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Virgil Abloh gets a seat at the table
Photography Bogdan Plakov

Caleb Femi and Virgil Abloh in conversation

After their deeply felt collaboration for SS21, the Vuitton renegade and the London laureate discuss the transformative power of the Black imagination

Taken from the autumn/winter 2020 issue of Dazed. You can pre-order a copy of our latest issue here

The Black imagination makes what is impalpable palpable. It takes what is metaphysical, and makes it physical. Not only within the architectures of the mind, but in those creative products which Black people sing, speak, draw, write, paint, sew, or otherwise pull into being. This year, speculating on the ontology of Blackness and Black life has produced manifestos brought to life with visual arts, dancing and theatre. As demonstrated at Virgil Abloh’s SS21 Louis Vuitton show in Tokyo, it is this symbiosis between fashion and poetry which has made his own manifesto for the house so disruptive. Caleb Femi, the first Young People’s Laureate for London, recited a poem from his upcoming collection, Poor, as part of the show’s soundtrack. Abloh also put pen to paper, setting out his reflections on the troubles which have dogged 2020, his intentions as a Black fashion designer, and the diverse and inclusive future of Vuitton. The collection felt like a climactic moment for Abloh’s career, and his use of Femi’s poetry as both a medium to guide his soul-searching, and a core component of one of the fashion world’s most anticipated shows, signals his intention: to summon Black talent from quiet corners of the creative world, and on to the global stage.

For two men who have not yet even shared physical space, Abloh and Femi converse like old friends. In a crucible of genius, Femi the poet and Abloh the designer speak and create with the kind of intense chemistry that produces precious metals. But despite the camaraderie that has built between them over Zoom and phone calls, their partnership feels inviting – one that does not exclude, but offers hope for what can be made possible for Black creatives everywhere. Maybe it’s gauche as the interviewer to insert myself here, but being in these men’s digital presence felt like the beginning of a conversation for all of us, one that I was invited into, a symposium in which I became an active participant in a global Black creative community. Legacies are not made through Moses narratives of individual men standing up to a system. They are made when our dreams, shared realities and imaginations work in collaboration to make a different world possible. For Femi and Abloh, this philosophy of imaginative communities is integral to their purpose.

Could you tell me about how your relationship began, and what encouraged you to work with each other?

Virgil Abloh: So my (AW20) Off-White show started with Cartier Williams, a young tap dancer from Harlem, and he wore a shirt that said ‘I support young Black businesses’. That was the very first thing that anyone saw – he tap-danced the whole show in and around the models, and so that was my ‘state of the art’ statement. And then the LV show that season was a take on René Magritte’s surrealism, all clouds and models in tailoring – it was a little bit of heaven. So it was like reality and heaven in two days. Like, this is the reality we face, Black businesses need to be supported, and here’s this heaven scenario where things are seemingly progressive. Then quarantine happens and pauses (everything) and I’m able to think deeper. And so the (SS21) collection was about self-reflecting. About my heritage, about being Ghanaian, about my roots. This sort of melting pot. One of the biggest stories of 2020 is Michaela Coel – just her creativity and how it got implemented in the culture. So I reached out to her and I was like, ‘Who is an up-and-coming talent that you believe in and can take an opportunity and run with it?’ And (her) immediate feedback was Caleb.

Caleb, how did you feel when Virgil reached out to you?

Caleb Femi: It was one of those things you think is fake. I thought it was fake when I got this interview!

CF: (laughs) Exactly! I think the first thing that surprised me was when Virgil followed me online and I was like, ‘Yo, is this real or is this a mistake?’ So I gave it 24 hours before I accepted it was real and while that was happening I got an email from (the team). And then I was just like, ‘Oh shit!’ (I was) saying ‘Oh shit!’ the whole day. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Virgil and everything that he does, particularly from my Tumblr days. I was a Tumblr kid growing up! So I’ve been aware of his trajectory and the spaces that he’s been in globally. I think the worst thing is to get caught in headlights when something spectacular shines its light on you. So I just took a couple of days to get my head, recalibrate and understand that this is less of a daunting thing and more of an exciting opportunity: a possibility, space or a vehicle in which to create something I’ve never had the opportunity to do up until now.

VA: That’s a big deal – what my investigation of my own career (has led me to ask) is at what point can we co-sign ourselves instead of waiting for a phone call, an acceptance from some titled media source person? If you win a Bafta at some point, you might be like, ‘Yeah, made it,’ but at what point did we already pass the point where we could co-sign ourselves and occupy the space that we thought we were waiting for? (When do we) empower ourselves to write our own stories?

