From 2018-2021, in just 8 menswear collections at the French luxury powerhouse of Louis Vuitton, Virgil aligns his love of words with concrete action mixing cultures to create a new language. Kai-Isaiah Jamal, Saul Williams, Wu Tsang and Benji B. generously share in the following pages their personal and transformative experiences with Virgil for this tribute to his work in Fashion for the house of LV.
“Under my artistic direction, I see my Louis Vuitton Men’s collections as my platform of nuance. I strive to employ fashion to reflect and affect ideals of inclusivity, unity and humanity. Through nuance, I believe in making my mark with poise, style and grace. (…) For all intents and nuances, I have often spelled out the interceptive reality of myself as a black man in a French luxury house. I am well aware of my responsibilities. Rather than preaching about it, I hope to lead by example and unlock the door for future generations.”
A manifesto according to Virgil Abloh, Chicago, July 2020
“The thing that I would tell a younger version of myself? That the struggle is the point.”
“I’m an optimist. Optimism has been my strength and device allowing
me to exist in spaces like fashion and culture.”
“I’m challenging myself not to do fashion collections, but a modern
“Life is so short you can’t waste even a day subscribing to what someone
thinks you can do versus knowing what you can do.”
“When you’re lucky enough to get a ride to the penthouse, it’s your duty
to send the elevator back down.”
“The end goal is to demonstrate that collaboration is a modern language.”
“I’m here to be an inspiration to kids that were like me, are like me, that didn’t
believe that design was for them. That starts and ends my design mission.”
Virgil Abloh (1980-2021) imagined a global community of creatives building a sprawling ecosystem in which they could thrive in and provided them with an inclusive platform to express themselves. From the start, he had a masterplan captured by his concept of the “Trojan Horse for the Mind”, expression that referenced the ancient Roman poet, Virgil, whose masterpiece Aeneid (from 29-19 BC) is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Latin literature. The term is “used by Virgil Abloh for driving empathy into the minds of humanity by disguising it in imagery that beguiles us. It follows the logic of the wooden horse packed with soldiers used by the Greeks to enter and conquer Troy.”
From 2018-2021, in just 8 menswear collections at the French luxury powerhouse of Louis Vuitton, Virgil aligns his love of words with concrete action mixing cultures to create a new language.
Kai-Isaiah Jamal, Saul Williams, Wu Tsang and Benji B. generously share in the following pages their personal and transformative experiences with Virgil for this tribute to his work in Fashion for the house of LV.
“If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your time.”-Virgil.
Kai Isaiah-Jamal - Poet, Model, Visibility consultant - Trans-model signed at Louis Vuitton
Pamela Golbin: Can you tell us about your first contact with Virgil?
Kai Isaiah-Jamal: The first time we interacted, which is how so many people first met him, was via Instagram. I was meant to be walking the AW 21 Louis Vuitton show as the first black trans model to be in that space. That alone was incredible!
I went to Paris for the show even if it was a strange time to be traveling because of the lockdowns. After the second rehearsal, Virgil asked if I would you be willing to write something. He wanted me to incorporate my work as a poet alongside Kandis (Williams), Tosh (Basco) and Josh (Johnson) and all the incredible people who brought together that first film, “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light”. I was a bit worried but I said, “Let’s see what we can do” and I wrote a piece. V, Benji (B.), Kandis and everyone was just so happy with it and that started the momentum.
PG: A beginning with a bang!
KIJ: I’m so grateful to the way in which Virgil and I got to experience one another. I always had a complex about being a model because there’s so much alongside my identity which is about speaking and using my voice as a platform. I felt Virgil immediately understood and there was never even a moment where I had to explain anything to him. He knew, “Okay, I get exactly what you are and what you’re about. I don’t want you to do anything other than that. And I want to celebrate that.” There’s something really special about somebody noticing things about you without you even having to tell them. It’s a real kind of special love language.
PG: Virgil spoke of you as the “voice of a generation”. That must be quite empowering.
