Virgil Abloh can add another title to his expanding list of positions.
The founder and chief creative director of Off-White and men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton has been named to the Fashion Scholarship Fund Board of Governors, joining 38 existing board members in providing scholarships and internships, mentoring and professional development opportunities for students and scholars entering the fashion industry.
Abloh said he will focus primarily on Black students as a board member, and will have a hand in selecting Historically Black Colleges and Universities to partner with the FSF. The organization is currently partnered with 60 schools and will onboard six HBCUs in 2021, including Morehouse, Howard University and Delaware State.
“Throughout my career, the central theme was always rooted in my perspective about seemingly being different or my output being different, being labeled as streetwear and not a designer,” Abloh said in a Zoom call. “I started Off-White in 2013 and there’s always been one mission statement that whole time and it was show the industry by example how diversity can affect the fashion ecosystem as a whole.”
Abloh said he is “naturally skeptical” of initiatives he does not have direct access to and that he wants to be responsible and accountable if he does take part. He had kept abreast of the goings on at the FSF through H Feller Enterprises founder Howard Feller, who serves on the executive committee of the FSF and has helped Abloh in his career.
His involvement with the Fashion Scholarship Fund began in July when he raised $1 million with partners Off-White, Vuitton, Farfetch, New Guards Group and Evian to benefit scholarships and opportunities for Black students through his “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, which is managed in partnership with the FSF.
“We’ve been doing this for a long time in terms of trying to identify talent and bring it forward,” said FSF executive director Peter Arnold. “We’re trying to raise awareness for what we’re doing. Virgil can bring attention but also connect to kids on campus because his story is relatable. He is pragmatic and feels this is an effective partnership.”
Arnold said the FSF provides 200 scholarships annually, and the organization usually receives 700 to 800 applicants, with approximately 25 to 26 percent being BIPOC applicants. “We’re at 1,500 applicants now, which is the most we’ve ever had, and 29 percent are BIPOC,” he said. “We’re doing the work and this now enables us to do it more effectively and more visibly.”
Arnold said the FSF is committed to helping young talent at the very beginning, or as early as high school and definitely in college, and widen the “funnel” for these talents. But they are also very interested in finding mentors for the students so the burgeoning talents can learn from industry professionals they relate with.
Virgil’s Post-Modern Scholarship gives recipients $5,000 scholarships prior to the commencement of their spring semester, as well as paid internships at various fashion companies including several of Abloh’s partners, mentorship from fashion industry leaders and access to FSF career programming and professional development resources.
“When I started the Post-Modern Scholarship Fund, I wanted to pattern it after my own career,” the designer said, and that includes involving his many partners to be open doors for Black talents and keep the doors open, and mentorship, which he described as “almost as valuable to me as my education.”
He mentioned the auction of a car at Sotheby’s for Project Geländewagen with Mercedes-Benz that raised $160,000 with all proceeds going to the Post-Modern Scholarship Fund.
As a board member, Abloh will be part of the jury process for awarding scholarships to students, but also lead mentorship lectures — “we’ve had two in the recent months,” he said — and talk to students directly. “Being a board member will allow me to table things I’m hearing from the ground level,” he said. “I can directly deliver to top management perspectives they might not be hearing. I do the same at LVMH and my other company so being a board member is effective in that regard.”
He continued, “My heart and my vision is for the kid that might not be on the college track. I’m looking at the 14-year-old from an inner city that’s interested in fashion and wants to create.”
He mentioned Free Game, a section on his web site where he discusses step-by-step how to start a brand. “It’s a catch-all answer when someone asks how can I do it,” he said. “The hoarding of information is what makes people feel excluded, whereas the information gap is a huge component in addition to finances and opportunity. I’m able to make those changes in warp speed just by leading by example. This problem is urgent and I see a lot of people looking for answers.”
Following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, many in the country finally began listening to Black people and marginalized communities on injustices and unequal treatment of Black people and people of color regarding law enforcement and business practices.
The fashion industry as a whole was placed under the microscope for its lack of diversity in executive positions at companies.
Abloh was also criticized by social media for matching a $50 donation to a community bond fund for protesters living in Miami. He said that while many believed he had only donated $50, his donations totaled more than $20,000 at that time and to date, he has raised $1.5 million. He also admits that money is only one way to make change.
This summer, he launched the I Support Young Black Businesses quarterly fund-raising program to support organizations chosen by his team to support the Black community. To support the program, he launched pieces of the same name that first debuted at the Off-White January 2020 show, with proceeds supporting Chicago CRED, an organization Abloh had been in partnership with since 2017 that reduces gun violence in Chicago.
In July, he partnered with fellow “Englewood Barbie” Aleta Clarke to raise $187,000 for her nonprofit HugsNoSlugs that aims to eliminate gun violence and poverty. They raffled the Off-White x Air Jordan IV “Sail” sneakers at Chicago shop Notre.
In addition, he held a Design Yard Sale with Harvard Graduate School of Design students and recent graduates to raise money for organizations fighting to end systemic racism, with proceeds going to Bail Project and Colloquate, collaborated with Stevie Williams of Dirty Ghetto Kids on a limited run of skateboards with proceeds being donated to Saved by Skateboarding, donated to the MLH Foundation with Louis Vuitton at the end of their Shanghai fashion show, and raised voting awareness with T-shirts supporting the Fearless Initiative and When We All Vote and voting themed merchandise by Alaska-Alaska and sold through Canary Yellow for Fashion Our Future’s 2020 initiative.
He said, “At the moment this happened and even still today, I don’t believe in posting dollar amounts of charity work as proof of doing the work. I rate doing the work as doing the work.”
“Everyone is like how can the fashion industry respond to the Civil Rights Movement now and the global pandemic and it usually comes down to very practical things. My show in January started with the shirt ‘I Support Young Black Businesses’ and that was my main message, but it wasn’t like fashion media took to it. But post-George Floyd, there’s an awakening and the messages from my comrades like Kerby Jean-Raymond, Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, Shayne Oliver, Telfar Clemens, No Sesso, the list can go on of amazing designers that aren’t getting the same media coverage or platform as other designers. I’m extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to do what I do on the stage that I do but that doesn’t come without my work existing in this special case scenario which you view it.”