“VIRGIL WAS HERE”: How Virgil Abloh’s legacy touched Boston

One of several Nike Air designs made in collaboration with Virgil Abloh (Photo by Chris Henry/Courtesy of Unsplash.com)

By Toni Baraga, Jessica Stevens, Youmna Sukkar and Jack Thornton
Boston University News Service

Famed fashion director Virgil Abloh had an abstract style and work ethic that left an everlasting influence in fashion and arts scenes around the world, and Boston is no exception. 

Months before his death, Abloh’s legacy in Boston was cemented with an exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art titled “Figures of Speech.”

The exhibit, which ran from July to September, displayed several of Abloh’s career highlights, spanning his work in fashion, music, and architecture.   

Ruth Erickson, the Mannion Family Curator at the ICA, who worked with the designer to host the exhibit, remembers him as an incredibly generous and collaborative individual. 

“He’s an artist who really is working across so many different domains and is such a prolific idea generator,” Erickson said. 

Erickson said working with Abloh “felt like constantly being inspired by a new idea, or a new way to reframe something, or a new color to use, or a new product for the store.”

In 2019, Abloh was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. The artistic director for Louis Vuitton and founder of the fashion company Off-White kept the diagnosis private and continued to work extensively in both the fashion and art worlds until his death on Nov. 28, at age 41.

“In retrospect, thinking that he … had a terminal illness almost the whole time we worked together, to think about the amount of detail that he was focused on, and the amount of energy he was putting into our presentation of his traveling survey is just remarkable,” Erickson said.

Abloh’s creative rise in fashion began in 2009, when he interned at Fendi alongside Kanye West, with whom he formed a close collaborative relationship. The next year, Abloh began working as creative director for West’s content agency Donda. 

In his time with Donda, Abloh directed or designed album cover art for numerous Billboard No. 1 charting albums, including West & Jay-Z’s “Watch the Throne,” 2 Chainz’ “Based on a T.R.U Story,” and West’s “Yeezus.” His work on “Watch the Throne” earned him a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Recording Package. 

He also worked with Donda to direct the “Yeezus Tour” promoting the aforementioned West album of the same name. The tour earned rave reviews from critics and fans alike and was the highest grossing hip hop tour of the year. 

In 2012, Abloh launched his first fashion brand, Pyrex Vision, where he screen-printed his own logos and designs onto Champion T-shirts and deadstock Ralph Lauren rugby shirts.

Soon after, Abloh launched Off-White, the luxury men’s and women’s streetwear label that he is best known for. Off-White became very popular, collaborating with brands like Nike, Ikea, and Converse. 

In 2018, he was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear ready line; he was the first person of African descent to lead the brand’s menswear line. His varied work inspired many younger people interested in fashion, such as 27-year-old Elias Elias, who attended his ICA exhibit in Boston.

“I attended in September, and the exhibit was really cool. It wasn’t what I expected,” Elias said. “Seeing Virgil’s work, you just assume it’s all to do with his clothing and stuff, so, seeing the exhibit —just unusual things, out of the ordinary things — it was a very cool experience.”

Erickson, who estimated 80,000 people in total came to the ICA for “Figures of Speech,” similarly viewed the exhibit as a chance for visitors to learn of the broad scope of Abloh’s body of work throughout his life.

“I think that for some people in the art world … the survey was a chance to actually really understand Virgil as an artist and as a creative person,” Erickson said. “I think if, if there’s somebody in the museum world who maybe doesn’t follow high fashion, it was a chance to sort of think about his training as an architect.”

“Think about the things that he was making in painting and in sculpture, think about the ways that he was translating ideas from sculpture and architecture into furniture and so, a chance to kind of really see the breadth of his practice,” she said. 

A Dedham resident studying law at New England Law Boston, Elias said Abloh’s popularity is not lost on many locals. 

“Boston does have a lot of people that definitely wear his clothing and wear similar clothing,” Elias said. 

Several Boston clothing stores posted tributes to Ablo after his death was announced, including streetwear staple Bodega and luxury retailer Riccardi. Bodega’s Instagram post referred to Abloh as a “true legend and innovator,” while Riccardi’s called him “a man whose vision knew no limit.” 

Erickson remembered Abloh’s generosity as “a generosity of time, a generosity of sort of thinking about all of this and the frontline staff that are working at the museum, and then the sort of generosity of ideas as well.” 

“I never heard ‘no’ come out of Virgil’s mouth,” Erickson said. “It was always a sort of a waterfall of ‘yes’ and really affirming to work with him.” 

The exhibit attracted a demographically young audience and many first-time visitors, according to Erickson. She recalled Abloh taking up to an hour and a half to walk many younger visitors and fans through the exhibit to talk to them and listen to their perspectives.

“To me, the sort of energy that he has given to young people and the ways in which he was setting … up scholarships and funds to support young fashion designers, young designers, Black curators, Black artists, is just such a sort of model for what we need happening … on every single platform and at many different levels,” Erickson said.

“As far as legacy goes,” Elias said. “I think he left an impact on the fashion world, and let all the fashion brands know that you don’t have to keep everything clean-cut and simple and repetitive.”

“I think it’s really interesting,” Erickson said, “to sort of think about Virgil as kind of existing … like star dust in the imaginations of teenagers and 20-somethings all over the world.”

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