I enter the Virgil Abloh exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum behind a family of four, all outfitted in a range of tribute t-shirts for the trailblazing Louis Vuitton designer who passed away last year. The dad’s T-shirt reads “HE DID IT SO WE COULD” in the all-caps and quotation marks style Abloh made famous at his luxury streetwear brand Off-White. And dad’s paired the tee with Abloh’s instantly recognisable Nike x Off-White Air Prestos – the ones with “AIR” written on a band around the heel. A thick Off-White yellow lanyard hangs from the keys in his pocket; it matches mom’s bag strap. Their young daughter bounces around in Off-White low-tops, the four arrows logo unmistakable.
“Figures of Speech” is a peculiar show in more ways than one. When it first opened in Chicago in 2019, it had been conceived as a mid-career retrospective for the prodigious American designer who grew up just outside the city. But in December 2021, Abloh – then serving as French fashion house Louis Vuitton’s first Black artistic director – died of a rare form of heart cancer. Tributes poured in from his famous fans, including longtime collaborator Kanye West, Victoria and David Beckham, and model Hailey Bieber, whose wedding dress Abloh designed in 2018.
The exhibition, re-imagined for New York by curator Antwaun Sargent so soon after Abloh’s death, now functions as something more bounded and emotional than was originally intended. It’s a powerful tribute to a contemporary artist, told in the bold style he invented. The names of the exhibition’s sections are rendered in the same all-caps lettering that Abloh favoured in his work; there’s a section on “ARCHITECTURE”, for example. It’s an echo of the stark way the name “SERENA” appears on the black, one-shouldered Off-White tennis dress Serena Williams wore at the US Open, which is one of the more well-known clothing items on display alongside a black and white haute couture gown Abloh designed for Beyoncé and a blue and white menswear look from his optimistic 2020 cloud-inspired campaign for Louis Vuitton.