 “I think there need to be some of us who are fighting every single day in the harshness of things, and some of us who create a space for refuelling” – Caleb Femi

What is it about each other’s work that really speaks to you?

VA: When I got Caleb’s name from Michaela, I went through his whole Instagram. I watched the latest video he had posted and (it had) this eloquent wording – the way it was captured, I could just see directly that this was someone I would vibe with, let alone potentially work with. Then, and Caleb can speak to (this), we caught a Zoom early and just riffed.

CF: The Zoom was such a vibe, we were speaking the same language from the get-go. We’re very much invested in community, legacy, and history. We’re invested in futurism and what that looks like, and the architectural endeavour of creating something that can stand and have lasting effects for generations to come.

VA: The milestone in my career was getting signed to Vuitton. It was a big deal, and I still haven’t digested that. One important thing is that Vuitton is one of the most successful and oldest brands, right? It’s also linked to the history of France – Louis Vuitton’s mentality was like the craftsmanship of Versailles, and it’s carried on into the modern day. When I got the job, by the second day they were showing me that the archives are kept next to where the Louvre keeps its archive. So for me it’s like this historical canon of craftspeople that obviously excludes a whole subsection of people who look like me, but now I’d been invited to write in a history book that will be protected forever.

CF: For me, the seed of the genius of your approach is captured in your concept of the Trojan horse. It was something that I bought into and adopted into my own way of working. I’d love to hear about the Trojan horse.

VA: I have very humble Ghanaian parents, and when they came to Chicago they were very much like, ‘I’m happy to be here.’ My dad worked really hard and my mum’s a seamstress, she’s been sewing since she was 16, and I learned early on how they were able to make it through being Ghanaian in America. They just worked hard no matter how they were perceived, and so that got me to a place where, once I’d learned, I got out of college and learned the constructs of the world, you know? I was like, ‘I want to play in art, I want to play in high fashion, I don’t want to be relegated to “urban” or “streetwear”.’ I could see the game, I could see the separation between the classes of what’s considered art and who makes it, and I decided that this mentality of a Trojan horse is an ecosystem that allows you to go through different barriers. There’s an internal conversation, then there’s an external conversation, but as long as those properties are maintained externally and internally, the only thing that changes over time is how far you move through the system, right? And then you can be a figure of what happens if diversity is accepted. Instead of waiting for a day when the fireworks go off – like, ‘Hey, systemic racism is gone!’ – (I just said), ‘I’m going to do the work, I’m going to empower and foster a community inside the Trojan horse and let that community keep creating and then all of a sudden we can pick their heads up and see the monuments that we’ve made as representation for what happens if you hire a Black creative director.’ The last fashion show was led by Black creatives, and it’s not us waiting for the licence to do it. And I’ll end with this: it’s a psychological approach to not be damaged all the way through. The Trojan horse protects my creative spirit with a rationale that allows me to proceed.

What do you think is the importance of your west African backgrounds in shaping your work? How do you imagine yourselves as establishing the legacy of west African influence in Britain and America?

CF: Everything that I am, everything that I know how to do and say, comes from being Nigerian. I was born in Nigeria; by the time I came to this country I was seven years old so I already had a rooted sense of being Nigerian. I learned that I was Black when I came to this country. So I think that, for me, at the start of my writing, I had this question about how do you let people know? How do you infuse your Nigerian-ness into your work so people can know that? I think half of it is down to just being Nigerian and having that pride, that visibility, and also just knowing that, especially in Britain, there is a centuries-old way of erasing the presence and the contribution of Black people. So I felt like I had to constantly be aware of that and make sure that, in the work I created, the presence of my Nigerian-ness was so prevalent that no one could erase it. I’ve kind of started to run with that. To be Nigerian and to be visible and proud within it isn’t as hard as I thought it would be; it’s something that is actually in the living and the breathing. It’s in the defiance of that. It’s in the unashamed confidence that I bring to my work. I’m writing about me and if it feels true to me then it’s Nigerian and it’s Black British and there is no need to constantly configure my work, because what do I have to prove and who do I have to prove it to?

