Out of the Shadows: Virgil Abloh and Prominence for Future Black Designers

This piece was originally submitted as an academic paper for the graduate seminar in design at the University of Washington.

We are aware of the critical nature of shadows — they create natural depth, help us understand perspective, and define spatial relationships. But how often do we stop to recognize their vital nature? For a long time there have been shadows in the design industry, enriching the space with their depth and vitality but critically under-appreciated. These so-called shadows have been black designers. While monumental in the field, recognition of their contributions has been criminally muted throughout history. But why is this the case?

An obvious connection to underrepresentation in design itself comes to mind, as numerous articles have addressed the lack of black designers practicing in the first place [e.g. Cherry, 2015]. Congruently, the question of “where are the black designers?” has been used to provoke further discussion. While these previous works contain valid arguments regarding the lack of representation, they often fail to elaborate on the success of contemporary designers and its impact on the practice. Thus my objective is not to echo similar articles reiterating the lack of diversity in the space; rather, the aim is to enrich the discussion of underrepresentation by examining factors such as recognition and prominence and exploring their significance to aspiring black designers.

Nonetheless, the lack of representation must be covered ever so lightly to establish the frame of this exploration. As of 2019, only 3% of designers identify as black across all design fields (Census, 2019). Historical underlying reasons include a lack of familial support, mentorship, & acceptance of black designers which has a direct impact on the demographics of the various design fields (Miller, 1987, p. 60). Furthermore, economic barriers and financial support for many black Americans remain as obstacles to pursue education in design.

There have undoubtedly been efforts to help increase the amount of black designers. One prominent measure happened in 1991 with the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) symposium to address this lack of representation. AIGA continues this work with their national Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Initiative to support people of color accessing the breadth of design opportunities. Similarly, there are more professional networks aimed at support and mentorship for blacks currently in the profession like Bay Area Black Designers in California. Initiatives that serve the younger generation have emerged too; one notable one is Inneract Project, an organization that introduces black and latinx kids to design education and opportunities. Organizations and events like these are encouraging as they have started to open more doors and facilitate a flow of black designers.

“For so long I didn’t see artists or designers that looked like me in spheres of high art or high fashion so I believed I couldn’t do that” -Virgil Abloh, 2019

Nonetheless, the spotlight on black designers remains minimal. Cheryl Miller, a vanguard of racial and gender equality in graphic design, recently stated: “Black designers are here, on the scene. What is missing is the black designers’ PR presence in competitions, conferences, board seats, industry commentary, the education realm and so on. They are indeed in action, but still missing from our full view” (Miller, 2017, p.89). It’s evident that black designers need to be seen and celebrated in order to be role models for those that come after them, but who is currently filling that role?

One individual in particular has broken through in recent years: Chicago-born designer Virgil Abloh. Abloh founded and runs one of the most globally recognized contemporary brands, Off-White, was named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World, and became one of the first black designers to lead a major European fashion house when he was appointed the artistic director of Louis Vuitton Menswear. His status and influence will undoubtedly have an impact on future generations and aspiring designers of color. Abloh’s trajectory can very well provide insights to envision ways in which young black designers can achieve and sustain prominence to transcend the shadows.

Background

In recent years, there has been increased discussion regarding black designers’ lack of exposure to a wider audience. These conversations have been had almost exclusively in online media and popular research; there is an apparent void in academic articles detailing black designers. Furthermore, the discussion about black designers primarily focuses on fashion design, with less attention paid to disciplines such as graphic, product, interior, and industrial design. Therefore, the contents of this section rely heavily on examinations of the fashion industry, but I aim to apply and expand the discussion to other design sub-disciplines. The present shortcomings are telling of how much progress needs to be made to capture the experiences of black designers.

It is first imperative to address the systemic failings of design, particularly the Eurocentric standard that continues to define it. Design “heroes” have traditionally been extracted from a very limiting pool, and the colonization of these heroes has narrowed who the public envisions as embodying success in design. Design writer Lilly Smith expounds on this phenomenon in an article for Fast Company, asserting “the idea of a design canon itself is fraught, and based in Eurocentric pedagogy stemming from the ‘international style…there are more design ‘heroes’ than you can name from that design movement” (Smith, 2020, para. 7). Smith goes on further to state that the status and impact of black designers “have been too-often relegated to the margins of design history rather than given their due” (Smith, 2020, para. 8). It is important to frame the current conversation in this context to understand the barriers that stand between black designers and greater prominence in the field.