KIJ: It’s still surreal. I don’t even think we will see the full scope of his vision and his legacy until ten years’ time when we can reflectively look back. In that same article, he says he can recognize that I existed in a world that wasn’t very kind to me. It is one of my favorite things that anyone has ever said about me. Kindness is something that really was at the forefront of everything that he did, and it is how he mobilized his vision. For him to say, I was a “voice of a generation” is as much of a compliment as it is a huge responsibility.
But I feel like in his death, I really understood the urgency of what that meant, and it gave me a whole new perspective. Everything he did was completely and utterly selfless. It was for the wider community and specifically for black narratives and young designers who are on the fringes of society. His recognition of me as somebody who was really important in his mission was unfathomable and immeasurable in so many ways.
PG: Virgil’s power of the word, whether it be written or spoken, is something that is key to his vision.
KIJ: The importance of how he could articulate himself was something that we really bonded over. He could have one word, a tagline which could encapsulate everything. He thrived on conversations and creating dialogues to see things in a different light. All you have to do is look at his show notes to realize how much of his vision is based on words, context and references. He really encouraged us all to communicate which is such so important in the current climate.
PG: What was your creative process with Virgil?
KIJ: The “Amen Break” collaboration was a real moment for me. After “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light”, I was invited to write another poem. He was like, “Okay, it’s down to you. We need that middle piece again. We’re relying on you.” I arrive at the studio, at this point it must be like two, three in the morning. It’s me, Benji B, Kandis, Mahfuz (Sultan), Chloe (Sultan). I’ve written some notes, but I start rewriting them in the room next door. I arrived at a place I thought was appropriate for this poem. I remember reading it out the first time while it was being recorded and everyone was in the room.
The moment after was probably one of my favorite moments in my life! Virgil just runs over and picks me up from the floor, and replies, “Yes, we did it again! We found the missing piece!!” It was just such a beautiful moment of going from me sneaking in this room with so many people that I respect and I admire to suddenly delivering them these words. He had my original notes for the poem scanned into the show notes with all of these really important documentation of words.
PG: He seemed to always be available.
KIJ: He was superhuman. He had two or three phones with him at all times, and he would always be on them. He was so behind everyone’s ideas with an endless amount of compassion and consideration. His selflessness and no-ego attitude were a huge part of it.
He was a brother, a father, a mentor, a friend to so many people. Naturally, you want to give back and support him. He always managed to find the right people to champion him. He never, ever operated with any sense of jealousy or hate, entitlement or ego. Everything he did really came from a place of love and care with an amazing understanding of himself and his position.
Even though he was leading that conversation, I don’t think he ever saw himself as the leader. He saw himself as the person who brought other people together, as opposed to the person who made it possible.
PG: Virgil spoke about wanting to ensure that the future looks different from the past.
KIJ: We were all outcasts from society, whether it was with our blackness, our gender or where we came from. He found a way to master into high fashion.
His youthfulness, innocence, naivety allowed him to feel so relatable to people. Fashion can be so serious. There isn’t a lot of space for play, exploration or for mistakes. He held onto all of those dreams and feelings that you have as a kid and just brought them to the main stage in a way that made everybody feel part of the conversation.
PG: A magic-like quality…
KIJ: It was like being in this endless dream but with your eyes open. All of these things that you think are impossible and unimaginable suddenly are happening in front of you. He was a magician, and there’s not a lot of people who I’m in awe of or I’m struck by their genius quality.
The show notes are there to explain the ins and outs of his mind. You can create a momentum and also open those doors for other people to fill spaces when you no longer can. And nobody can deny this is what he did in abundance.
PG: What was his dream?