VA: We are able to explore our roots through a constant conversation with ourselves. We make work, then we analyse it, then we read about the work and how it’s received and it comes back. This collection for me was an amazing one, because when I show collections in a European system there’s always a sort of, ‘Wait, is he doing it right?’ That’s why we ask for diversity in fashion, because we want diverse fashion. We don’t want 50 years of what we saw before. And we’re not just Africans with a colour palette, a silhouette, a shape that is intriguing and you can just take, you know? It’s like, wait, that country raised a child who came and created, learned his own craft and represented that, and now we have a designer who is from that place. And that’s an essential lesson – it’s why I got more vigorous in the community, because the only thing we need to do is be more vocal and present to create the world that we want to exist. It’s not a marketing campaign, it’s not an Instagram post to say ‘we object to systemic racism’. It needs action, it needs creativity, and what I love about our stories is that it’s embedded in the work.

I want to come on to the idea of mythmaking. Virgil, in your show you reflect on how fashion becomes a space for blurring the lines between myth and reality. Caleb, in your upcoming book, Poor, you look at the experiences of young Black boys in south London estates, and how in that concrete environment the Black imagination gets you through the darkest hours. Sometimes, when the architecture of your surroundings feels hostile, the architecture of the mind can save you. So I wonder what you both think is the power of the Black imagination, and what significance it has to your art?

CF: When I was growing up, everyday life on a council estate was made better by my perceptions of things, even down to the cleaning products they would use to clean the estate on a Monday – it smelled like bubblegum, it smelled like candy.

I know the type you mean!

CF: You know the smell? Exactly! That was one of the days I would always look forward to – a Monday – because I knew the whole block would smell like a sweet shop. It’s those small exercises, those small instances of the imagination taking you to (another) place, that allows you to keep up, to thrive, in such a harsh environment. That’s something I have unintentionally been exercising, and I think generally as Black people we exercise that. We are always looking for (escape into) spaces (that allow us to) breathe and that’s what’s so special about us. As a global body, we always find ways to look for joy and happiness and fantasy and mysticism, because all those things feed us in a way that the world doesn’t. During the lockdown, especially, when the conversation about Black oppression on a global level got really difficult, it was necessary for me to turn to the Black imagination and seek joy and respite, because what I noticed is that these discourses eat away at your imagination. You’re not able to see anything but a Black person’s body in distress. You’re unable to imagine anything beyond what you’re constantly being fed on social media and on the news. Every time you have a conversation with someone it engages your imagination, so if you’re constantly talking about death, your imagination takes a sour turn in what it’s ingesting. So for me it was a question of survival; it was a question of thriving and it was also an obligation to the fight that we are all in. I think there need to be some of us who are fighting every single day in the harshness of things, and then there need to be some of us who are creating a space for rest, a space for refuelling, where we can come to replenish ourselves and then go back out again and do what needs to be done.

VA: Exactly. As Black people, the first thing to go is the imagination, because our reality is so heavy. So that luxury of imagining, that luxury of dreaming, that luxury of thinking of a system in which it doesn’t take 20 minutes to avoid confrontation, or doesn’t take extra thought and effort just to exist, is what we’re fighting for with our creativity. To manifest this scenario where we’re allowed to dream, to be creative without barriers or friction. This exact sentiment is where I find value in fashion, art, film and poetry. The average kid growing up on a council estate, who might have no access to a museum – who maybe only likes drill music. But they really listen to it. That’s us speaking to ourselves; that’s us speaking to the 17 or seven-year-old version of ourselves saying, ‘Hey, my new role models are painting a picture for a reality that I can be in.’ Fashion isn’t just for cool jackets to wear this season. We’ve transformed that into an imagination machine that’s now on the history books of a special institution with our fingerprints on it.

CF: I think that the Black imagination does one of the most important things, which is to try and answer the all-important question – what next? What does life for all of us look like after we win? After we get what we want, what does that look like? How do we live, what do we build? We dismantle white supremacy and all of that – what next? I think that’s an important question that we have to start building from now, and I think art takes the forefront in that. To be an artist is to be a soothsayer, to be someone who can look into the future, and is building for that. And I think that’s what we do. That’s certainly what I do in my work; in the book I’ve written (Poor) that’s ultimately the question I’m trying to answer. What do we look like? What do we do? How does the air taste after?

“As Black people, the first thing to go is the imagination, because our reality is so heavy. That luxury of imagining is what we’re fighting for with our creativity” – Virgil Abloh

Caleb, I’m from a similar south London estate background to you, but our experiences are different, because I grew up as a gay boy in that environment, and you’re a straight man. Sometimes, in these images of the ends, there’s no appreciation for their nuance and diversity. There are queer people, transgender people, women! So I wonder how both of you draw on nuance and diversity in your art for positionalities which are other than your own – for Black women, Black queer and trans people, Black gay men like myself?

