The all-encompassing, ever-luxurious conglomerate, LVMH, announced last week that they would be acquiring a majority stake in Virgil Abloh’s eponymous label, Off-White. Abloh retains 40% ownership of the Milanese label and gains a seat at LVMH. The designer heads Louis Vuitton and is notable for his context-heavy, interdisciplinary, tongue-in-cheek collections and designs.
Michael Burke, chair and CEO of Louis Vuitton, said: “From ground-breaking fashion shows to the creation of a new contemporary men’s fashion language, Virgil has made a lasting imprint on Louis Vuitton. By breaking down borders and proclaiming a profoundly inclusive philosophy, Virgil has extended the reach of Louis Vuitton’s luxury world.”
Abloh, from early days of interning at Fendi with Kanye West, to screen-printing Ralph Lauren deadstock blanks and then to DJ-ing at Lollapalooza — is a culture shock himself, using samples, appropriation and intellectual creativity to take his brands and high fashion itself into the diverse 21st century. He has a degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in architecture. The Illinois University of technology, where he studied architecture, has a curriculum focused on the Bauhaus movement and conceptualised by the iconic Mies van der Rohe. The combination of art, architecture, craft, design and music has allowed Abloh to encapsulate contemporary culture; his work always has depth, contextual layers or references.
Abloh was the first American of African descent to run a French fashion house and was named as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. Despite breaking through bias, barriers and borders, Abloh’s philosophy and design is controversial due to his “ironic detachment”, heavy appropriation and borderline plagiarism. The fashion-commentary Instagram account, Diet Prada, has routinely called him out for copying Le Corbusier, Van der Rohe, Ben Kelly and more — yet these are the designers whom Abloh himself is never slow to credit.
One of his design principles, as first declared at a Harvard symposium and then added into a book, is that an original/new design can be created by changing the original/old design by just 3%. Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp, the innovator of conceptual art, spurned “retinal art” — work to serve the eye, he wanted his designs to serve the mind and said, “man can never expect to start from scratch”. Duchamp’s influence, in Abloh’s words, “gives him the grounds to copy and paste, to take and to re-apply”.
The engineer and architect, has released accessories, formalwear, streetwear, house-wear, furniture, portraits and more, it seems the only fields he hasn’t taken over yet are what he studied in. Due to such a variety of product lines and to a devout interest in contemporary design and background of studying the creative fields, Abloh has been called out for the appropriation of 1980s fashion rebels, Rei Kawakuba and Viviene Westwood, the furniture designs of the Modern Movement, the stripes of Ben Kelly, the art of Caravaggio and Da Vinci — the list goes on. As an appropriation artist and following his 3% rule, his efforts are striking in their minimalism and subversiveness. Humour is always chosen over humility and the binaries of creator and consumer, object or performance, street or catwalk — are all blurred by his polemic dive into the culture of design.
Abloh’s logo-heavy Off-White crewnecks, straight-off-the-H&M-rail ripped jeans or garish fluorescent construction rope belts often see him as the butt of jokes, yet the depth and intellectualism of his work is what the upper-echelons of fashion see. Louis Vuitton and LVMH see the absolute obsession and curation that he applies to his work and references, rather than appropriating, he is remixing, reinvigorating and reinventing a field that has been cloaked in elitism, privilege and exclusivity for far too long.
If you think he is unoriginal, plagiarised or kitsch; you don’t get his work. His garish, glitzy and graphic-heavy creations often go over my head, but then again, I don’t think they would if I had an engineering degree or architecture masters under my belt.