The ability for black designers to break through and receive recognition in the first place remains one of the most evident issues. Fashion director and editor Julee Wilson of Business of Fashion detailed the struggles of black fashion designers in 2018; Wilson highlighted that black creatives are at the center of American culture, yet they have struggled to reach the apex of the fashion industry (Wilson, 2018). Wilson does in fact note that black men have seen success at major European fashion houses (e.g. Oliver Rousteing at Balmain, Shayne Oliver at Helmut Lang, Edward Buchannan at Bottega Venetta). Nevertheless, she explains that “designers of colour have struggled to rise to the pinnacle of the American fashion industry…they never reached the same level of success — in terms of both the size of their businesses as well as name recognition — as others in their generation, such as Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Diane Von Furstenberg” (Wilson, 2018). To put it another way, black designers are getting the short end of the stick.

Fighting to break through, those designers that do emerge face racial barriers, specifically tokenism and othering by their counterparts. In her academic study, Kent State University’s Tameka Ellington found “no increase of exposure Black [fashion] designers received in Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue from year 2000 to 2012” and that “tokenism was found as an issue which did not allow for other non-token Black designers to be recognized” (Ellington, 2017). Framing her study using Critical Race Theory, Ellington identified interest convergence as the factor driving of this phenomenon. This treatment from the media has limited the growth, success, and exposure of other black designers. Similarly, Julee Wilson details how being labeled a “black designer” presents challenges and puts pressure on some to distance themselves from their identity. Wilson notes that a number of black designers felt their work would only be “relegated to a certain moment, place and aesthetic” (Wilson, 2018, para. 18). In 2019, 25 practicing interior designers detailed their work being treated in this way in Architectural Digest. One of these individuals, designer Saudah Saleems, lamented the “amazingly talented designers of color who are overlooked time and time again because their personal image or design perspective doesn’t match a false standard of what Americans or American homes look like” (Martin, 2018, On Tokenism and Inclusion section, para. 4). Black designers continue to be boxed into a particular frame or boxed out altogether, making the goal of sustained success and prominence ever-elusive.

Method

To enrich the discussion, my focus shifted towards examining new paradigms to address the current issues. Virgil Abloh is a viable case study to examine relevant takeaways for aspiring black designers. Prior knowledge of Abloh and recognition of his work among my peers was a helpful foundation to explore the topic. Nevertheless, a more thorough analysis of Abloh and his influence in design was the primary approach.

I was inspired by Samii Benson’s qualitative study of black design entrepreneurs. Particularly, I looked at her findings detailing pathways for success for black designers (Benson, 2017, p. 114).

My method consisted of three parts: (1) Studying pertinent themes in Abloh’s journey & work (2) Analyzing critical reception and engagement with Abloh’s work (3) Examining channels in which his work is shared & discussed

Findings

Dissecting Abloh’s trajectory provides rich insights for black designers. The insights are not exhaustive by any means nor limited to black designers; they serve as starting points to educate and inspire first and foremost. Subsequently, I identify four main takeaways from the case study that I deem potentially valuable for future generations of designers.

The first finding that was critical to measure Abloh’s success is his connection to his hometown of Rockford, Illinois, just outside of Chicago. One doesn’t have to look too far to learn about Abloh’s beginnings, as he displays his birthplace prominently on the homepage of his personal website and countless articles note his connection with Chicago. In addition to growing up near the city, Abloh also studied at Midwest institutions, first at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The Midwest connection is strong, and it’s an aspect of his life that Abloh fully embraces and uses to his advantage. In fact, an unwavering association with city has been a staple to his impact on aspiring designers. Firstly, this association has appealed to many consumers and designers alike with more humble backgrounds. A “regular guy” from the Midwest prospering has resonated with others who see a model for success. In a Vogue piece following three designers from Chicago, they detailed what Abloh meant to them as aspiring creatives from the city: “In Chicago, especially, a city known to much of the outside world as a gangland war ground, young black men aspiring to [create] success see a new kind of homegrown hero in Abloh” (Bobb, 2018).

Abloh has emerged as a new archetype of success from Chicago. Not only have people perceived a more tangible, accessible role model in Abloh because of his Midwest roots, but they have also become a dedicated following and community willing to support his work.