CF: I believe that this needs to be answered both in front and behind. I’m very sensitive to the need to have that nuance. The ends especially is portrayed through a very cis, het, Blackboy heavy-narrative, and everyone else is a supporting act within that space. But if we actually look around us there are so many different types of people that make up the Black assembly. For me, in my book, it was important to hit that all-important point of not speaking for a community that I’m not part of, but also not then negating or erasing their presence within the narrative. One of the most important elements of the book is its photography; I felt that was one of the best ways for me to answer that question. Most of the photographs that are in the book are from queer photographers, or feature Black queer people. For me, that was one of the best vehicles to stay respectful within that obligation. I didn’t want it to be tokenised – their presence is their presence. Cool if there’s a bag of man chilling on the block or whatever – statistically there are queer people there, too. Now, why isn’t this an environment where we can have this conversation or embrace the differences within that space? So it’s also a mirror towards ourselves as the rest of the cis-het community. Like, we don’t have this conversation but this is a very real thing. So as much as we’re fighting for our Blackness, we’re not really fighting for our Blackness all the way because we haven’t even accepted everyone within our own community. For example, there are four queer people in the film that I directed (Femi’s film for Vuitton SS21 featured his poem ‘Brother’ set to music by Omar, Yussef Dayes Trio and Shabaka Hutchings), but working on film is something that I believe is not just about casting, it’s more than that. It’s not just about having those people there, it’s also about having them behind the camera.

VA: It’s almost like a Rubik’s cube of circumstances; you try to turn each cube to match (the others) and eventually you get there. My approach is just to throw the cube into the ocean and say that we’re making free space. I want to build this infrastructural world that doesn’t operate like the real one I had to come up through, and that the fashion industry (reflects). And this idea is to offer up my equity, in building this space that is accepting for all of the Black academy. It’s making sure the conversation is represented by all people who have been marginalised or oppressed. It’s what is in my blood. That’s a lot of what the Trojan horse mentality is, to foster a community so that, when we do break through the barriers, the community is represented.

Other than each other, whose legacy inspires you, and what do you want your own legacies to be?

VA: You got that fire question! It’s such a heavy question and you always want to cite the best, but I started quarantine-watching a documentary about Miles Davis on Netflix. Miles Davis’s career is very much similar to what we’re talking about. (As an) amazing jazz musician, he goes to Europe to find freedom and then comes back to New York City, where he gets beaten up by the police for entering a jazz club that he’s playing at with his name up above the door. He gets beaten up! Then it’s about how his career evolved afterwards and his advocacy. His fight was embedded within his practice. I always like those parallel stories that you can learn from. So mine would be Miles Davis.

CF: I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, and for me it’s really centred around communities. I would love for respect to be given back to the Windrush generation and their contribution to British life, so they are definitely at the top of my list. I would also love the legacy of Black pirate radio, which fostered UK garage and grime, to live on. I would love to see spaces like BBZ and Pxssy Palace, who did fantastic work for the Black queer community and for nightlife generally – have their legacies live on. For me it’s about communities that have contributed so much, and I would love to see first-generation immigrants, first-generation ‘Black people’, who came over from the African continent or other Black spaces to a western city and thrived – or even the ones who unfortunately didn’t thrive – I would like to see their legacy honoured. For me, I hope that (with) anything I do I am conscious of and contribute to the conversation, to the global Black canon. I hope that it’s cherished by at least one person. I hope that it changes one person and inspires them to want to live into the next day and the day after that.

VA: I dream of a day where a young Black kid can go to his parents and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to get a law degree, I’m not going to be a police officer – I want to be a fashion designer,’ and (when his parents say) ‘you can’t do that’, they can pull up this interview in Dazed and be like, ‘Look, he’s from here, he did that, I can do that.’ It’s that reality-based legacy. I don’t look at my achievements as something that reflects who I am. It’s the idea that, as I have for Caleb, I’ve opened a door that someone else can walk through.

CF: And I will continue to walk through that door. I feel like we’re just warming up to the possibilities of what Virgil and I could create moving forward. For me, this is just the beginning.

VA: One-hundred per cent. I feel like we’ve only just started a conversation.