Cheat sheet: MCA show decodes 20 years of Virgil Abloh

Installation view of ’Virgil Abloh'
Installation view of ’Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech"’ at the MCA Chicago
(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

‘Twelve thousand square feet of exhibition space is still just scratching the surface of what Virgil has done for the past 20 years,’ says Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) Chicago, who scoped Virgil Abloh for the survey show – before his Louis Vuitton appointment as menswear director in 2018 – on the basis of holding up one of Chicago’s ‘local superstars’.

The exhibition is a bit of a ‘cheat code’ for understanding Abloh, the creative director, designer and polymath. It covers a lot of ground: his work with Kanye West as a product and graphic designer for 10 years, his DJ career, Off-White, Louis Vuitton, Ikea, and lots in between. ‘We have laid the ground work, so someone can come in after us,’ says Darling, in recognition that there will be much more to come.

Abloh and Darling teamed up with AMO’s head of design Samir Bantal to formulate and design the show. Four sections divide up Abloh’s offering from 1989 to date: Music, Fashion, Design and the Black Gaze – the final section ‘cuts through the hype and the buzz’ and ’brings to the surface the social commentary especially around race, that’s been there from the beginning,’ says Darling.

Virgil Abloh exhibition installation

Wooden virtrine stamped with a Nike tick, holding jewellery Virgil Abloh for Jacob & Co

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

The buzz is represented by the graphic ‘culture wall’ that welcomes you into the exhibition – an ‘autobiographical, matrix of influences’ inspired by the visual identity of Rem Koolhaas’ 1978 book  Delirious New York, featuring portraits, references and text.

Abloh’s relationship with Koolhaas and OMA goes back to when a new building was being built at the Illinois Institute of Technology campus when Abloh was an architecture student there. The relationship developed further when the pair sat down for an interview for System Magazine in 2017, and it was Abloh’s idea to get AMO involved in the exhibition.

Bantal describes the process of working with Abloh on the exhibition as akin to Nanggol (the original version of bungee jumping, performed as a ritual by the men of Vanuata – without the elastic line) and ‘almost strictly’ all collaboration was online: ‘endless threads of scrollable ideas free from location or time’ writes Bantal in the ‘Figure of Speech’ catalogue.

His work with Abloh and observations about his work led Bantal to conclude ‘the idea of the Prototype as an effective strategy’: ‘A prototype is open-ended and receptive to critique. A prototype is a perfect freeze of exploration, liberated from a definitive end goal,’ writes Bantal.

Virgil Abloh Nike trainer prototypes

Nike trainer prototypes designed by Virgil Abloh

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

Walk around the exhibition with these words in mind. You’ll see Abloh fearlessly venturing from project to project, unafraid of failure or new pursuits, priding himself in his ability to be a ‘tourist’. ‘I’ve crafted my output into opening minds, instead of reaffirming closed minds,’ says Abloh in a conversation between Rem Koolhaas and Bantal, explaining his tourist/purist dichotomy. Some prototypes in the exhibition feel like finished works, others feel like the start of something exciting, and some probably made it off the drawing board slightly prematurely, but such is life.

Abloh’s IKEA furniture design prototypes are piled up in the exhibition ready for a bonfire. They are reverse prototypes, taking history and working forwards, summarising, simplifying and stripping back – representing Abloh’s interest in opening up classic 20th century design (think Prouve, Le Corbusier and Nakoshima) to a millennial consumer audience. These works also interrogate his interest in copyright law, public domain and fair usage. ‘A couple of the rugs made it into the world’ says Darling, as we observe the pyre.

Instead of prototypes, some works look more like props. Fake functional objects wheeled out from backstage at the Virgil Abloh show. A billboard spelling out ‘Advertise here’ with graffiti on the back. Concrete style graffitied furniture pieces and a reflective, high-gloss stainless steel iPhone-shaped mirror for Kreo. Diamond studded paper-clip jewellery for Jacob & Co. These objects nod to Abloh’s formative years as a skateboarder in suburban Chicago.

While a T-shirt could feel like a prototype, Abloh makes it a work of art. T-shirt screen-printing frames hang on the walls like masterpieces. One framed Supreme t-shirt in the show has never been worn, and only ever displayed in a frame in a museum. From his early t-shirt printing ventures with J Boogie in Chicago as a teen skater, to making merchandise with Kanye West, to designing the Pyrex 23 t-shirts (a comment on young black men, drug culture and Michael Jordan), to his work with re-used Champion and Ralph Lauren flannel tees, working with Shayne Oliver from Hood by Air, Off-White staples, and pieces for Louis Vuitton – such as an unreleased tie-dye Pistolesi leather t-shirt for Men’s SS19 seen in the show, or a simple black and white staff t-shirt for the first runway show. The t-shirt is a medium that Abloh has mastered.

Spreme t-shirt designed by Virgil Abloh

Supreme t-shirt by Virgil Abloh

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

A whole set of unreleased Nike trainer prototypes on a low plinth are also works of art – studded, bulbous beauties, labeled “prototype”, smooth and contoured in phoenix red or bulky dinosaurs in grey and transparent plastic. The trainers don’t feel like throw-away prototypes, they are there to be studied and savoured.

More than anything, the exhibition shows how Abloh approaches fashion as an artist. As creative director of Off-White launched in 2013, and artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, from March 2018, he has worked to embed concepts and thinking into collections, campaigns and runway shows. The exhibition presents artefacts and remnants of these – a bright yellow neon sign used in his first Off-White runway show in Paris (F/W 16) reading ‘You’re obviously in the wrong place’. Or his first campaign images for Louis Vuitton shot by Inez and Vinoodh featuring children of colour playing with luxury Louis Vuitton products.

Clothes designed by Virgil Ablh in the exhibition

Clothes designed by Virgil Abloh on bright blue rails designed by AMO

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

Abloh is saying a lot: the A/W 2019 collection titled ‘Sliding, backwards, slowly’ featured rubber coated LV-branded neon gloves and a shirt and pants featuring graphics from The Wiz cartoon, that adapts the Wizard of Oz from an African-American perspective. In the final room, the ‘Keep all’ LV bag with a hefty orange chain to keep it safe, speaks of who he is in the world, and how the luxury industry perceives young black males walking into an LV store. Abloh’s ‘black gaze’ that runs throughout the exhibition and infiltrates his work is personal, but it also feels universal in many ways. He brings a perspective that echoes that of many.

Right now, we are still caught up in who Abloh is, but after seeing this exhibition, maybe you'll start thinking more about what he is actually saying. Abloh summarises in the final conversation of the catalogue spoken to founder and editor-in-chief of Vestoj, Anja Aronowsky Cronberg: ‘...My goal is to disappear and let the work speak for itself.’

A black baby with a holding bags

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

Books with objects in red color

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

A black and white wall, hall view

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

A bunch of cards

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)

A wet grass mat, a broken bench, and a broken chair

(Image credit: Virgil Abloh)


Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech" , MCA, 10 June to 22 September 22, 2019

Harriet Thorpe is a writer, journalist and editor covering architecture, design and culture, with particular interest in sustainability, 20th-century architecture and community. After studying History of Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and Journalism at City University in London, she developed her interest in architecture working at Wallpaper* magazine and today contributes to Wallpaper*, The World of Interiors and Icon magazine, amongst other titles. She is author of The Sustainable City (2022, Hoxton Mini Press), a book about sustainable architecture in London, and the Modern Cambridge Map (2023, Blue Crow Media), a map of 20th-century architecture in Cambridge, the city where she grew up.