The second finding was looking at the interdisciplinary nature of Abloh’s work. It’s almost amusing to see a trained engineer and architect become a famous clothing, furniture, shoe, and graphic designer. Part of Abloh’s success in these areas speaks to his curiosity and a variety of interests effectively coalescing. Abloh’s path is not suited for (nor possible for) everyone, but it’s critical to recognize how his diverse interests are key to his practice. Abloh states that he was taught “to combine the fields of art, craft and design. These theories, merged with contemporary culture, makeup [my] interdisciplinary practice today” (Abloh, 2020). For Abloh, no form of inspiration is off limits, making his impact greater.

Just as he sought a diverse education, so too did Abloh seek diverse professional opportunities. Abloh has always reinvented himself, first as a DJ, then as a fashion student, as an art director, and now as an designer and creator. (Grobe, 2020) Impressive as these professions are individually, the more striking fact is Abloh’s ability to navigate among them.

Abloh’s contemporaries have celebrated his interdisciplinary practice as an asset to his creative works. Renowned artist Takashi Murakami explained that Abloh “is the type of creator who would devour everything around him and turn it into his nourishment” (Hyman, 2019). Abloh’s 2019 exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago, titled “Figures of Speech,” exemplified the very notion by manifesting a space for visitors to explore the complex diet that fuels Abloh’s projects. Caira Moreira-Brown commented that Abloh is “somewhat of a renaissance man, [but] Abloh’s practice extends beyond fashion…Previously, Abloh’s subcultural references may have gone unseen or viewed as marketing fodder to push the next season’s fashions, this [MCA] exhibition, however, rights that wrong allowing visitors to dive indepth into his creative world” (Moreira-Brown, 2020). Abloh has continued to make clear the boundless influence of his work and the fact that few domains are off-limits for him as a designer. Bess Williamson, professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, commented that Abloh’s openness made his work more approachable and appealing: “There’s a sense of democratizing the museum by having popular work — fashion, music, things that are more inviting and less intimidating for a broader audience” (Hyman, 2019). Abloh’s work in the MCA exhibit exemplifies how the broad reach of his practice has served as an asset to amplify his work.

It would be remiss to neglect Abloh’s connection to the music industry, as it is undeniably influential in Abloh’s rise to success. In particular, Abloh’s friendship with artist and designer Kanye West was pivotal to his trajectory. Both individuals hail from Chicago and established a friendship almost two decades ago while pursuing fashion design. Abloh worked as a creative director for West, completing design on a variety of projects including the packaging of West’s album Watch the Throne. Abloh was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Recording Package for his work.

Watch the Throne album packaging designed by Abloh, 2011

Abloh’s strong relationship with West certainly opened doors for exposure which few individuals would ever have access to. However, what’s admirable about Abloh is his willingness to define his own name outside of West’s sphere, which he has arguably succeeded in doing (an achievement in its own right given West’s public presence). Abloh continued to redefine where his talents could be utilized, shifting from music to establish his own brand. Abloh’s connection to West and the music industry has been a powerful asset, but like all of his endeavors, it never defined him.

The third insight, and potentially most intriguing, is Abloh’s ability to sustain success by capturing or repurposing his acclaim. A close look at Abloh’s timeline illustrates his knack for maximizing opportunity.

Abloh built upon his initial work with Kanye West by designing the album cover for West’s next album, the critically acclaimed Yeezus. This is what I define as the double-down, Abloh’s act of reiteration the expounds upon or refines a line of work for future achievement. This particular double-down was quite a success and West’s music conferred increased recognition onto Abloh. Abloh translated this into his own personal design work, establishing precursory work to the Off-White brand. This is what I define as the pivot, Abloh’s act of converting one achievement into fuel for another. Soon after the brand was launched, Abloh received the LVMH Prize, an award that recognizes and supports rising designers. Furthermore, Abloh was credited as one of “The People Shaping The Global Fashion Industry” by the Business of Fashion publication. While these honors launched Off-White to new heights, they also provided Abloh with more opportunities, specifically collaborations, that truly catapulted Abloh into the stratosphere. One the first collaborative works Abloh completed with a major brand was with IKEA in 2017. This collaboration was dually significant because of IKEA’s global reach and ability to showcase Abloh’s skills beyond fashion design. Like his work with West, Abloh continued to capitalize on his success to open doors for more diverse opportunities. These collaborations have been key to further keeping Abloh in circulation, challenged, and successful. Since then, Abloh has partnered on a variety of designs and products with brands like Jacob & Co., Mercedes Benz, and Evian to name a few.

