Virgil Abloh on getting political with Jenny Holzer

‘It’s not just fashion for fashion’s sake’ – the designer discusses how refugees, borders and immigration provided the inspiration for his Pitti show

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Virgil Abloh backstage at his AW17 Pitti showPhotography Antonio Giacometti

The invite for Virgil Abloh’s Off-White show at Pitti Uomo was an orange t-shirt with life vest instructions printed on the front. The back read: “I’ll never forgive the ocean” – a line by the writer and artist Omid Shams, who fled Iran for Europe. From that – and the news that Abloh was collaborating with none other than iconic artist Jenny Holzer – it was clear that he was going to use his special guest spot in Florence for politically charged commentary.   

As the sunlight faded, two word films curated by Holzer were projected side by side onto the façade of the Palazzo Pitti before the show, scrolling slowly up its stern stonework to a soundtrack by the Opera di Firenze. One was more than thirty poems by Anna Świrszczyńska, who joined the Polish resistance during WW2 and worked as a nurse during the Warsaw uprising of 1944. The other was a compilation of works about the conflict in Syria, Palestine and human rights issues by seven current-day poets living as exiles in Europe and the US – among them Osama Alomar, Ghayath Almadhoun and Khawla Dunia. “You went to throw alive in the fire the children of others”, one poem read.  

What struck you were the overarching and deeply distressing similarities in the human experience of war, decades apart. How conflict acts not only to destroy but to displace, to leave people uprooted, their homes lost, communities dispersed. And how, despite this, history repeats itself – people are still forced to flee in search of a better future. They turn to the ocean, or traverse deadly stretches of desert in the hope of crossing a border. Sometimes they make it, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they get all the way to a city like London, just to perish in the most devastatingly preventable of ways.

So, where is fashion in all of this? What can it do? Well, it can start conversations. It can raise awareness. By placing his collection (an Off-White take on tailoring, complete with shirt cuffs interrupted by zips, jackets that opened across the back, and Holzer-inspired LED streaming badges) in this context, that’s what Abloh sought to do. Below, he tells us more.

So tell me about your collaboration with Jenny Holzer.

Virgil Abloh: You know, I’m a fan of fashion first and foremost. And for me, clothes are just clothes at the end of the day. Everyone has a bunch in their closet already. And we’re showing more. Why show more? To me, it’s context that makes fashion special. What’s happening at the time influences what ideas I put forth. Current times inspired me to work with someone that had a powerful voice with a particular preciseness. I wanted to engage with an artist that made the right sort of mix. It’s her seniority and her art, her preciseness, her message that she’s been doing her whole career. And it’s my youth-driven, open to no rules (work). Our work combined can make the show that’ll hopefully further both of our passions and messages.

What have you been talking about in terms of what you wanted Jenny’s works and your collection to say?

Virgil Abloh: Just meaning. There are a number of poems that the backdrop of the show incorporates. Just directly it’s politics. Frankly, both of our work doesn’t exist without addressing the current times. I’m the younger generation who only usually works within my generation but to me, this is important – her willingness to collaborate again on sort of reintroducing these ideas when culturally they are needed in both of our opinions. There’s an enormous amount of complaining but I don’t see enough work that’s making a statement or a stance. And that is what you find in both of our work. We’re both like italics, we’re sort of leaning into the times, you know. Our work is weighted. It’s not just fashion for fashion’s sake.

Do you think it’s still important to distinguish between art and fashion?

Virgil Abloh: Yeah, I do, and I use it as a tool. I like the four walls of art and I like the four walls of fashion. But at the end of the day, the generation under us is going to define what’s art and what’s fashion. I use my work to sort of jump over those lines and I use it to be provocative, to sort of say, what is contemporary art now? What is contemporary fashion at its most artistic space? That is in large part why this show exists.

I saw a lot of references to Syria in the texts...  

Virgil Abloh: In these texts, you also have to look at the author. What Jenny and I have done is curate a number of voices that are beyond our own to bring light to a message that largely is left on news stations but not in the other genres of art. The show is the most important thing I’ve made to date but you know, next year I’ll have something else.

“Our work is weighted. It’s not just fashion for fashion’s sake”

I also think the idea of word art is interesting in terms of this Instagram world – where people post all these motivational quotes that have really diluted and cheapened it.

Virgil Abloh: Yeah! And people think that they’re witty. But I think Jenny proves there’s an art to it.

Exactly.

Virgil Abloh: There’s an art to everyday things like words. And I’ve made a career within Off-White to prove that there’s art in everyday things that we say. My brand is made up of diagonal lines that are sort of a visual language that works in every place across the globe. It’s not as specific as a monogram brand but I was able to use it and adopt it. Helvetica, how I use that typography to sort of own it. I’ve used text since the beginning and that’s how we originally connected is that (Jenny) had seen the work and was intrigued by it enough to say yes to work on it on a larger project.

You know, text on clothes... it’s fundamental to streetwear, so I think now when streetwear has come to a place of acceptance, a number of different types of fashion designers have said hey, put text on it. It generally makes things sell more. People respond to branded things. I have hidden motivations around the text I choose to use. I use it in a very specific way. That’s where we connected. I think it’s safe to say (Jenny) does the same thing.

And the word temperature?

Virgil Abloh: To me it’s a lot of things. Most specifically it’s my personal pseudonym for the brand, it’s like announcing that the nickname for my brand is Temperature. I got it from reading a Margiela text – I consider him to be the canon of fashion – in which he described colour as temperature. You know, different colours are just different temperatures that are sort of giving you a sensation. This collection is obviously rooted in a dialogue about immigration, refugees and this idea that borders are so heavily guarded that people are dying just to try to get from one to another. And I was thinking of the temperature of an ocean and humanity. If you’re not in between this temperature range you die. It’s a metaphor for me to be awake. It’s really about raising awareness. That makes it full circle for me being at Pitti to get this opportunity to show I’m going to bring an idea that’s not just clothes. It’s about using my platform.

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