Words by Neo Mtshali
As the famous adage goes, “a lot can change in a decade” – and in the case of the fashion world, it did. Trends and labels come and go, brands receive a makeover or two and a group of black men go from being goofed for a picture, to becoming some of the most influential figures of the wave that would come to fruition almost a decade later.
When we think of the Tommy Ton picture where Virgil Abloh was just the other guy (he wasn’t even featured in South Park’s Kanye West parody episode); it would’ve been hard to imagine that he might become, arguably, the most influential of the clique. Vetements took the fashion trolling playbook from his #BEENTRILL and PYREX Vision. Subsequently, every other label adopted all-over print because of Off-white and not to mention, the tons of copycat labels (side-eye Heron Preston) that have come to be. It would be impossible for anyone to paint the picture of today’s fashion landscape without Virgil Abloh’s face looming over the mural; especially now that he is the first black designer to sit on the Parisian fashion throne – Louis Vuitton.
With every major project and collaboration, his rise seems less and less like chance, but rather the development of a meticulously designed blueprint. His movement is comparable to that of a heat-seeking missile; never losing sight of the target, moving in tandem with the ebbs and flows as if he himself had planned them. And then, blowing down all the doors that lie before him along with the starlit eyes of the creatives coming after him. More importantly, his presence has created a residual impact in giving those of a darker pigment a bolder voice to speak, and stronger leg to stand on.
Virgil’s success is largely due to his amalgamation of the luxury and street culture worlds he wholly embodies. Drawing from his Rockford and Chicago upbringing, to his Fendi internship as well as his Master’s degree in Architecture, and finally, his affiliation with the pop scene through Kanye West . He has able to create a utopia where contrasting elements were able to produce harmony without compromising on what they were. This tinkerer’s approach could be paralleled with that of Dapper Dan and his bootleg boutique where Black men take what they have (what they could only dream of), and put it together to make the most of it.
However, the affinity for luxury for Black people goes further than high-end Italian and French labels. For a large population, luxury is a matter of having new Nike sneakers. For us, luxury has become the trying task of taking basic items and putting them together in a way that makes them look more expensive than what they are. This is the embodiment of Off-white; renaissance-era art on tees, all-over print on Italian-made garments and reshaping silhouettes.
As a Black man, Virgil has constantly had to redefine and create what luxury is to him, so it is unsurprising that he was at the forefront of the new wave that redefined luxury. This also means that he had to fight to be recognized and accepted as an innovator by the industry’s ominous power structure, as opposed to having discriminatory hurdles placed in front of him as so many of his peers continue to face.
Racism is a battle long fought by models, designers, stylists and artists of color in the fashion world. It is worth noting that Vogue only just had the first ever Black photographer shooting a cover in 2018 (thank you, Beyoncé). What is most indicative of the presence of institutionalized racism is the lack of protest and acknowledgement from industry juggernauts that have pleaded for other social injustices in recent times. Clearly, the playing field has never been equal. Even though 2019 Paris Fashion Week, shows with majority Black models of different shades, walking down runways still represent a picture of an industry that has not completely evolved into an all-encompassing playground.
There is still a serious lack in the presence of Black individuals in positions of authority, especially in the big name luxury houses. This means that there is also a large psycho-social disconnect for Black employees amongst fashion’s cutthroat hierarchical system. The importance of having employers, or at least one of them with a solid understanding of the reality, challenges and consequences of your background cannot be understated. A very big challenge in the industry is that interns often have to accept non-paying jobs to even get a foot into the door. For those that don’t have generational wealth to parachute them throughout, it becomes an ominous journey.
This total disregard for Black contributors and their circumstances is what makes Virgil’s rise even more impressive and significant. It has opened the door for individuals such as Samuel Ross (A-COLD-WALL), Kerby Jean-Raymond (Pyer Moss), Laquan Smith and Edward Enniful (the first black editor of Vogue). As a result, they are able to put their hand up and command the spotlight; a worthy opportunity to replenish fashion’s ecosystem -- to one whose diversity is intrinsic, as opposed to en vogue.