The tragic passing of Virgil Abloh on Sunday 28th November has sent shockwaves throughout the world, but especially for those that reside within the realms of fashion, art and culture. It would be an understatement to say that the founder of Off-White and creative director at Louis Vuitton’s impact within the fashion industry was merely a breath of fresh air. In fact, his impact was monumental for those that he touched; through both his work and advocacy, Virgil Abloh emboldened a new generation of young Black creatives.
In his own words, Abloh stated that his mission was to “[Mentor] by existence”. As a young Black Ghanaian first-generation creative living in the UK, Abloh’s career alongside his physical presence at the heart of fashion was, and still is, deeply personal. For a Black man of African heritage who made it to the top of the industry to maintain such a level of humility and an immeasurable pride for where he had come from, was the encouragement many African creatives both at home and in the diaspora needed: he taught us that we needn’t compromise our heritage for our art and creativity – and it is that heritage that makes our creations unique. As a young Ghanaian who has grown up in England, I often felt the need to push my heritage and family culture to the backseat. Living in a predominantly white, middle-class suburb in Essex, I grew up feeling ashamed of my heritage; the loud and colourful Kente cloth, the food, our various languages and accents. I was often ridiculed by my classmates for these things which meant that as a child I related the ridicule to all things “Ghana”. This meant that I was subconsciously growing up with the message that in order to be accepted and successful in a Western landscape, my Ghanaian heritage had to be pushed to the side; it had to be concealed.
For a Black man of African heritage who made it to the top of the industry to maintain such a level of humility and an immeasurable pride for where he had come from, was the encouragement many African creatives both at home and in the diaspora needed: he taught us that we needn’t compromise our heritage for our art and creativity – and it is that heritage that makes our creations unique.
Fast forward to the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2021 Menswear presentation, Abloh decided to explore the effects of having a mixed cultural identity. The collection was titled “Ebonics” and was accompanied by a short film, “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light,” which sought to highlight Black empowerment and the multitude of Black experiences through the lens of menswear. The use of the traditional Kente cloth paired with suits and tracksuits, felt personal and resonated with me: it felt like an illustration of young Ghanaians growing up in the diaspora. In conversation with Vogue Magazine, Abloh explained: “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.” The traditional Ghanaian cloth originated from the Asante tribe (shoutout to my Mum’s side of the family) in a town called Bonwire, and was previously associated with royalty, wealth and prestige (also shoutout to my dad for this information!). However, due to it’s growing affordability, it has become popularised across all regions in Ghana but also acts as a national emblem – something which Ghanaians wear with pride.
I think Virgil’s use of the Kente cloth should be seen as more than just a virtue signal. By bringing the traditional fabric to the forefront of high fashion, it allowed for an Afrocentric lens to take centre stage. As the viewer, it leads one to question why we haven’t seen a wider range of various cultural fabrics interwoven into the upper echelons of fashion. Whilst talking about this collection on the Ethical Fashion Podcast with Simone Cipriani and Clare Press, Virgil highlights the disparity in what is seen as normative within high fashion, he states: “Tartan…plaid, those are cultural fabrics that end up as a normative thing in fashion which feels like anyone can wear it”. As Virgil alludes to, these cultural patterns are given space at the centre of high fashion and have trickled down into our cultural understanding of what is prestige, elegant and ‘in’. I believe that by bringing a variety of different cultures to the centre of the fashion industry, it pushes the notion of diversity and inclusion by example.
Virgil’s championing of young Black creatives extended far beyond the fashion industry. In 2020, Abloh and Daily Paper collaborated in order to build the first fully functioning skate park in Accra, Ghana. As someone who has younger cousins back home, this prospect was immensely exciting to me because it meant that there would be a new wave of opportunities being created for young people in Ghana, as opposed to telling them that they needed to move to the West in order to follow their dreams.
For me, this was another example of Virgil blending social justice with creativity. In remembering his friend, Offset, speaking to Vogue Magazine explains: “What Virgil represented to me, is [someone who is] boundless. By that I mean his willingness to break the rules, to do the things people said he couldn’t.” I agree with Offset here. In an industry which tells us to conform and not to shake the status quo, especially as Black people, Virgil’s continual devotion to doing so and breaking boundaries was once again incredibly inspiring, but more importantly, incredibly needed. Virgil Abloh’s legacy will be remembered as one in which was devoted to help and uplift those who weren’t being represented, and seeking to change narratives through this. As a recently turned 19-year old, I use Virgil’s legacy as a reminder of what can be. In his famous words: “you can do it too…”
Maxine is a social justice activist, writer, model and creative, with a particular interest in all things fashion, art and culture.
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