Talking about Doubt with Virgil Abloh

Artistic Director Louis Vuitton/CEO Off-White

 

Ellsworth Ausby, Hey, That Nice, Uh!, 1970. Courtesy Eric Firestone Gallery

We talk for hours, over many months and across two continents. He is in the throes of a turbulent summer, first due to a social media commotion in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, and then another, more parochial, turmoil focusing on the originality of his designs. I find myself moved somehow by his attempts to come to grips with the confrontations: a man otherwise so affable and cool he sometimes seems made of Teflon, now torn between wanting to defend himself, the worry about making things worse, and the desire to understand and accept that the narratives which form in the public domain have little to do with intent, or with the perception you might have of yourself.

 

I often feel like ‘the only one.’ The odd one out – the stranger in the village. When I’m in high society in Paris I feel it. When I’m on the South Side of Chicago I feel it. But I think of doubt as my engine actually. There’s nothing that motivates me in quite the same way. So yes of course I doubt. Can I do this? Am I confident enough? Can I break that wall down? Does the Trojan horse fit? But also, if you doubt me just wait I’ll one-up you. You know, as a kid at school I can’t tell you how many times I heard ‘Hey Virgil, you talk like you’re white.’ Or ‘Virgil the Virgin.’ But I had a witty comeback for every time I heard that joke, and that’s how the roles were reversed and I was laughing at them – and so was everyone else. I’m still like that. If they assume I’m all about ‘streetwear,’ I’ll show them tailoring. If they judge me by the colour of my skin, they assume I’ll talk this way and act that way. They think they know what my work is about. So I’ll one-up them.

Before the summer of 2020, before the racial uprising, it was basically taboo to talk about race in an all-white setting of power. I never made my race the forefront issue when it came to my work because it was obvious that if you were screaming about race issues from the mountaintops, no one would listen. That’s why my Trojan horse was built. But now everyone is like, ‘Hey, I’m ready now, let’s talk about race.’ ‘I’m white and I’m here to listen to you.’ So I can hop out of my Trojan horse for a minute and do some work above ground and it’s not seen as threatening anymore. Nobody thinks I’m complaining now; they know what I’m talking about. Where are the black creatives in fashion? Why are there not more black people in the boardrooms? What is the black experience? What is the black canon? Every corporate partner I have is tackling the racial issue inside their businesses right now. And as a face and collaborator, I can dialogue back to them and be like, ‘What are we doing here?’ There’s a new system in the making, and it’s better for the brands I work with to let me lead the way. Two years ago if I’d said, ‘I’m hiring only black people for this project,’ they would all have been like, ‘Woah.’ Now there’s a PR angle and everyone is on board.

But for me there’s still doubt located in being a black artist, creative, designer, whatever. Being in opposition to the European canon. My race follows me everywhere: because of how visible I am, because of my name, because of this moment in time. It’s what I represent and what I am; there’s no way my work or person can exist outside of that. In the hierarchical, white spaces I move through I’m attempting to add my name to the canon. In fashion, in art, in design, the white European canon is taken for granted to the extent that we don’t even see it anymore. We just think of it as ‘the canon.’ I want to upend that. Or at least ask questions about how to create and exist in that space as a black person. I’m in dialogue with my white peers, but I’m in opposition to them also. That’s where doubt comes in: it’s two-fold. There’s doubt in terms of the validity of my work – ‘he’s not a real designer’ – but there’s also my own doubt. Can I do it? Can I be the only black person in the room, and still make them listen to me? Can I make them give me the resources I need?

So I’ve been inching towards the black canon, defining it, embodying it, in my mind and in my work. I’ve been rearranging the furniture in my mind to use our favourite metaphor. When I first met you, when I was first becoming known in fashion, I didn’t want to talk about it, you know that. I didn’t want to deal with race. And now I think of it as the one legacy I want to leave as a black designer. I lead with race now, and I try to put doubt to the side. I know speaking plainly like this is risky. Maybe it’ll stoke some new social media tornado. Maybe my bosses and peers will worry about the bottom line. Maybe Black Twitter will poke holes in my theory. Sometimes it seems impossible to speak about race for even three minutes without saying the wrong thing. You end up offending white people, you end up offending black people. I don’t have the answer obviously; I’m figuring it out like everybody else. But what I do know is that I want to help define the black canon. Draw lines around it and say, this is it. Because I think that until we better understand the ways it converges and diverges from the white canon we all know and measure ourselves against, black creatives and intellectuals will never be able to drop the prefix. And as far as we might get in our chosen fields, when what’s written and said about us leads with ‘black,’ we’re never going to transcend race. Brilliant black minds will continue to exist parallel to. And as long as that’s the case we’re always being ‘allowed in,’ if you know what I mean. Power doesn’t reside with us: it relies on the magnanimousness of the white canon. I think we need to outline and celebrate black culture, focus on black people, distinguish the black canon first. That’s step one.

