Virgil Abloh Brings the Art of Fashion to the Institute of Contemporary Art

July’s hottest designer-shopping destination is a museum—who knew?

“Graffiti” tee in green, $65 / Photo by Nick Ferrari

Even if you aren’t familiar with Virgil Abloh’s name, you’ve likely seen and
admired his work. The founder of the cult-classic streetwear brand Off-White, the artist has also designed men’s collections for Louis Vuitton since 2018. Now the Kanye West confidant and collaborator is bringing his talents right here to the Hub, with a show—and an accompanying shop—at the Institute of Contemporary Art.

Opening this month after a yearlong delay due to the pandemic, the touring exhibit “Figures of Speech” is the first to provide a deeper look at Abloh’s creative body of work—which includes not just clothes, but also sculpture, music, and painting. “His artwork spans all media,” says ICA curator Ruth Erickson. “Unlike some artists who spend years perfecting techniques and their craft, Abloh is at his core a conceptual artist who will use all the contemporary means available…to bring his ideas into material form.” A displayed piece called Toolbox, for example, remixes a classic Louis Vuitton steamer trunk with the colorful graffiti and long antennae of a 1980s boom box—combining two iconic objects with seemingly opposite cultural vernaculars.

Virgil Abloh’s creative opus extends well beyond his runway designs, encompassing a range of sculptures now on display at the ICA. / FOR THE LOVE OF MONEY, 2018, Coated canvas, natural cowhide, leather trimmings, cotton textile lining, and ceramic chain / Photo courtesy of Gymnastics Art Institute © Virgil Abloh

You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place, 2015-2019, Neon sign / Photo courtesy of Gymnastics Art Institute © Virgil Abloh

That juxtaposition of opposites is at the heart of Abloh’s work: high fashion and low, the runway and the street, French bourgeoisie and American hip-hop. And it’s on no clearer display than the cheekily named “Church & State,” a retail concept that accompanies the exhibition. Museums have historically had a complicated relationship with commerce—after all, they’re supposed to serve as repositories of culture, not necessarily sell you things—but to know the work of Abloh is to know that the creation of frantic consumer desire is part of the art itself.

While the show takes place in the ICA’s upper-level galleries, the museum has transformed its ground-level Bank of America Art Lab into a jewel box filled with exclusive products designed by Abloh himself, from collectible T-shirts and hoodies to pants, baseball caps, and more. His rabid fans will undoubtedly clean out the store before long—so if you’re looking to pick up a piece of wearable art, we suggest running, not walking, to the ICA.

dollar a gallon II, 2019, Mixed-media installation / Photo courtesy of Gymnastics Art Institute © Virgil Abloh

Things We Love

Photo courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art

1. Abloh tote, $85.

Photo courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art

2. “Pyrex 23” tee in green, $150.

Photo courtesy of the Institute of Contemporary Art

3. “Artwork Missing” notebook, $55.