Rashayla Marie Brown's scathing review of Virgil Abloh’s "Figures of Speech"

I’ve always been sceptical of Virgil Abloh. I “get” his work but it’s not for me and it’s not a coincidence that his artistic ascension coincided with Kanye’s, arguably his biggest collaborator.

So when I read Rashayla Marie Brown’s review of Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” exhibition, I felt vindicated. And Brown was more eloquent than I would have been.

She started by questioning the lack of critiques of his work to begin with (I’m aware this is a critique of a critique that questions the lack of critiques but stay with me down this rabbit hole).

Besides the press in the New York Times about Abloh’s meteoric fashion career and a cursory review of the exhibit in Architect’s Newspaper, we have not had any meaningful criticism that contextualizes Abloh’s contributions, how exactly his collaborations developed, and what the actual impact of his design is on issues of racial representation in the art and design fields.

The rest of the review analyses the exhibition and how the forms of black art are nothing more than tropes.

Where Instagram celebrity status has produced a new cultural producer hell-bent on monetizing time and false relationships, Abloh’s in-person engagements are more important than the artwork itself, a conundrum touched upon by the numerous events and sites that occasion the show.

While looking through the photos taken of the exhibit, I felt the same sentiment as Jay Post, a member of Young Chicago Authors when he said: “man, he claimed to be representing us, but instead he just gave us a big ass billboard.” The work fell flat in regard to black presentation. It’s just another ironic work of Abloh art. I’m surprised he didn’t reduce the exhibition to a banner with “BLACK” written on it in Helvetica.

But the final paragraph really cuts deep, like a hot knife through butter.

Abloh’s work complains about White supremacy in fashion and then sell products designed to uphold the financial and material oppression of one group over another through collaborating with companies such as Nike and Louis Vuitton. This is the fashion equivalent of saying you don’t eat Harold’s, while we can see the grease dripping down your chin.

(Photo credit: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.)

Nicky Chulo creates Off-Black brand in response to Off-White's lack of diversity

Off-Black

Off-White is a brand that bridges minimalism and maximalism. Its creator Virgil Abloh, known for collaborations with the likes of Kanye West and Takashi Murakami, was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection in 2018 and while this was seen as a breakthrough for modern black art and culture, there have been criticisms.

Off-White or off colour?

One has come from a fellow black designer, Nicky Chulo. The graphic designer questioned Abloh’s lack of diversity in the Off-White brand. Particularly “in the room”. In an interview with Black Enterprise, he discussed his reasons for the stance:

Even if he’s just the “face” of the brand I believe he has a responsibility to speak up on behalf of diversity. I’m not discrediting the talent at Off-White, but knowing how hard I worked, especially as a designer of color, to get to where I am, it hurt a bit […] We need more people of color inside the room.

Off-Black
Off-Black tee

And his response? A brand of his own.

What is Off-Black?

Chulo created Off-Black as a way to balance the tables and show black inclusion. He said he was “hesitant at first” when launching but felt compelled to go all in, particularly after Abloh had started blocking people on Instagram who sent him messages under the #diversity hashtag.

But Chulo isn’t looking to make a profit from the brand. 100% of proceeds are going to Leaders Amongst Leaders, “a creative program that teaches kids the sky is the limit”.

Currently, there’s only the Off-Black tee available on the site but I’m considering getting one.

You can too by heading to Nicky Chulo’s Teespring site.