You might not be a fan of Virgil Abloh and his copycat practices, but one thing is sure: he delivers substance to Louis Vuitton‘s menswear (which sadly can’t be said of Nicolas Ghesquière’s recent seasons for women…). Abloh’s autumn-winter 2021 line-up seems to be his most personal to date, bringing conversations you would never really see at Vuitton. His sixth collection, named ‘Ebonics,’ came with a film directed by Josh Johnson that was powerfully centered on spoken word and performance, a call to radical thinking through the lens of menswear. Amongst the words delivered by Saul Williams and Kai Isiah Jamal were these: “Deconstruct the narratives… make spaces”; “Take down the walls, unravel the mysteries. Make it up to me.” And: “As Black people, as trans people, as marginalized people, the world is here for our taking, for it takes so much from us.” Abloh has mustered an educational encyclopedia of answers to the ineluctable questions that have been troubling all designers: over the point of fashion, of shows, of making clothes in the face of the Black Lives Matter movement and all the crises that blew up in humanity’s face last year. “We’re still reeling,” he said, in a telephone call with Vogue. “We sat through so many heavy conversations in 2020, some so heated that things can’t be discussed anymore. But fashion can do this. Shows can do this.” Abloh’s belief in clear-eyed boyhood innocence – that grace period before awareness of socio-cultural biases sets in – has always been an inspiration signalled in his Vuitton collections and campaigns. “I start from the wonderment of boys. When you’re a boy there’s one thing that adults ask you: What do you want to be when you grow up? And you say artist, lawyer, doctor, football player, fighter pilot. But then, if I ask what does a doctor look like? There’s a knee-jerk. That’s where we can learn.” His point, spelled out amongst the stack of literature he releases with each collection, is this: “Fashion has the power to de-program these dress codes and impact possibilities.” The multi-level consciousness, and his ambition to educate, include, and create aspiration is down-to-earth in one direction, and high-flown in many others. “Tourist vs. Purist,” the slogan he wrote when he entered Louis Vuitton in 2018 returned on bags this season. “It’s my organizing principle for my point of view when I make things. A tourist is someone who’s eager to learn, who wants to see the Eiffel Tower when they come to Paris. The purist is the person who knows everything about everything.” Abloh exerts his positionality as both – the outsider who became the insider; the man with the power to bring young people with him into the former exclusion zone of high fashion.
There’s lot to unpack, from the Louis Vuitton baggage (some of it in the shape of carrier bags, potato sacks, an LV ‘Keepall’ in the form of a plane) to the symbolic reconfigurations of masculine archetypes, to the challenging of ownership of sources that Abloh built into the clothes. “There are a lot of stories mixing cultures,” he said. “And from that, a new language will be created.” Cool, considered, chic, and flowing with floor-length coats, easy slim tailoring, African draped wraps, kilts, and Western hats – styled by the super-stylist, Ibrahim Kamara – it plainly makes for Abloh’s best collection for the house since he arrived in 2018. And his most autobiographical yet -an exploration of his African heritage and of what it means to be at the pinnacle of a career in Europe as a Black American creative director. “When I grew up, my father wore Kente cloth, with nothing beneath it, to family weddings, funerals, graduations,” he said. “When he went to an American wedding, he wore a suit. I merged those two together, celebrating my Ghanaian culture.” Add LV patterns to the cloth, drape it, then pair and compare it again with tartan checks, and the result is indeed something new. So too, the diagonal green-on-white print on a leather motocross suit. “A memory of the wax print fabric my mom had around the house when I was growing up,” he chuckled. “She was the one who taught me to sew; and she had learned it with a tailor in Ghana.” The collection is a powerful and beautiful statement. Abloh concluded, “I’m an optimist. The future is yet to be decided.”
“Live” collage by Edward Kanarecki.