What Virgil Abloh meant to me – Chicago Magazine

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Even before meeting Virgil Abloh, I had followed his work for a long time. He was a big name in Chicago after starting Pyrex Vision and RSVP Gallery. I remember going to parties and people whispering, “Virgil could come”, because he was so highly regarded here as a creative and a DJ. He was magnetic and people wanted to be around him, to hear his ideas and absorb his advice, his vibrant energy.

Abloh with the NikeLab attendees.

In 2019, I started an internship at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and the staff was preparing for the huge “Figures of Speech” exhibition, dedicated to Virgil’s creations. I was already a big admirer of his work because it was bold and versatile and challenged normal design conventions.

I remember a meeting at the museum where a superfan event was mentioned. I also remember some people saying to themselves, “Oh, this is not for you”. I felt like I was treated like a stranger.

Then, literally two weeks later, I was asked to be a part of Virgil’s NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center. You could not apply to participate in the program. Virgil had hand-selected 10 young people from the 50 who had been nominated.

It was a surreal moment when I heard the news. I’m an installation artist, visual artist, maker, graphic designer, and illustrator, among others, and being selected for the program by Virgil Abloh himself validated me.

It was a two-month program in what looked like an enhanced lab workspace. They organized workshops for us, took us to studios, gave us documentary resources.

Virgil arrived at the start of the program and spoke about the importance of giving young people in Chicago access to creative spaces where we could work. He spoke about Chicago’s impact on the world of fashion and design. He was so assertive in her presence. He listened, he was attentive, and he showed each of us that our ideas are valuable.

At first I was so in awe of him, even intimidated, because of the respect I have for him. But he quickly put me at ease with his calm demeanor and soft voice. He explained why it was important to have this laboratory and to be there. To have me there. It was very intentional to open up a creative space for the community, for people normally left out – people like me, a young Puerto Rican woman.

I can’t help but wonder now if he had ever been diagnosed with cancer by then. This is something that I really thought about. He probably knew he had limited time, and that’s how he chose to spend it – with the young people – because he thought cheering us on was so important.

Abloh with the NikeLab attendees.

At the end of the NikeLab program, we were able to present our projects to Virgil. It was an amazing experience to share them with him and to get feedback from someone of his status.

My project was about gender equality in streetwear and the impact women of color have had on it. It’s a huge boys club, streetwear. And there is a lot of control. So I wanted to shine a light on the innovators of culture: I featured Chicago women who are prevalent and have unique styles and perspectives.

I remember Virgil telling me that my concepts were very clear and that women’s contributions are important. He said he could see me expanding my project into a bigger space. Everything he said was edifying.

I saw him again in 2020, at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys & Girls Club in East Garfield Park during NBA All-Star Weekend. He could have acted like he didn’t remember me. But he greeted me and gave me a hug. He was so nice. Then, as a group of us took a sideways photo, Virgil walked over and jumped into the photo.

Mourning is strange. Virgil had this omnipresence for so long. He was always working on something and the number of designs he has done over the years is amazing. He was in Paris. He was in New York. He was in Chicago. He did everything everywhere. And now… he’s not. It seems unreal.

I want to be careful not to overdo my relationship with him. I want to be aware of the space I occupy. There are other people he mentored who were much closer to him, who had the chance to collaborate with him. But I don’t want to minimize my experience either, because it’s mine and it makes sense to me. You don’t have to be very close to someone or be a famous friend for them to directly influence your life.

Abloh giving the author some feedback on his project.

The NikeLab program has been a huge springboard for my career. I felt like I had her co-signer and it opened doors for me even now.

But Virgil had a huge impact on me in other ways too – his entire career, his existence as a black man in these predominantly white spaces. All he did and stood up for was push the boundaries and show us that we belong. For so long, streetwear was considered a style. He changed that and brought our culture to haute couture. Every time he won, it was like our whole town was winning. It was stimulating and motivating.

He is my example of how I want to live and what I want to do. I want to go so much harder. I want to do so much more. I want to be able to move in as many spaces as he does. I want to do for the next generation what he has done for me: give them opportunities, resources.

And I follow his advice. I keep telling stories of women – in my design work, on my podcast – because it meant a lot to me that he could see that there was a void that I was trying to fill.

A few days after she passed away, I had my nails painted neon green, similar to her iconic bright colors. He used a lot of quotes in his work. So my nails say “Forever” because Virgil is forever. Its heritage, its impact, its influence. Always.


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