Virgil Abloh at work. Photo: Hanna García Fleer.

Lou Stoppard on Virgil Abloh: 'Streetwear Is The Vehicle'

Abloh's retrospective, 'Figures of Speech,' opens Monday at MCA.

by GARAGE Magazine
Jun 10 2019, 4:31pm

Virgil Abloh at work. Photo: Hanna García Fleer.

Virgil Abloh's debut museum retrospective, Figures of Speech, opens at the Museum of Contemporary Art on Monday, June 10. Included in Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech, which is published by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and DelMonico Books-Prestel and edited by Michael Darling, is Lou Stoppard's essay 'Fashion is the Messenger,' excerpted here exclusively for GARAGE.

Is Abloh the first to take the “authenticity” and niche, underground elements of streetwear and combine them with the global, intellectual, extravagant elements of high fashion? Perhaps. He is certainly the first to acknowledge the complex barriers between the two worlds, and the underbelly of social, cultural, and even racial stereotypes that separate them. Asked by GQ in 2015 to discuss Off-White, which developed from his first label, Pyrex Vision, Abloh said, “I’m just a kid, from the US. Skating—that’s where I came from. Me and my friends, we participated in streetwear for the three lifecycles of it. I grew up printing my own t-shirts and giving them to friends at local skate things, and then that era was dead. . . .We just style ourselves in whatever feels comfortable. But then who of that generation, of all these t-shirt brands, is actually going to parlay and play with capital F ‘fashion,’ so that they respect it. Out of all that, I wanted to do Off-White.”

In 2018, British Vogue dubbed Off-White “a label that bridges the gap between streetwear and luxury fashion.” 10 Yet the concept of sporty, informal clothing presented in the context of high fashion or luxury is nothing new. Long before the assent of Abloh and the broader “streetwear” category, pioneers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Patou offered early versions of casual clothing. Bolton again: “Modern designer sportswear emanates from two primary sources. Working in France during the 1920s and 1930s, Jean Patou and Gabrielle Chanel emulated activewear in high-style knits and separates, inventing such classics as Chanel’s little black dress and cardigan-style suit . . . Meanwhile, in America during the 1930s and 1940s a group of designers were applying the easy construction and loose fit of the sportswear ideal to affordable, ready-to-wear fashion. This group included designers such as Bonnie Cashin, Vera Maxwell and Clare McCardell.” These designerswanted to make clothes that fit with the practical lives of modern women—“They shifted sensibilities toward comfort, convenience and freedom of movement.” Their influence can be felt on a host of later designers, including Donna Karan, Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, and Tommy Hilfiger, who, “like the pioneers of American designer sportswear . . . ascribeprimacy to the physical functionality of garments.”

But crucially, functionality is not Abloh’s interest. One could even argue that clothing itself is not his interest. He is driven by ideas—a way of living and being, not a style of garment. His clothes have layers of meaning, subtle references that only the initiated can fully understand, but the eager can appear to engage with through purchasing. It is these nods to the street and beyond that mark his work out from the history of high-fashion casualwear. Referencing Abloh’s appointment as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear in March 2018, his collaborator, graphic designer Peter Saville, comments, “If you go to one of Virgil’s shows, it’s not really a fashion show, not in the sense that fashion ever was. It’s a stream of semiotic propositions—semiotic codes. There are things to read into. But it feels subversive, because of the inclusion of subculture codes, alongside high art philosophical codes. We will see everything from crack to Duchamp suddenly on the surface of Vuitton products, which will be a nice frisson of controversy. Off-White products are carriers of codes that his market wishes to be associated with. They are signifiers of cool. And it is stuff you can actually wear. It’s not Oscars ball gowns—it’s sweatshirts and also bags and belts and accessories, which is fashion off the body, which is a key thing in terms of status. Look at the phenomenon of the handbag over the last twenty years—it’s easy to wear and an instant way of communicating credentials.” With Abloh, “streetwear” is not the purpose, it is the vehicle—a manner of communicating. It is not a proposal of fashion, but a proposal of thoughts—fashion is just the messenger. A hoodie is a carrier, the point isn’t the hoodie itself.

Abloh forgoes the techy elements of designer sportswear that have made them niche products for collectors, focusing instead on graphics and text, some of which is written by hand, which can be seen as a nod to the graffiti and punk history of streetwear. The expensive casualwear genre was previously dominated by elaborate construction, technical finishes and details, and even inbuilt gadgets. Abloh’s work lacks the functionality of brands like C.P. Company, who offered a bright blue polyurethane inflatable jacket that turned into an armchair for Spring/Summer 2001, or Jeff Griffin, who during the same era made metamorphic garments that could be mixed and matched—jackets that became gilets, t-shirts that could be zipped into a vest, skirts that could be lengthened or shortened. Since these collections, the requirements of casual or “street” clothing have changed. Certain functionalities—endless pockets for Walkmans, PalmPilots, torches, diaries, and mobile phones—are no longer necessary when all can be done from an iPhone. Amusingly, much has been made of the fact that Abloh conducts his business not from a physical location but from his phone. Undoubtedly, his version of streetwear is informed by his own habits.

“It used to be top-down—with brands, which were holier than thou, debuting ideas that would go down into the stream. They would be accepted, then consumed, and then more would come. In the last five years, there’s been a sense of empowerment to reverse that flow and send things back up. It’s a consumer revolt,” Abloh argues. His success has been due in part to the recognition that shoppers such as him want garments that reflect their own lives, heroes, and desires. They find the didactic aspect of fashion offensive and outdated. He understands that the balance of power where high fashion influences the masses via a trickle-down effect has been replaced by a filter-up situation where the street influences fashion and the wider audience is no longer passive, but an active, vocal critic through social media. In this environment, it becomes impossible to differentiate between what this audience sees as “streetwear” and what they see as “fashion,” or if they even care about differentiating the two. Dacyshyn says, “The irreverence of street is now demanded at the highest levels of fashion. And at street level, the quality and detailing of high fashion is a must-have.” Saville is looser in his definition: “What is fashion? Fashion is the zeitgeist now, manifesting itself in absolutely anything—a top, or a building, or a magazine, or a website, or a dance track, or a hat.”

Excerpt from “Fashion Is the Messenger” by Lou Stoppard published in Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech (Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2019) edited by Michael Darling. © 2019 Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh
Lou Stoppard