CHICAGO — “Incredible” is how Virgil Abloh described being recognized by his hometown with his first major retrospective, “Figures of Speech,” opening June 10 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.
“I think within the narrative, within the work and the show is a little bit like, it’s a little bit sort of like, reaffirming these full circles like happen in places,” said Abloh, the artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear and founder of Off-White during a sit-down interview Thursday morning at the new NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center, at 673 North Michigan Avenue.
“We’re in Chicago, it’s usually not a place that has like — it’s known for its art and it’s known for its architecture and design history,” said Abloh. “I think in terms of contemporary art that emanates, me as a contemporary artist emanated around the world to sort of do certain things, it’s sort of a full circle to have them curate a show and recognize that work.”
It was a full-circle connection with Michigan Avenue, as well — this is where his dream to work in fashion began, when he and pal Kanye West visited the Vuitton store just a few blocks away.
“It was this street,” Abloh said. “This street is Chicago’s intersection with the outside world. Every big brand, from Apple to Nike, Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton and the museum is just one block off the street. This is where you sort of, like, went and looked at a window with both hands sort of, like, dreaming of the outside world and the likes of me and my friends, we were sort of so compelled to sort of jump in the window, so to speak, that here we are.”
Abloh was in town to help kick off the NikeLab Re-Creation Center, which he helped design, running May 31 to July 28. Through Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe recycling shoe program, Abloh will design a basketball court in Chicago in advance of the NBA All-Star 2020 game.
“I use language in my work of art to always crack open a new idea,” Abloh told a group of 10 Chicago-area young people selected to participate in an eight-week mentorship program. The aspiring creative professionals will work with a team of five mentors Abloh selected, representing a variety of creative fields from architecture and photography to brand identity, graphic and fabric design. “The play on ‘recreation center’ was both a place to create, but also recycle.”
Less than two weeks away from the “Figures of Speech” opening, the museum exhibit is still a work in progress.
During a mini tour of one section of the exhibit on Wednesday evening, large wooden boxes containing artwork that had just arrived from overseas were sitting in a cluster in one section of the floor, and the wall text describing various sections of the exhibit — “Design,” Early Work” and “Black Gaze” — were lying on the floor. The pop-up store, “Church and State,” had no products, yet, but massive photographs of Abloh, photographed exclusively for the exhibit in London by Juergen Teller, covered the entire walls. In one, Abloh is wearing a neon-green hoodie and sleeping on his side on the floor; in another, he appears to be painting something on an outside mural.
“A lot of what this show is about is presenting the full body of work to the public at large,” Abloh said. “I think people have understood certain parts of it or they’ve sort of understood maybe the last two, three years since Louis Vuitton. I’ve been at this, I’m 38, so I’ve been doing this particular work over like 15 years.”
The exhibit will span the scope of his work as an artist, DJ, architect and designer, starting with college.
“What did the work look like when I was a student in Chicago — those are the things on display. What was my thesis about, what were both my theses about. I studied engineering and architecture and how does that relate to what I do now,” he said. “At that sort of viewpoint, you can sort of understand how I rose to these conclusions and the effect it has had on culture.”
The exhibit is not a true retrospective, Abloh said.
“It was always to sort of tell the full story of where I’m at, but show new works, so there’s probably like 20 percent, 30 percent that no one has never seen that will be my artworks,” he said. “I’m making new things all the time. The exhibit will travel, it goes to ICA in Boston, it goes to Brooklyn Museum and Atlanta next. As it evolves, there will be new things.”
Public art is an area, Abloh said, that is “creeping into” his thought process.
“Like how can public activities — whether it be art or civic art or like charity — get the same 2.0 that it seems like fashion is having at the moment,” Abloh said. “Fashion all of a sudden has new players, there’s a new way to operate, it’s evolved. I want to design any sort of objects that relate to lifestyle.”
Abloh has a lot to say about a lot of topics, but politics is not one of them. When asked what he thinks about Chicago’s new Mayor Lori Lightfoot, he declined to comment.
“You know, I don’t know too much. I need to get like in-tune,” Abloh said. “Part of one of my main drivers as a creative, to me like, art and culture are obviously affected by things like politics, but it isn’t the layer I operate on. I look at those as two different stratospheres. My idea is that art and culture are looked after and fostered. I don’t sort of weigh too much on particular political things.”
That morning, one student asked how Abloh manages to travel all over the world and juggle such a nonstop schedule.
“Now that we have Instagram, it feels like you’re there. To me, it’s like 0.00 percent of what’s actually happening,” said Abloh, adding that he travels by himself, eats in different restaurants and immerses himself in the culture of the place. “If you look at my output, my input has to match that. I never have writer’s block. I’ve made it my life practice.…To me, I haven’t worked a day in my life so that’s the standard. I’m on a quest to learn and find out and see with my own two eyes. So then, I’m never tired. Practically. I’m never, like I sleep, of course. But I don’t like, you can’t catch me for like an afternoon or three hours straight not thinking or doing something. It’s sort of hard-wired in my practice. That’s what the museum show is.”
During the sit-down interview, when asked how he maintains balance between all of his various roles and projects, he said, “it’s easy.”
“You just keep your eyes open,” he said. “I once watched a documentary on something that was like, if you’re in a car, you have a choice, if you’re on your phone, obviously, but like, looking out the window you have so much to learn. I enjoy what I do — I don’t look at it as work.”