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

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.

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.

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.

1. Hometown Connection

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).

2. Interdisciplinary

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.

Connection to Music Industry

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

3. Leaning into Success — Double-Down or Pivot

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.

The Ten Collection by Nike & Abloh, 2017

4. Access & Outreach

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.

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?

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.

References

Abloh, V. (2020). Virgil Abloh. Retrieved November 30, 2020, from https:// canary — -yellow.com/

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