Was He Or Was He Not?

At the recent Grammy Awards, the late Virgil Abloh was described as a “Hip-Hop Fashion Designer”. Stop “downplaying his achievements”, many cried

Virgil Abloh had a long career in fashion—almost two decades. From the early days of Pyrex Vision to his final glory at Louis Vuitton, Mr Abloh, admittedly, more than dabbled in fashion. But was his accomplishments unfairly trimmed when the recent Grammy Awards show labeled him a “Hip-Hop Fashion Designer” during the In Memoriam segment of the presentation? Was ‘Fashion Designer’ not adequate? Mr Abloh still has a huge fan base, possibly larger than some of the night’s nominated artistes. That so many viewers and attendees would be riled up was to be expected when the description does not offer something that suggests Greatness, specifically Black Greatness. But was it, as many insisted, “racially-charged” Or, “disrespectful”? And what, by the way, is a “hip hop fashion designer”?

It didn’t help that the members of BTS wore Louis Vuitton, specifically from the late designer’s last collection for the house—fall 2022. Vogue called the suits that the septet wore “spiffy” although four of the double-breasted (out of the seven two-pieces) were dangerously close to dowdy (let’s risk the wrath of The Army!) if not for the youthfulness of the wearers. But looking at those suits lined up in a row, it is hard to pin “hip hop fashion” to the tailored ensembles, even if hip-hop stars have for quite a while adopted dapper suits for their performances and public appearances (even Rihanna wore his LV!). This was, to so many who watched the telecast, visually contradictory to the description that appeared below Mr Abloh’s name. This had to be the apex of fashion!

Mr Abloh, to many of his supporters, was much bigger than anything that came out of hip-hop: he headed a French house and even dabbled, even if only briefly, in the rather un-hip-hop of crafts—haute couture

There is no denying Virgil Abloh was a titan in the world of hip hop, not only for his association with Kanye West (who attended Mr Abloh’s debut LV show and hugged him at the end of it), but also the work he did for the rapper. Before he created clothes that many people wanted to buy, he was very much a part of that world, and still is. But Mr Abloh, to many of his supporters, was much bigger than anything that came out of hip-hop: he headed a French house and dabbled, even if only briefly, in the rather un-hip-hop of crafts—haute couture. In addition, Mr Abloh was a Grammy nominee. In 2011, he was selected for the cover design (done in partnership with Riccardo Tisci) of Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne (more hip-hop there). Would The Recording Academy not have served the viewers of their award presentation better if they acknowledged the Off-White founder with the prefix “Grammy-nominated” followed by his stature in art and fashion?

Despite the underwhelming description, it is not degrading to be considered a “hip-hop fashion designer” (assuming that’s a valid accolade) when so many Black creatives have effected distinctive and influential aesthetics rooted in their own culture, which includes hip-hop. Sure, Mr Abloh went further than most, but he did draw from the aesthetical legacy of his community and brought international attention to it. He, too, birthed the use of text—within inverted commas—to identify articles of clothing and accessories, and their parts, which is not unlike the words used in graffiti art—considered a part of the quartet most identified with hip-hop that includes emceeing (rapping), DJing (which the designer did), and B-boying (breakdancing). In hip-hop, many do see the positively indomitable spirit of Virgil Abloh.

Illustration: Just So

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