There’s something you’ve got to understand. When you’re black in the arts, in order to be seen you must perform. It’s like, ‘Hey! You! Do something! Don’t just sit there – entertain us!’ Dark skin is acceptable if it belongs to someone in front of the camera. A basketball player, a singer, a model, an entertainer. I know that, and I’ve worked with that. I’ve been the basketball player, the singer and the entertainer. The face. But the entertainment aspect of my work is wearing thin. I want to step back and let the work speak for itself, less blatantly, with more nuance. I want to take the space to think, to be a thinker. I want my logic to be more apparent. I want nuance to be welcomed. That’s what clipped me the summer of 2020 with all the social media scandals that swirled around me: my own community saying, ‘Skip the nuance. You need to be direct. You need to fight.’ But I don’t want to give my nuance up. My nuance is my strength.

To the black community I’m not black enough, that argument goes all the way back that to high school. Actually, the first time I felt the effects of prejudice wasn’t from white people – it was from other black people telling me, ‘You speak too well. Why do you talk like that? You talk like you’re white.’ I remember sitting at that lunch table being like, wait, what did I do? I’ve told you before that my parents are African, they’re immigrants in America. My dad came with two degrees from Ghana in the Seventies. So when I was being attacked on all sides by Black Twitter last summer, my dad took me aside and told me, ‘What happened to you is what happened to me when I came to this country.’ Black Americans asked him, ‘Why do you use those words? Why do you drive that car? Why are you not more like us?’ Sometimes it feels as if black culture wants something from me, but will throw me in the trash without a second thought if I don’t fit the narrative. I’m disposable. It’s ironic times ten. At the beginning of my career, I had detractors but I had lots of support too. People were rooting for me. But now… There’s a certain glee in seeing the mighty fall, that’s quite human. Schadenfreude. It’s given rise to a different kind of doubt for me. At the beginning there was less at stake. In a way I doubted less, because I mean, what’s the worst that could happen? Now I have to play the politician. There were forty-eight hours of internet tornado this past summer that got pretty ugly. My wedding photos were uploaded online; it was a true celebrity crazy person zoo. I got swept up in cancel culture. A lot of people in my social circle have been asking why not more well-known people are prepared to say even slightly controversial things, about race or whatever. But when cancel culture is as virulent as it is now I can understand. It’s so easy to say the wrong thing. And then it’s public square humiliation time. That’s why it’s safer to cruise by unremarked upon in the sea of other celebrities also not saying anything. I know this isn’t the doubt we’re focusing on here, but it did make me doubt human nature, and my place in the world. Then you texted me the best quote: ’misunderstandings are ubiquitous and neither intelligence nor the intention to be accurate is any guarantee against them.’

That was something David Deutsch, the physicist, wrote.

Well it really resonated with me. I’m still figuring out how to be a ‘good’ black person of power, in fashion and in culture. What’s my responsibility? What do people want from me? What do I want for myself? As you know, to many people in the industry I’m still not even a designer. I’m some outsider, the perennial new guy, the one doing streetwear certainly not ‘fashion.’ My race is part of that, yes, but so are a lot of other things that set me apart. That I’m American maybe, that I didn’t go to fashion school or climb the conventional hierarchy to success. That I’m multi-disciplinary. That my work is adjacent to entertainment culture. That I don’t subscribe to fashion as an elitist pursuit. What I want is to show that it’s possible to circumvent conventional European codes of fashion, or invert them perhaps and say, this is what a black designer, black artist, can do. I’m trying to push that Trojan horse into the industry: get behind enemy lines and deliver my message in a more efficient way to standing with a megaphone outside the castle walls.