One of the more compelling examples that highlights the double-down is Abloh’s partnership with Nike. “The Ten” was originally a collection of Nike footwear that Abloh redesigned and launched in the fall of 2017; the appeal of this collaboration was instant and the collection was a huge success. However, “The Ten” did not stop with 10 shoes, as its success only inspired Abloh to design more iterations and capitalize on the moment. Abloh has expanded his work with Nike to bring his signature style to world-class athletes such as Serena Williams, Caster Semenya, and Kylian Mbappé. Now Abloh’s collection has grown to over 40 iterations and launches. Receiving such a warm response, Abloh has captured and sustained the moment to continue to share his work with people across the globe.

The Ten Collection by Nike & Abloh, 2017

Integral to Abloh’s success is his accessibility. Abloh has been a steady proponent of inspiring the next generation and detailing his process for the future designers. One notable outreach project is his “Post-Modern” scholarship that funds opportunities for black kids pursuing fashion design. Furthermore, Abloh has tried to make a greater impact beyond monetary contributions. Chicago designer Najee Redd of RSVP comments on Abloh’s wide-ranging impact: “Outside of his designs, I believe the lectures, workshops, and even the behind-the-scenes documentaries he puts out are hugely educational for anyone who has a desire to create and use what they have to make their own thing, exactly as they see it” (Bobb, 2018). One look at Abloh’s online channels will confirm this as truth, and Abloh makes it a point to disseminate his accumulated knowledge. Abloh’s website free-game.com provides steps and resources for black designers in particular that one day aim to become as influential and successful as him. His personal website canary — yellow.com features lectures he has given at sites such as the Royal College of Art, RISD, and Harvard. Abloh has even posted a free, online 132-page book detailing his design process while working on “The Ten” collection with Nike.

“I am all about championing this new era of designers becoming the new rock stars” -Virgil Abloh, 2007

These channels make Abloh’s work instantly more accessible and pathways to success more attainable. Such resources are valuable for individuals starting out in design. It would be easy to have a gatekeeper mentality, but Abloh stresses that “the goal… is to uplift more than a few. I will continue to open doors for those that come from the fringe and help them be awarded opportunities usually left for the center” (Abloh, 2020).

Discussion

The question now becomes: how do designers apply these insights and incorporate them into their practice? And of equal importance, what will the design community do to address the current issues in light of this research?

The design community as a whole can start by addressing tokenism and othering that limits lasting prominence for black designers. It is imperative that all black designers doing great work have the opportunity to shine, not only a select few. Furthermore, it’s time to re-evaluate the euro-centric notion of the “traditional” path. A world-view that continues to block the greatness that aspiring black designers offer is unsuitable in this day and age. Establishing new paradigms that embrace the paths of these designers and potentially the interdisciplinary, “untraditional” path is essential.

Looking specifically to designers, there are undoubtedly applications from the case study of Abloh. Abloh’s connection to his hometown was impactful to his success in creating a strong foundation of support and the same approach can be useful for designers of all levels. Firstly, for anyone seeking outlets to showcase their work, local channels might be more willing to lend support. Furthermore, young designers can build a strong support base by connecting with their local communities. Resonating with a hometown can be equally impactful in inspiring others who may follow in the same path down the line. Lastly, communicating and pronouncing a hometown connection has the ability to connect with audiences who share similar fondness for their own cities. Whether it’s in interviews or on personal websites or even branding works with a hometown signifier, associating with a home base is a useful tool to achieve greater backing and recognition.

Abloh’s interdisciplinary practice is also essential to his sustained success. For aspiring designers of color, it will be advantageous to showcase a curiosity beyond design. Just as Abloh always redefined and reshaped his landscape, so too must designers allow their curiosity to break down the boxes that define the tradition or standard. If Abloh shows anything throughout his journey, it’s that design is not a set location (or medium), it’s simply where you are in the journey.

Greater prominence is not solely achieved through hometown connections and interdisciplinary work, however; capturing and disseminating stories of success of black designers is equally imperative. The world needs to hear about black designers doing amazing work from black designers. If black designers don’t continue to proclaim the greatness of their work, then who will?

Aside from more concrete methods, a beneficial mindset for black designers could be the frame of doubling-down or pivoting. Abloh was judicious about utilizing the moment to build upon his successful projects or repurpose them into another great project. Aspiring designers of color should strive to do the same in order to create new pathways and opportunities to stay at the top.

