 7, Louis Vuitton is hosting a brightly colored pop-up shop in honor of the designer in Chicago’s West Loop. Taking over a warehouse at 1100 West Randolph, the building is painted Abloh Orange and is a celebration of his fall-winter 2019 collection. Inside are accessories made just for Chicago, including a chain belt, a leather hat, sneakers and sunglasses. NikeLab Chicago Recreation Center is also hosting workshops and an arts-focused mentorship program in honor of Abloh.