My strategy has never been to call out singular examples of racism, even as I’ve encountered them myself. I don’t want to confront individual people and tell them off. That’s not my style. It’s better for me to think of an action that has ten times more impact than an individual instance of prejudice or bias. That way I’m allowed to keep creating and hopefully in the wake of my initiative I can progress with my work, myself, the cause. The theory of indirect communication: that’s my tactic. That’s how I’ve built my career. I’m going to carry on operating in spaces that aren’t diverse, where I’ll be the only black person in the room. I’m going to carry on having to prove myself, show sceptics that I belong. I wish it wasn’t like that but I know what I’m in for. In the spaces that I move through, you never hear, ‘We don’t like black people.’ Few people in the demographic I exist in – globetrotting, educated, sophisticated liberals – would admit to having racist tendencies. The racist is always someone else, a caricature. So bias is expressed in subtle, underhanded ways: in expressions and body language where you can hide their actual meaning to yourself if not to others. These are the unknown knowns we carry. It comes out in ‘You’re not a real designer.’ ‘That’s not your idea.’ ‘That’s not original.’

You told me once about Joseph Campbell, about his work on myths and folklore and his understanding of the hero’s journey. I’ve been thinking about that. My career has a kind of story arc, a narrative that fits the mould. I’ve gone from obscurity to success, from outsider to insider. Paraphrasing a bit here but if my ‘hero’s adventure’ is that ascent, then I get that now is the time to be tested. The people who once saw me as a symbol, as the underdog righteously crashing the salons, are raising an eyebrow now. There’s some doubt. ‘What will he do?’ I mean, it feels good to root for the underdog, I get it. So no, I’m not the underdog anymore. I’m seen as part of the establishment, as just another gatekeeper. But I’m not an archetype, I’m no hero; I’m just a human being flawed and contradictory like everybody else. And I want to write my own story. I’m always aware of double consciousness: how I see myself, and how I’m seen by others. That’s why doubt is constantly on my mind – I’m never allowed to forget how I come across in the world. As a black creative, every time I put something out, it has to go through this sort of… I have to overexplain myself. I have to have the receipts ready in my back pocket just in case. I’ve got to be able to back everything up, show that my inspiration is correct and credible, prove myself. I always laugh if I go to say a white artist’s talk; they can literally be like ‘I found this piece of paper on the ground and it made me laugh – art premise found.’ I’m being facetious, but you know what I mean. If you belong to the canon, you’re never challenged on a grand scale because a great story is all you need. Me, not so much. It’s like, ‘Okay we know you’ve arrived, but show us your passport one more time.’ So when I get challenged I oscillate between a knee-jerk reaction of defending myself and proving that my work is bona fide. But what I really want is to stay quiet, let it be understood that I don’t need to justify myself, allow the work, the ideas, to speak for themselves.

But I’ve come to realise that my voice is my weapon. I’ve put it off for as long as possible but now I can’t any more. More than a fashion designer, I’m a thinker. I produce to provoke thought. I want to put ideas out in the world, not only objects. My output isn’t about this jacket, or that show – it’s about the underlying logic. I want my work to touch as many people as possible so the surface area needs to be substantial. It’s ironic actually: at the start of my career ‘he’s not a designer’ was the most common objection to my work. And I took offense to that. But now I think to myself, where are the black public intellectuals in design and culture? Where are the thought leaders, the game changers? What I leave behind shouldn’t be objects or even an aesthetic – it’s about redefining what a creative could or should be today. Get this: for me the object is a way to point to the idea. There are millions who’ve come before me. I’m not saying I’m brand new to the black canon: I’m just carving out some more space here. My investigation, my work, my trajectory speaks, I hope, to a generation of young black people who need to know that there’s an open space for them to occupy too. But it’s a work in progress. I’m an autodidact, an explorer, and often I’m an amateur too. My career in that sense is an investigative exploration. It’s about how to be a black thinker in white spaces; it’s about inserting the black canon in art history books. It’s about being a black voice that matters beyond the fringes. I want to be able to look back at my life and career and know that I left some inanimate objects behind, yes, but also a logic that changed the mainstream.

 

Anja Aronowsky Cronberg is Vestoj’s Editor-in-Chief and Founder

This article was originally published in Vestoj ‘On Doubt,’ available for purchase here.