There’s never been a more critical time in fashion. In the wake of the national conversations following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, over the past few months the industry was forced to have a difficult discussion about the growth of Black creatives within the space. A magnifying glass was put on the industry at all levels—from buyers to consumers to designers—to dissect why these curators were being ignored.
Sitting at the helm of his luxury label, Off-White, along with being the menswear designer for Louis Vuitton, is Virgil Abloh. He has now joined a very small group of Black creatives who are front facing within the design space.
The fashion elite, like Abloh, have been forced to deal with hard truths, and industry leaders, including Black fashion mavens, have not been been spared. Last month the designer faced criticism for posting a $50 donation in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, to which we later found out he had donated more than $20,500. And most recently, he’s been under fire for releasing a capsule collection of hoodies and tee’s reading “I Support Young Black Businesses.”
“I take all feedback seriously,” Abloh says. “But it does not take me off course from doing what I believe is right.”
The hoodie, which has garnered mixed reviews, was initially designed in 2019 and appeared in a runway show back in January. While some of the criticism alluded to Abloh taking advantage of the moment, the designer says he saw a need to support the community last year and designed these shirts without COVID-19 or the racial reckoning in mind. Also, he notes that 100 percent of the proceeds from this project will be donated to an organization each quarter whose mission is dedicated to the advancement of Black lives. From this initial drop, proceeds will be given to Chicago CRED (which stands for “Create Real Economic Destiny”), an organization he’s partnered with since 2017, which focuses on reducing gun violence.
“The importance of supporting young Black businesses is something I take very personally. While the last couple of months might have been a reawakening for the country, from the outset of my career, I’ve made it a focus to elevate Black voices,” says Abloh.
Within the fashion industry, respectability politics has long played a part with how a Black curator succeeds. While some may argue that Abloh has been a chameleon within the politics of the fashion business, he has now succeeded at holding a title at a European fashion house along with his own.
Now that more attention is being paid to his movements, what is the designer doing, and how do we move forward? Abloh chats with ESSENCE Associate Fashion Editor Nandi Howard to explain the genesis of his controversial hoodie and how he’s hoping to continue to support Black creatives.
ESSENCE: I think it’s important to note that this shirt first appeared on the runway in January 2020, prior to the large push for Black designers we’ve seen happen within the last few weeks. What made you want to create a shirt in support of Black businesses in 2019?
Virgil Abloh: Like every Black person I know, I’ve confronted racism my whole life. As part of that, I struggled to build the business that I have today. My advocacy ranges from promoting Black talent through hiring and highlighting the work of young designers to working from the inside with my corporate partners to increase their commitment to diversity in all forms. Most recently, I raised $1 million for the Fashion Scholarship Fund to create a dedicated fund focused on fostering equity and inclusion within the fashion industry by providing scholarships and mentoring to Black students.
This shirt/release has garnered some mixed reviews, but what is the mission behind the project?
My mission is solely to get funds into the hands of Chicago CRED where the money can be put to good use. Sales are off to a strong start. And Off-White is going to support a new cause each quarter.
When the Black Lives Matter issues surrounding police brutality were brought to the spotlight, Off-White, Fear of God, Just Don and more brands came together to create the GF tee. How important is it for the fashion community to come together during this time?
There is momentum right now and there are a number of us working to take full advantage of the opportunity to drive real change. We’re coming at it from all angles—promoting and hiring Black talent, buying from Black-owned businesses and more. We’re being relentless. It is the only way to fix generations of systemic racism. I’ve used this line before, but I see this as the Black Renaissance.
Do you think fashion has a responsibility to speak to social issues? Or should we as designers/curators stay “in our lane?”
I hope that those of us who have the platform to highlight injustice in society and instigate change, use it. Speaking for myself, my goal is to showcase what Black people can do: open doors and keep them open.
Most important, over these last few months, how have you managed to stay sane? Where are you finding your inspiration these days?
Travel was my everyday inspiration for years. Being home and seeing the broader world mainly through Zoom is a real shift, but it’s okay. I’m an optimist and there is plenty to be inspired by. There’s also a lot to take on to raise the volume up in fighting for change in the fashion industry—it’s not just a moment, it’s a movement.
This interview has been edited for clarity.