I enter the Virgil Abloh exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum behind a family of four, all outfitted in a range of tribute t-shirts for the trailblazing Louis Vuitton designer who passed away last year. The dad’s T-shirt reads “HE DID IT SO WE COULD” in the all-caps and quotation marks style Abloh made famous at his luxury streetwear brand Off-White. And dad’s paired the tee with Abloh’s instantly recognizable Nike x Off-White Air Prestos – the ones with “AIR” written on a band around the heel. A thick Off-White yellow lanyard hangs from the keys in his pocket; it matches mom’s bag strap. Their young daughter bounces around in Off-White low-tops, the four arrows logo unmistakable.
“Figures of Speech” is a peculiar show in more ways than one. When it first opened in Chicago in 2019, it had been conceived as a mid-career retrospective for the prodigious American designer who grew up just outside the city. But in December 2021, Abloh – then serving as French fashion house Louis Vuitton’s first Black artistic director – died of a rare form of heart cancer. Tributes poured in from his famous fans of him, including longtime collaborator Kanye West, Victoria and David Beckham, and model Hailey Bieber, whose wedding dress Abloh designed in 2018.
The exhibition, re-imagined for New York by curator Antwaun Sargent so soon after Abloh’s death, now functions as something more bounded and emotional than was originally intended. It’s a powerful tribute to a contemporary artist, told in the bold style he invented. The names of the exhibition’s sections are rendered in the same all-caps lettering that Abloh favored him in his work; there’s a section on “ARCHITECTURE”, for example. It’s an echo of the stark way the name “SERENA” appears on the black, one-shouldered Off-White tennis dress Serena Williams wore at the US Open, which is one of the more well-known clothing items on display alongside a black and white haute couture gown Abloh designed for Beyoncé and a blue and white menswear look from his optimistic 2020 cloud-inspired campaign for Louis Vuitton.
Unusually for a design exhibition, most of Abloh’s work is organized on long, plywood tables rather than against the gallery’s walls. And the objects displayed are as varied as the celebrated polymath’s career, which got a jumpstart in 2009 when, at the age of 22, he met Kanye West. The following year, West made Abloh the creative director of his design company from him, Donda.
In the exhibition’s first room, a transparent polycarbonate suitcase Abloh designed for high-end luggage brand Rimowa sits beside the buffalo check leather keepall bag he updated for Louis Vuitton. The bag’s neon orange ceramic chain is a nod to his legacy as a streetwear designer. Nearby, rows and rows of the sneakers Abloh produced for Nike sit in a neat grid that wouldn’t be out of place in a high street shoe store. A neighboring table holds speakers Abloh designed in collaboration with Ojas and a sound mixer Abloh made for Pioneer, because Abloh was also a DJ, who frequently mixed the soundtracks for his own fashion shows.
The tabletop presentation reads informally, like walking through ad hoc isolates created by folding tables at a school children’s science fair. The objects are closer and feel more personal for it. They can also be irreverent. Next to a stack of flyers Abloh designed for his DJ sets proudly hangs a cease and desist letter he received from the UN. “You have been using the emblem of the United Nations without authorization,” it reads. While some clothes are prominently displayed on mannequins, like Serena Williams’s dress, too many of Abloh’s designs are presented on hangers bunched too close together for you to appreciate what each makes so special.
The biggest space in the exhibition is reserved for a “SOCIAL SCULPTURE” by Abloh – a plywood cabin intended for house community events and design talks. The most crowded space is, predictably, the gift shop – cheekily labeled “CHURCH & STATE” a nod to Abloh’s habit of making little distinction between art and commerce. In fact, the exhibition’s long tables, which were also designed by Abloh, feel more shoppable than the store itself. As a crowd control measure, most items are labeled “For Display Only”, though there’s ample staff around to grab items from the stockroom. As I peruse the limited edition t-shirts and tote bags, I again run into the dad I entered with, who seems stuck choosing between four versions of the “FIGURES OF SPEECH” exhibition poster.
“Take your time,” I hear a museum staffer tell him patiently, as he deeply considers the objects in front of him like they’re behind glass in a museum.
The difference between Abloh’s art on display and the art in here is that this stuff’s for sale.
“Virgil Abloh: ‘Figures of Speech‘” runs from 1 July to 29 January 2023