Words by Naledi Sibisi
Virgil Abloh recently faced backlash following an image he shared online of his employees at a staff party. The Off-White ™ designer who is also currently the artistic director for Louis Vuitton was slammed by critics on social media who quickly noticed the lack of diversity in the room. It is ironic because last year, Abloh’s men’s wear debut for Louis Vuitton was a historic one as he was positioned as the first Black creative director at the luxury house. This appointment was an emotional moment for many as it was symbolic of the importance of diversity in the fashion industry. More than that, many considered that he would open the doors for other Black creatives as such.
As someone who has been celebrated at many points for transcending in the world of luxury fashion, the strong presence of whiteness in the images shared left many angry and disappointed in the designer. Earlier this year, Abloh pondered on how difficult it was for him to gain access into the industry. “I couldn’t even get into a Louis Vuitton show at that point, you know. Like, going into a store sometimes could have been difficult”. That said, it is fair to question his contribution or assistance when it concerns other Black creatives now that he is in a position of influence in a European-dominated industry. Above that, Abloh has been an advocate for the culture. This push for streetwear and the Black youth to be taken seriously by luxury fashion houses is carried forward by the very people he has founded his rise on. With this context, it is disheartening that Off-White now joins the group of fashion houses that have been challenged where issues of diversity are concerned.
While the criticism was initially dismissed, Abloh has since provided the following statement: “My design team is diverse as the world is big. The video shown was an Off-White ™ dinner at the headquarters in the city of Milan, Italy. This party was to celebrate the hard work of the local Italian team". He also went on to showcase people of color (POC) and celebrity friends he has previously worked with to deliver his point. It wasn’t long before he was further criticized as some felt that this does not equate to hiring POC on his staff. For the most part, the social media outrage appeared to be more sadness and disappointment in the designer. As more Black people spoke about the idea of a luxury fashion house led by a fellow Black man following the blueprint that he struggled with throughout his career, another debate was brought to the table.
Why does the responsibility of fixing an issue that has shaped the industry for many years fall on POC? The answer is simply that Virgil Abloh represents the possibilities for the next generation and as such, much is expected of him through what he continues to represent for the culture. The reality is that the issues concerning diversity, particularly where luxury fashion houses are involved reflect the same standard of public scrutiny. It is why the likes of Prada, Gucci and Burberry have been forced to establish diversity initiatives based on feedback the luxury labels had received over the past year or two. Abloh being appointed to Louis Vuitton is still considered a defining moment that epitomizes a real possibility for change in the fashion industry. While one appointment may not indicate immediate and effective change, it highlights the larger elephants in the room when it comes to who is in power behind the scenes.
Ultimately, the fashion industry echoes acts of tokenism. While the appointment of Abloh is a historic one, it also suggests that it is merely a symbolic effort when we consider the fact that the majority of his staff members are white. The industry presents itself as inclusive and geared towards change when in reality there are not enough POC in positions to truly shift how the system operates. Turning Abloh into the token Black friend of the fashion industry is not going to address the desire and need for more diversity. When fashion houses shy away from the fact that issues of race, diversity and inclusion are the beginning and end of the discussion, they uphold what Abloh’s all white, Off-White ™ dinner looked like. In order to have these discussions, companies need to practice diversity in junior positions with the same energy they are beginning to practice this in senior positions. The backlash against Abloh is indicative of the fact that even as he has transcended, it is not enough to disguise the (mostly) white employees that make up the team behind the scenes. The frustration here is that, almost a year later, the system appears unmoved.