Virgil Abloh considers the meaning of fashion in a time of crisis

On a special edition artist cover for Document Issue 16, Abloh explores the shifting meaning of luxury

The fashion industry is undergoing an existential shift as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. “Authenticity,” “community,” and “sustainability” have gone from talking points to survival techniques. Some luxury brands are officially splitting with the four-season fashion calendar. (Others are being courted by Amazon.) Speaking to Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton and founder of Off-White, you’re reminded he has always approached fashion as an exploration of what clothes mean to us, as individuals and as part of a wider community. (“I’m not even that into clothes, to be honest,” he confessed to Anne Pasternak in 2018, shortly after he was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton.) The special connection Abloh has established with customers can only arise organically, even in normal times—nevermind during a perfect storm of sinking retailers and slashed disposable incomes. Still, even the man behind the ‘world’s hottest brand’ for the third consecutive quarter can’t predict what we’ll want to wear tomorrow. All Abloh can guarantee is that he’ll never have a shortage of ideas to put out into the world.

“Life is what it is, you know—we don’t have control over these macro issues,” Abloh mused over the phone on a recent weekday afternoon, from somewhere outside of Chicago. “So my mentality remains the same. I’m still optimistic and exuberant and excited about the future, and I think this is the time for creatives to define what the future is.” For Document’s Spring 2020 issue, Abloh created a staged photograph titled The glass is half full, always, in which he carries a chair and axe across the wooded countryside, dressed in full camouflage and muddy boots. Placed on top of the photo is a receipt from a German grocery chain near his studio in London, signaling a collapsing of space and a freezing of time. “When fashion once needed fashion to make fashion images, in this time, that rationale has been reduced to necessity,” Abloh says in his artist statement. “This moment of time is a line drawn in the sand.”

Here Abloh tells Document what makes a ‘fashion image,’ and why now is a time for challenging the status quo.

Hannah Ongley: What was your starting point for this work? Was there anything in particular about this moment in history that you wanted to address?

Virgil Abloh: Yeah, I think it was about making an image that was distinctly ‘now.’ I love the sort of dystopian feel of it, you know—shooting it myself in the countryside here, and I just love the juxtaposition between, on one hand, I have an axe, in the forest, and in the other hand is a Donald Judd chair that I have at my home. The axe is from the artist Sterling Ruby, who’s a friend of mine, and I thought that made a nice composition and a dystopian atmosphere. As a marker of our current time, it’s a receipt from a grocery store from my studio on the date that the photo was taken.

Hannah: Do you see this work as a fashion image?

Virgil: I don’t know, I don’t think so. I wonder, ‘What is a fashion image?’ You know? I think an image is an image.

Hannah: I guess you could ask, ‘What is fashion?’

Virgil: Yeah. The question is more interesting than the answer.

Hannah: Fashion is only one of the many ways that you express ideas through your work. Has the way that fashion fits into your overall outlook changed at all over recent weeks?

Virgil: I think just keeping a broad sense of creativity, you know? Same as what I was doing before in not limiting my approach. It just more gives me confidence that overall creative expression is my mode of activity—not just within fashion, music, art, etcetera.

Hannah: Do you sense that traditional hierarchies in the fashion and art worlds are beginning to collapse, allowing emerging voices to be heard? Do you worry there is a risk these power structures could become more entrenched as gatekeepers seek to retain control?

Virgil: I think we’re at the end of—that’s where this pandemic coincides with the end of that era. I think it’s really time for young people to decide how they want to be seen and how they want their art forms to be recorded. It’s a time of challenging the status quo and what gatekeepers are as we know it. It’ll transform into something new.

Hannah: You approach fashion not so much as pieces of clothing but as a set of signifiers, suggesting a sense of belonging or community. Does this notion remain as important to you now as it did before the pandemic? Are you thinking about fashion in the same way?

Virgil: It’s a weird thing, the importance of fashion, especially when people are quarantining at home, worried about their health and safety—where does that land amongst everything? I think it’s just important, in any sort of creative expression, to ask questions and think how it relates to the humanity aspect at hand.

Hannah: Speaking about fashion as part of a larger idea about how we relate to the world, and not so much about seasonality and runway trends—I’m thinking about the Lidl receipt, which does seem to entrench the image within a specific time period. How much do you think about your work being a product of a precise moment in time, as opposed to it being a representation of a timeless idea?

Virgil: I think [time] is critical. I think that’s almost the most important part of any expression, is when it was created, you know? Because it places it within the history of man, and the history of—of art history. It adds so much meaning and context. After this time passes, after this pandemic goes away, it’s going to be hard to signify the emotions that were captured in these weeks. That receipt—of when something like grocery shopping could have been seen as a luxury—was a utility. That was a sort of metaphor and poetic gesture, in including it.

Hannah: Have your ambitions shifted lately in terms of new ways to express ideas?

Virgil: For the most part I’m just interested in thinking free.

Click here for Edgar Heap of Bird’s Document No. 16 limited edition art cover