MCA Chief Curator Michael Darling Talks Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech

By Stephen Ostrowski | May 6, 2019 | Culture

Renaissance man of the moment Virgil Abloh gets his due with a wide-ranging showcase at the MCA.

Virgil Abloh (Photo: Katrina Wittkamp/courtesy of the MCA)

The unconventional ascent of Virgil Abloh—former creative director to Kanye West, whisperer behind couldn’t-be-hotter brand Off-White and artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton—is so not-by-the-books it sounds downright apocryphal. Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf chief curator of the MCA, sums it up well: “A kid from Rockford, Ill., that studied engineering and architecture, then heading up a French fashion house, is so different from the typical story of going to Central Saint Martins [in London], learning your craft, apprenticing for a designer and then eventually getting a shot yourself.”

Perfect timing, then, for the museum’s upcoming survey Virgil Abloh: “Figures of Speech,” which showcases the 38-year-old multihyphenate’s contributions to graphic design, fashion, music, furniture, architecture and other fields as he continues to refine an already clarion creative voice. The first solo museum exhibition of his career, it highlights Abloh’s interdisciplinary ethic by consolidating his areas of interest under one roof (with exhibition design from Samir Bantal of AMO, the research offshoot of Rem Koolhaas’ OMA), bringing a rapidly growing archive into clearer focus.

The designer DJing in 2013. (Photo by Matthieu Genre/courtesy of the MCA)

“I feel like he’s filtering what is going on in culture, and [then trying to] repackage it and understand it and explain it back to us in a way that maybe other fashion designers with a different kind of background or orientation aren’t doing, that are maybe after pure form or other things,” explains Darling. “He’s looking for what these zeitgeist moments are and trying to understand those and put those into his clothes.”

That analytical ethic bleeds through in Abloh’s frequent use of quotation marks, the signature design cue that informs the exhibition’s title. “By putting any words in quotations, he’s asking us not to take that word at face value, and recognize that there are different ways of interpreting it,” says Darling. “I think ‘figures of speech’ in language are those things, too, that are part of the common parlance, but we often don’t think of what their actual meaning is and where that meaning originated from. I think it’s part of his deconstructive approach where he’s always questioning things.”

Virgil Abloh for IKEA, “BLUE” (2018), prototype, woven rug. Photo courtesy of IKEA/the MCA

While his rise has been fast, it hasn’t been overnight, evidenced here by the display of early, teeth-cutting projects like Been Trill, a short-lived music-clothing collective; and Pyrex Vision, his now-defunct, break-through streetwear project. Presented alongside designs for Off-White and Louis Vuitton, they provide both a scholastic and contextual look at Abloh the fashion designer. “I was really looking at pieces that are participating in this deconstruction of a particular theme, or an explanation of a particular theme, like the Business Casual, or the Natural Woman collection where he’s looking at Princess Diana, and show an evolution of work,” says Darling, referencing Abloh’s FW 2018 and SS 2018 Off-White collections, respectively. “The first Off-White collections were hoodies and shorts and things like that; now, they’re ballgowns and men’s suits. There’s a real ramping up of ambition and craftsmanship in the clothing as you go through time.”

By going far and wide, the show illustrates the throughlines of an oeuvre scattered across a dizzying array of disciplines. His preoccupation with the built world, for example (the exhibition’s architecture portion features ephemera like his master’s thesis for IIT) prompts renewed appreciation of design endeavors like The Ten, where he reinterpreted a selection of iconic Nikes through his deconstructive lens. “He’s going, OK, what’s in this Air Jordan?” says Darling, reflecting how Abloh’s architectural pedigree manifests in design. “There’s this sole; and then, supposedly, there’s an air pocket inside here; there’s this swoosh, there’s this tongue; and there’s this place where the strings go. So he broke that up into what its component architectural parts really are, and then cobbled it back together in a way that called out those elements in the way that Le Corbusier would be calling out the columns and the windows and the surfaces of a building.”

Off-White for Nike, Nike Blazer Mid, 2017, “The Ten.” (Photo courtesy of the MCA)

Though the exhibition was conceived well before Abloh’s move to Louis Vuitton last spring, his appointment afforded the opportunity to call attention to what Darling sees as a weightier DNA in his craft. “It gave him a new platform for communication and a new level of responsibility. ... [An] element of politics and activism, if you want to call it that, started to make its way into the work,” says Darling, citing his debut effort and runway show for the French fashion house as Abloh’s watershed collection. The exhibition expounds on that thematic maturation in a section titled “Black Gaze,” spotlighting Abloh’s “growing voice of inclusion and equity and racial politics” through fine art pieces like “Cotton” (2018), a painting of the fiber logo recalling its murkier roots (“[It] nods, of course, to fashion and what you see inside your clothing, but then, where does cotton come from? Farms, which used to be plantations, peopled by slaves.”). Add in his Queen tennis dress for Serena Williams as well as a never-before-seen garment for Beyoncé, and “you get into some really serious territory, very quickly,” says Darling.

And that barely scratches the surface of an impressively thorough deep dive, where what the work represents now is as compelling as what it might in the future. Forecasts Darling, “[Virgil is] so relentless in his curiosity that he could very well go into fields that we’re not even talking about yet.” June 10-Sept. 29, 220 E. Chicago Ave., 312.280.2660

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