KIJ: I think his dream was very much being where he was. He was living it. And of course, it’s tragic that all of his dreams will not be followed through because of his absence, but a lot of them will be, based on people who are around in physicality that can continue that for him. Me and Goldie talk about this a lot. Goldie was the ‘me’ of his time and now I’m the ‘him’ of my time. In turn, I’m trying to make a space for somebody else who will be the ‘me’ of their time. The only way to progress is looking back as much as we look forward and recognizing who were the pioneers of change, especially in the subcultures that are so often ignored.
Virgil’s dream was to make space for his 17-year-old self, who was obsessed with fashion and obsessed with cultures, from hip hop to Grunge to Detroit house to Renaissance paintings. He invited people into spaces who never, ever were considered to even get an invitation.
PG: How did you perceive him?
KIJ: He was this big, soft, friendly, generous giant. He just wanted to see people around him win. It’s such a rarity to meet someone who says, “I just want everyone at my table to have a seat, to have a meal and to have a place.” There was never a space of jealousy or hierarchy. He lives through every single one of us who was touched by him. I feel we’ll just see this infinite version of him over the years and the generations. His legacy really will not die.
PG: He made you his living depository. It’s as if you are his dream.
KIJ: Yes, exactly. That’s very beautiful. Thank you so much. I could just keep listening to you speak, but I’m so excited to share this with the readers because I think it’s so important to understand that it wasn’t just about the clothes or just about a season or just about creativity. It really was creating a whole new space where people could interact and dialogue. It’s very powerful.
When I was grieving, the one thing that I could hold on to for a space of sanity, peace and happiness was the fact that there were so many people that he touched. For the rest of my life, I have the privilege of knowing I worked with one of the most genius, incredible minds I ever will work with. I don’t think we’ll ever have another Virgil, especially in this lifetime. So being able to know that we were the lucky ones that got to experience him, consoles some of the grief.
PG: When was the last time you spoke to him
KIJ: I spoke to him just before Miami. The last message I have from him was “Miami is going to be a movie!” And, yeah, it still sits there in my WhatsApp messages. I went through all of our conversations, screenshot and saved everything so that I have them.
When I arrived in Miami, we got the news. It’s still hard to even process, and it will take some time. I’ve never felt so proud to be part of such a historic part of fashion. During the rehearsals, a swarm of birds flew over us and an airplane was overhead. For me, the plane is so symbolic because my first ever look that I wore to walk an LV show, had airplane buttons. I can’t explain how much he was there. He was in the sky just watching us all below him.
Saul Williams - American rapper, singer, songwriter, musician, poet, writer, and actor - Starring in Louis Vuitton by Virgil Abloh “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light” (FW 2021) “Amen Break” (SS 21)
Pamela Golbin: How did your first collaboration with Virgil come about?
Saul Williams: I was initially contacted by Benji B, who’s the musical director at Louis Vuitton with whom I had a long-standing relationship. He told me that Virgil had brought me up and that they were really interested in doing a piece based on James Baldwin’s essay Stranger in the Village. They asked if I’d be willing to write a response to that piece.
My initial meeting with Virgil was via Zoom in December 2020. I loved Virgil’s world that had connected an extraordinary team. In this case, I’m talking about Benji (B.), Josh (Johnson), Wu Tsang, Kandis Williams amongst so many others. For this collection (FW 21), everyone wanted to make an extremely meaningful and poignant work for the Times. Even though this was centered around fashion, it was more so centered around the statement that they wanted to make with fashion as a backdrop. I found that very moving. As an artist and writer, I am always inspired by a commission that will make you investigate something that you would love to spend more time exploring anyway.
PG: It was a challenging moment with the successive Covid lockdowns...
SW: The Delta variant had just arrived. I was in London at the time and everybody was rushing home. The big question was whether we would be able to do this in person or whether it would all be recorded in remote places.
At the rehearsals with Joshua, Tosh (Basco) and Wu Tsang, I actually had one of the most moving theatrical experiences. There’s a moment in the choreography when everybody is walking really quickly through a train station. The shots were based on the French film Playtime by Jacques Tati, which is fantastic. We’re watching and the music that they are dancing to is not really music. It’s simply the text of James Baldwin in conversation over the loudspeakers. It was such a beautiful moment!
