Virgil Abloh and the Meaning of Fashion

Depicted is fashion designer Virgil Abloh wearing his July 2021 Louis Vuitton for Paris Fashion Week look. In it he is wearing a white shirt under a black blazer with colorful buttons sewn on. He accessorized by wearing butterfly sunglasses and a tie with the slogan “A Formality.” This outfit is an example of his goals surrounding breaking down fashion barriers, and advocating for self expression. Illustration by Pearl McNames.

On November 28, 2021, the world lost a beloved and groundbreaking member of the fashion industry: Virgil Abloh. Abloh was a barrier-breaking Black designer who changed the boundaries of fashion, redrawing the lines of possibility, and eventually essentially erasing them altogether, proving that one’s mind is the only limitation. The New York Times stated in their memoriam to the designer that he “changed the meaning of ‘fashion’ itself.”

Abloh formally held a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, and a master’s degree in architecture; however he strayed from the confines of those professions, leading him to later have a career as a furniture designer, and most famously as a DJ and fashion designer. Once he had joined the fashion industry, he took it by storm. Beginning in 2009 when he met Kanye West, Abloh received the opportunity to work on West’s creative team for a sneaker collaboration with French fashion house Louis Vuitton. Soon after, Abloh and West began an internship at Fendi, further learning and exposing Abloh to the inner-workings of the fashion industry. In 2010, he became the creative director of West’s creative content company, Donda, and later in 2012, teamed up with other creative minds from Donda to create DJ fashion brand Been Till, which later turned into Pyrex Vision, and finally became Off-White, the Italian luxury fashion label that is one of the legacies Abloh left behind, all within the same year. 

Clothes and fashion meant more to Abloh than the items one wears on their back. To him, fashion was not only a form of art, but a form of self expression as well. He viewed fashion as a way to express identity, and to find oneself and their likes and dislikes, creating clothes so that people will feel confident and comfortable. 

Abloh’s role in the fashion industry was far beyond the material or aesthetic aspects; his goal was to inspire people, specifically future Black designers. He showed Black designers that they have a place in the fashion industry, something that Kevin Parker, founder of Philadelphia Fashion Week, commented that Black people did not often see themselves succeed in. As stated in an article by TIME Magazine, Parker noted that, “by breaking the conventions of what an artist was capable of, he paved the way for a new generation of young creatives who refuse to be limited by a singular classification or job title.” 

For centuries, fashion and art have had an impact greater than solely for the eye; they have the power to affect social commentary, to inspire people, a form of communication, and provide a sense of grounding not only for those who create it, but for those who view it as well. 

In an interview with Franklin High School’s AP Art and Photography teacher, Carrie Berning, she discussed some of the ways that art and fashion not only impact her, but also the impact she has noticed they have on society. She commented on fashion as a form of self expression, saying, “some people dress to disappear, some to stand out, some to be comfortable, etc. But regardless, how you present yourself is noticed by others.” She further went into discussing the four main aesthetics of art: representationalism, formalism, expressivism, and instrumentalism. These all culminate to portray different emotions and meanings in art, creating distinct responses from the viewer, and allowing greater impacts on society. When asked if art can have a deeper meaning, she said, “some art is just meant to be pleasing to look at. Some is meant to teach you something.” 

Virgil Abloh used his art, fashion to teach people. He strived to inspire other artists, utilizing his medium as a way to express emotion, and to spark change. In an article written by New York Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman, she wrote that for Abloh, “clothes were not garments, but totems of identity that sat at the nexus of art, music, politics and philosophy. He was a master of using irony, reference, and the self-aware wink (plus the digital world) to re-contextualize the familiar and give it an aura of cultural currency.”

Although Virgil Abloh is sadly no longer with us, he changed the way people think about fashion, and the lens through which people view the world. His impact on the fashion industry and the joy, inspiration, and confidence he brought into people’s lives are everlasting.

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