This month, guest contributor to the Provocative Places series Monica Jae Yeon Moon, MA Student on the RCA V&A History of Design course, explores Prince/Mercer Street in New York and the late designer Virgil Abloh.
Prince and Mercer, or, Looking for Virgil Abloh
Last year, I started working remotely for a magazine called Vestoj where I was posthumously introduced to Virgil Abloh, or his voice to be more exact. My boss had been developing a book with him, and after he passed away in November 2021, she began the process of finishing the book. In particular, she needed help transcribing dozens of conversations she had with him and his friends. Though I did not know him as a person very well, I was very much aware of his work. His work seamlessly fit in Seoul, where I was born and raised. During the 2018 Fall/Winter Seoul Fashion Week, I was commissioned by a global e-commerce company to take pictures of the street fashion. The photo that made the final cut was a girl looking down at her phone, with an Off-White yellow industrial belt, which may or may not have been a counterfeit made at a Dongdae-Mun garment factory around the corner. The same day, my photographer was extremely thrilled to have won the raffle to ‘cop’ a pair of the Off-White x Nike sneakers. But to be frank, the hypebeast-dominant fashion in Korea was one of the reasons why I went searching for an alternative way to consume fashion.
Despite being a transcription nightmare – on average Virgil would talk for two hours, easily – he was fascinating to listen to. Contemplating the questions he was tackled with from the beginning of his career, he was in turn asking what makes fashion ‘fashion’ with a capital F or a designer ‘designer’ with a capital D. His career in fashion started when he launched a brand called Pyrex Vision which was basically a line of deadstock Ralph Lauren flannels on which he screen printed ‘Pyrex 23’. It was questioning the life offered to the black youth – either you succeed in selling drugs (Pyrex is often used to cook cocaine) or in spectacle (Michael Jordan’s back number was 23) – as well as the value system in fashion. One remark made by a journalist was printed on a black rug, presented at the “Figures of Speech” exhibition in Brooklyn Museum: “It is highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, slapped “PYREX 23” on the back, and re-sold them for an astonishing markup of about 700%.” What allowed Pyrex Vision an insane amount of price margin was not artistic originality in its traditional meaning in fashion, which often refers to ‘inventing’ a new silhouette or fabric manipulation; it was because of everything that was around the item of clothing.
Virgil spoke of ‘nuance’ a lot, letting the work speak for itself, giving space to think around it.[i] The nuance of Pyrex Vision and subsequently Off-White was that it wasn’t only talking about systemic racism; it was the street culture that often overlaps with black American culture talking to systemic racism that is traditional fashion, whose history is built upon accumulated instances of appropriation and monetary value gained from them. The more he climbed up the ladder of the rigid hierarchy of high fashion with his Milan-based fashion brand Off-White and the eventual appointment as the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, the more criticism ensued: he is not a designer, this is not fashion. One scathing review of 2018 Spring/Summer Off-White collection reads: “Abloh should focus on design and then try to be a conceptual artist.”[ii]
Of course Virgil wasn’t the only one challenging the world of western European centric world of high fashion and its value system; early to mid-2010 was when Gosha Rubchinskiy and Demna Gvasalia were coming into the spotlight as well, bringing forth post-soviet East European perspectives and what is considered valuable in that context. However, considering this, one can’t help but wonder if it was his cultural background that attributed to the pushback Virgil got: he was a black American from the entertainment world with some experience in fashion, but no formal education in a fashion school whose name will ring a bell to a certain group of people. He was the American ‘tourist’ in a world full of European ‘purists.’
Nevertheless, rather than shouting from the outside ‘fight the power,’ he was an advocate for instigating change via what he called the ‘Trojan horse’ tactic. For him, change was possible by sneaking in black and/or street culture into the predominantly white elite establishment. For the Serpentine Galleries’ Do It series, Virgil Alboh gave an “Instruction (2020)” on “how to pickpocket the establishment”: “Read the Black Canon. Understand the nature of man. Prototype, release and repeat.”[iii] Perhaps because he was an outsider moving through the world of insiders, in other words, a tourist moving through the world of purists, he believed in other fellow tourists’ ability to understand the nuances of his work, without him having to preach at them. His trust in the tourists, the “17 year old version of himself”, as he put it, was the driving force for his advocacy of nuance.