PG: Was Virgil present?
SW: Virgil was not there. We were expecting to see Virgil any minute but we learned that Virgil had been exposed to Covid and was in Chicago.
PG: The shoot was done in record timing!
SW: It was immediate! It was absolutely crazy! As someone that comes from the film world, the turnaround on this film is one of the most extraordinary!
We wrapped it up at 02:00 in the morning, and by 2:00 p.m it was out. The fashion show was supposed to be on January 21st, and because of the Delta variant France issues the edict banning all gatherings. Within a matter of hours, the teams had to go from an in-person fashion show with a small film component to the whole entire show that becomes a film.
PG: That’s the magic of fashion!
SW: They couldn’t shoot it earlier because the clothes weren’t ready. The night of the recording, we saw the clothes for the first time. We were blown away by this collection. What was beautiful was that the clothes met us on the level of the James Baldwin text, on the level of the poetry, of all the beautiful essays that we had been asked to read.
PG: I imagine that’s what created such a powerful energy.
SW: The creative minds behind the storyboarding deserve a great deal of credit because the work they put into it was way more than you would normally get from a fashion show. There was just a great deal of thought, of heart, of spirit put into it. I left inspired by all the people that I met. One of the most beautiful things that happened was that after we had already walked, we then had a final recording that we had to do of some narration. Myself, Kai and Black Cracker were in the recording suite with Benji. Kai was the first to record. Kai does this wonderful poem that’s in the film. And Black Cracker and I look at each other and say, “I’m not recording. I’m not recording.”
SW: Because what Kai just did is so beautiful and important. We both opted out of recording right then and there and just celebrated Kai in that space. And we’re like, “Kai, you did it. That’s it. They don’t need any other words than this. You said everything that needs to be said.”
PG: Did Virgil feel like the Stranger in the village being in Paris or at the House of Louis Vuitton?
SW: There are parallels to be made, for sure, between Virgil’s world at LV and in Paris connected to Baldwin’s time in Switzerland for that essay. Paris has a long history of welcoming African Americans more than they welcome, necessarily Africans and Arabs. Even if he was welcomed, you still have to look at who else is welcomed into the room with you. In many cases, Virgil, was still the only one in the room who looked like him. What’s magnificent about Virgil is not only did he walk through the door, but as he did, he brought people with him to that space that are beyond the norm. He entered and said, “Let me expose you to more of my world”. It’s not about the likes of glitterati and celebrities. It has more to do with people who excel in their craft, and who have earned every right to be there, just like him.
He also brought together a collection of people that had started their work before him, in their own fields that was the beauty of him connecting dots. Wu Tsang had already won a MacArthur Genius Award before being asked to do this. He invited all of the artists involved to bring their A game through their field, through their craft, and conducted a sort of symphony of bringing us together.
What did Fashion bring to the conversation?
It’s a way of talking about culture and questioning the ways that we celebrate and digest it in our lives. It’s a gift to be in that position and to be planning a fashion show while sincerely questioning, “What can I gift the audience so that they walk away with more than a glimpse of a well-cut suit?” It was about the thoughts and reflections that may indeed heighten their relationship to art, to culture, and maybe even to life itself. That’s the Virgil vision.
PG: When you speak, it sounds so collaborative, so open and so safe.
SW: It was. Everybody is so different and has their own space to express themselves. We were just so happy to be connected. I already knew Kai before as a poet. I knew Black Cracker and Benji B. I would say that the only competitive streak there, was between friends. I remember I got yasiin looking at me and going, “I can’t believe they called you first.” (Laughs)
Because of the fact that a few of us had to go to Switzerland to shoot the opening scene, we ended up taking a train together. Virgil texted to say, “Two seats up from you, there is so and so. You should go talk to them.” And, mind you, he’s in Chicago just texting with all of us, “I’m so happy to connect you guys.” That was his intention, to connect us.