Lastly, Abloh has shown his willingness to reach out to the younger generation and give them the tools necessary to attain the same level of success. Black designers who are just starting can have the same mindset, documenting their journey and process in preparation of them achieving success down the line and sharing their knowledge. This will not only provide designers with the mindset that they will make it one day, but it can also serve as a tool for reflection and improvement as they develop in their careers as designers.

At this point I would like to raise some objections that have been inspired by the skeptic in me. In theory, these applications seem practical and possible for the average designer, but it is important to highlight the nuances of using Abloh as a case study. Many individuals may possess the same talent as top designers, but may never reach celebrity status like Abloh — prominence like this is not realistic for everyone. It is critical for each designer to define success for themselves. Furthermore, increased recognition means increased scrutiny. For instance, Abloh was heavily criticized in 2020 for a perceived lack of support for social justice initiatives and panned for his graphic design work for rap artist Pop Smoke’s posthumous album. Moments like these illustrate the challenges of being in the spotlight, and each designer must be willing to face trials that come with success.

Conclusion

In summary, black designers’ contributions to various design fields have been markedly obscured, but Virgil Abloh’s trajectory can be inspirational and educational for black designers to come. Abloh’s own success was bolstered by a connection to his hometown, a multifaceted approach, discernment of his own work, and openness to exchange knowledge. Although designers may not receive the same acclaim as Abloh, they can look to emulate the same characteristics in order to achieve success in their own right. With many barriers facing black designers, these approaches will not guarantee success as each story is unique and non-replicable. Nevertheless, establishing the potential pathways for black designers will have a positive effect on the design landscape of the future.

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Abloh, V. (2020). Virgil Abloh™ FREE GAME. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://virgilabloh.com/free-game/

Bobb, B. (2018, June 21). Three Aspiring Chicago Creatives on Why Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton Debut Inspires Them. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https://www.vogue.com/article/virgil-abloh-mens-artistic-directorlouis-vuitton-spring-2019-chicago

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Grobe, M. (2020, April 23). Virgil Abloh to Louis Vuitton: A Timeline Of His Career. Retrieved December 13, 2020, from https:// www.highsnobiety.com/p/virgil-abloh-career-timeline/

Hyman, D. (2019, May 23). Virgil Abloh Has Designs on High Culture. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/ arts/design/virgil-abloh.html

Martin, S., Olson, K., & Keller, H. (2018, June 28). 25 Black Interior Designers Speak Frankly About Their Careers, Successes, and Challenges. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https:// www.architecturaldigest.com/story/being-black-interior-designer-today

Miller, C. D. (1987, September/October). Black Designers: Missing In Action. Print, 41(5), 58–65.

Miller, C. D. (2016, Summer). Black Designers: Still Missing In Action? Print, 70(2), 82–89.

Moreira-Brown, C. (2020, September 18). An Overview of Virgil Abloh’s Work That Extends Far Beyond Fashion. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://cultbytes.com/virgil-abloh-beyond-fashion/

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Wilson, J. (2018, June 27). What It’s Like to Be a Black Designer in America Right Now. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https:// www.businessoffashion.com/articles/news-analysis/what-its-like-to-bea-black-designer-in-america-right-now

Related Works:

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. Design Justice: Community-Led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. The MIT Press, 2020. (Chapter ‘Design Values: Hard-Coding Liberation?).

Holmes-Miller, Cheryl D. “Black Designers: Forward in Action (Part I).” PRINT, September 24, 2020. https://www.printmag.com/ post/black-designers-forward-in-action-part-i

Images/Quotes:

Hyman, D. (2019, May 23). Virgil Abloh Has Designs on High Culture. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https:// www.nytimes.com/2019/05/23/arts/design/virgil-abloh.html

Nike. (2020). The Ten [Digital image]. Retrieved 2020, from https:// www.complex.com/sneakers/ranking-off-white-nike-sneakersworst-to-best/

Virgile, V., & Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images. (2018). Louis Vuitton Crowns Virgil Abloh as Its New Menswear Designer [Digital image]. Retrieved 2020, from https://hypebeast.com/2018/3/virgil-abloh-louis-vuitton-new-menswear-designer

Watch the Throne [Digital image]. (n.d.). Retrieved December, 2020, from https://www.amazon.com/Watch-Throne-ExplicitKanye-West/dp/B005BQLCBO

Yotka, S. (2018, April 04). A Brief History of Virgil Abloh’s Meteoric Rise. Retrieved December 15, 2020, from https://www.vogue.com/ article/virgil-abloh-biography-career-timeline

Designer, UW Master’s Student