On the contrary to his approach to work, he made sure to loudly vocalize his underdog narrative on countless different platforms including but not exclusive to Instagram, Twitter, Tumblr, New York Times and academic lectures. And I found his outsider narrative irresistibly relatable. He often recalled how he did not have access to fine art and museums, but learned from commercials and brands. As a person who also grew up middle class in the outskirts of the city, I precisely understood what he meant when he said “logos give you a feeling.”[iv] I also acutely understood the experience of your world turning upside down from an encounter with one great piece of art. For Virgil, it was Caravaggio he learned about in a mandatory art class he took in his senior year. I too understood wanting to please your middle class parents and negotiating your way into the world of art. For him, it was doing a Master’s degree in architecture so the engineering degree his father paid for did not go to waste. After listening to 45 conversations with and about him, I felt like I knew him though we never met, which was an experience I have had many times as a teen watching videos of my favorite YouTubers. I was starting to develop a parasocial relationship, or, a one-sided friendship, with a dead person.
Which brings me to New York. I was in the city for the first time for a summer program for recent graduates and decided to use the chance to follow the footsteps of Virgil Abloh. He mentioned oftentimes the Prince and Mercer Street, and how his early projects including Pyrex Vision and BEEN TRILL were born from an atmosphere surrounded by ‘the kids’ who were into skateboarding and hip hop. Apparently, he would still walk everywhere and stand on the street corner for 20 minutes replying to messages. He had stories of kids coming up to him and engaging in ‘real’ conversations. At age 40, he was still calling himself “a black kid from America.” Though I was quite overwhelmed by the tall buildings with cast iron facades and the suffocating muggy weather, I never suspected the places he went to be intimidating. After all, in my mind, I was his friend. I headed to the Mercer hotel which apparently was a meeting point for all his friends involved in exciting creative endeavours.
For an hour or so, I did feel a sense of belonging at the Mercer hotel. The waiters at the hotel bar were not fussy at all. The French bartender told me about spotting Virgil, his wife and friends. He was pouring me a couple of (what I think was) free shots and of course, amongst the waiters there was a ‘kid’ who had a fashion brand brewing. I hand-rolled them cigarettes with six months old tobacco in turn for the stories. ‘If Virgil was still alive and I ran into him in the lobby, maybe I too could have a real conversation with him,’ I thought to myself. However, the one-hour-old bubble bursted when eventually four of my real friends from class came down looking for me. One of them insisted to the bartender that I get my change back, which I appreciated and hence didn’t discourage since I could not afford to tip him so generously. The once friendly bartender promptly ignored my goodbyes.
Having listened to Virgil describe himself as a tourist countless times, I forgot that he was not really a tourist, at least not the kind that I was. We are not friends. We are not the same ‘kids.’ I forgot about the fact that I was surrounded by adult men and women dressed in black attires, and that I was carrying a free tote bag I was very happy to receive from the host university. Not to mention the fact that I was not allowed to sit at the hotel lobby nor the terrace on the ground floor; only the guests at the hotel, people who could afford 700 dollars a night, were allowed to. Virgil Abloh was a VIP guest at the hotel who was able to use the quasi-library lobby as his office whenever he was in town. The hotel stands in between the Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga store in SoHo, one of the most expensive pieces of land in the world. A$AP Rocky who started BEEN TRILL together with him now has a whiskey brand called Mercer and Prince. The street means something different to me in 2022 than what it was for Virgil Alboh in 2012. He was a purist on Prince and Mercer street, no matter how often he interacted with the loitering kids.
One of the many anecdotes Virgil brought up is when he first came to Paris Fashion Week circa 2009 and was denied entrance at a show alongside Kanye West. This story, which is survived by an infamous photo taken by Tommy Ton, was emblematic for him the animosity of European fashion world has towards the entertainment industry, blackness and the street. On the other hand, it is true that you need to be either registered in Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode or invited by a PR agency to be able to enter a show, especially when you are a group of six people. The entire posse covered in loud logos head to toe, unaware (yet) of the rules of the game, for others, the photo is emblematic for American tourists.
But I do wonder how Virgil truly felt at that moment. I don’t remember feeling insulted or offended when I belatedly realized that I was not the type that was welcomed at the Mercer. All I remember is the excitement and freedom I felt as a tourist, exempt from embarrassment that I would have felt if I were a native. A tourist is brave and free. And Virgil very much valued and took advantage of that, as often as he liked to portray himself as the underdog. I do not believe he titled his first showing in Paris “You’re obviously in the wrong place” out of spite. Perhaps it was also referring to the possibility of doing an array of extravagant things you would not dare to do normally and the ability to walk away nonchalantly afterwards, laughing about it. Could this be the nuance of the tourist?