PG: It’s like a grand project that he had envisioned from the very beginning.
SW: Oh, certainly. I agree! Everything that he was doing was to get to that moment. Without a doubt! Of course, what came next with Amen break was the next layer of his love, which is the music. He had to give it up to Goldie, had to give it up to drumming beats and to the music that inspired him. And of course, the “Amen break” being the name of the most famous sample used to create drumming.
PG: There is also the power of the spoken and written word that you find systematically in his work.
SW: Oh, yeah. He explained to me that he always approached things philosophically and that he always thought language is the space through which we carve out our relationship to culture, which may explain his strong appreciation for poetry.
PG: Fashion, in the end, was simply a vehicle.
SW: It’s something that he understood. Virgil’s relationship to architecture and design is crucial to his understanding of how to inhabit space.
PG: He wasn’t territorial.
SW: No, not at all. He was the most generous and thoughtful person in the same way that someone is thoughtful when they create a space, a sidewalk, a park, a front porch. He’s really putting great thought into the space that he’s inviting people to inhabit. He told me, “I’ve been planning and meaning to get in contact with you for the last 15 years. But I’ve been wanting to build the proper relationship in order to invite you in. I think that I finally built it, and now I’m ready to call you.”
PG: What do you think will be Virgil’s legacy?
SS: Well, I can tell you what I hope they will be. I hope people will continue to investigate his studies, his references, his inspirations which are way more important than his net worth. In fact, the alchemy of Virgil’s work and his mastery of the craft had a great deal to do with the time that he spent studying, reading, thinking, drawing, writing, listening. The celebration of Virgil comes from realizing how much work went into becoming Virgil.
Wu Tsang - Film maker, artist and performer - Film Direction of “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light”, Louis Vuitton by Virgil Abloh (FW 2021)
Pamela Golbin: Do you remember your first meeting with Virgil?
Wu Tsang: It’s funny. I don’t actually remember because I feel like I’ve been in the Virgil constellation for many years. I feel a bit shy to contribute because there are so many people that have a much longer relationship with Virgil. We worked together on the “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light” film shortly before he passed. It was transformative. I would actually say that it changed my life. Working on that project and with him was a huge part of that. It felt like a miracle that it was able to happen the way that it did.
PG: How did you work together?
WT: From the very beginning, I felt Virgil had this incredible sensitivity to the artistic vision of our collective, Moved by the Motion, that included Josh (Johnson), Tosh (Basco), Asma (Maroof) and Kandis (Williams). In the end, everyone thought it was a great idea because the film was successful, but it was Virgil who really took a chance with us in a context where the stakes are really high. One of our last interactions was a short conversation where I said, “I really appreciate what you did to enable this, and I could feel that you were protecting us from a lot of battles you had to fight on our behalf.”
When Virgil passed and so many people started sharing their stories about him, I felt so touched by my interactions with him. I realized that he had that same impact on an innumerable number of people. He touched almost everyone in my immediate artistic community, which extends over many age groups living all over the world including artists, DJs, fashion designers and filmmakers. I don’t know how it’s possible. He really had this kind of superhuman presence while also being very humble and generous.
PG: What did this collaboration bring to your work?
WT: It was amazing because we never had a platform like that to do something and reach literally millions of people. It was exciting to realize that even with a such a prestigious platform, we could still be true to ourselves. And again, I feel like that’s something that Virgil enabled because he figured out a way for us to work at that scale but also stay true to our vision.
It was a very spontaneous moment, but that spontaneity really comes from years of experience rooted in traditions. It felt like a privilege and an honor of getting to work with such talented people like Saul (Williams).
PG: Can you take us through the process?
WT: The invitation really came through Josh Johnson, who is the creative director of Move by the motion. Him and Virgil had been talking for years about doing a project together. I remember Joshua came to us and was like, “I think Virgil wants to do this”. We had a bunch of meetings with Virgil and with people from Louis Vuitton. Even when we were getting on the train to Paris, I still didn’t know if it was going to happen.
Looking back, I am struck by how unusual it was that we were able to make that film. It’s this weird anomaly. You would never, in a million years, have something as important as the Fall Winter collection be just a film with no audience. It’s really hard to make an artistic film in that context. It’s almost impossible.
Because of the circumstances with Covid and the lockdowns, everyone was just being really open, actually trying things in a different way and being really pragmatic. It was maybe two days before the scheduled show and we still hadn’t heard yet whether there would be an audience. We were trying to plan with this total unknown. And then we heard, “It’s just filming. No audience”.
As a performance art collective that is used to doing improvisations, that way of working, kind of on the fly and in response to what’s happening, actually came naturally for us. We’ve been there many times. The difference was that we don’t usually have those kinds of resources or platform.
PG: There was a freedom within a very constrained vocabulary.
WT: Yes, but again, someone has to will that, it doesn’t just happen. I think that’s because Virgil enabled that. Everyone came together and tapped into something collectively, which is just something that you can’t plan. There is a lot of intention that’s set to create the conditions for that to happen. It was magical.
PG: How did Jacques Tati’s iconic film Playtime influence you?
WT: I had been obsessed with his films right before this project, and Josh came to me saying, “Oh, Virgil, loves this.” As a choreographer, Josh loves to think about compositions in a very deep space that are flattened by all the geometry. We really studied it. I was obsessed with these long, wide shots to capture all of the movements happening.
PG: Where does fashion come into the discussion?
WT: It tells the story in the way that art can tell a story. I feel fashion allows for a kind of storytelling that escapes simplistic, meaning. It’s all in the nuance. You can’t put a simple narrative on it or simple language, but it gives so much feeling and attitude, and it puts you in all these time periods at once, from the 60s through to the future. You can say so much with a garment. It also informs how the performers move. Virgil is such a genius of that.
PG: I understand Virgil could not be in Paris for the shoot.
WT: He was on Zoom, 24 hours a day for seven days or something. I don’t know when he slept, if he slept, but he was just there the whole time virtually, which was sort of happening for a lot of people everywhere at that moment due to Covid. I remember the film was airing, and I sat down to watch it. I laughed because when it was done, I actually fell asleep. It was just such a huge effort. It took a minute to understand what had happened. There was such a synergy that you didn’t have time to think. You just had to trust your instincts and you had to trust your collaborators. There was a lot of passing and sharing ideas on WhatsApp with Virgil adding endlessly, “What about this? How about that?” It was really a fun space to share ideas.
PG: How would you describe your role?
As a filmmaker, I see my role as trying to channel the spirit of what I think everybody is collectively trying to say and also to parse that into a cinematic language with an understanding of how films unfold. You get a feeling for the rhythm of it, for the pacing of it. If you want to feel connected or intimate, “What types of shots do you need” or “When do you want to show wide and make it feel different?” I was trying to contribute most by really listening and paying attention to the ideas of the group. I tried to think of a cinematic form that could hold all of the narrative because there is so much and also so layered. Actually, the clothes give it coherence in a way.
PG: You spoke of this work as an Exquisite Corpse, the Surrealist method by which a collection of words or images is collectively assembled.
WT: I definitely think so. If anything, you could say Virgil provided the paper for everyone to draw on. The way Moved by the Motion collective works, is very much like that. You contribute your part and then the reveal comes always with surprise because you don’t ever see the whole picture until everyone has played their part.
PG: For you, what is Virgil’s legacy?
WT: I think he touched so many creative people in the world that we’re in. He was the great connector of those things and was always thinking about who’s the next young person I could give an opportunity to. That’s definitely what he did for me. And he’s done that for literally thousands of people. We carry that ethos with us and think about our platforms and how we can also support other people that are aspiring to contribute in a bigger way to cultural production. I learned from him and hope to carry on.