Virgil Abloh x Saul Williams
It’s May 25th, 2020 and around the world (for the most part) we’re finding our feet at navigating the daily ever-changing maze that is the COVID-19 pandemic. Unbeknownst, events unfolding in Minneapolis, Minnesota are set to bring new chaos into the mix.
9 minutes, 29 seconds. The horrifying length of time that George Floyd is restrained, face-down in the road, with police officer Derek Chauvin’s neck never once lifting despite his (and bystanders’) protests. The blood-chilling video capturing his murder spread around the internet and outrage ensued. Black people were simply tired of being angry at a system that did everything but protect them.
It was the spark that blew up that powder keg that was America on the verge of the tensest election in its history. Battle lines were drawn and riots broke out across the country and soon after around the world; in retaliation, further brutality at the hands of police followed.
Positively (if you can call it that) the circumstances around Floyd’s death prompted individuals and industries alike to take a hard look at themselves and the uncomfortable role they played in upholding racist systems – perhaps none more than fashion. As brands scrambled over one another to ease their conscience and prove their innocence via meaningless infographics and empty promises, Louis Vuitton menswear designer Virgil Abloh began musing on his upcoming AW21 collection.
Gathering a cohort of his community – including poet and model Kai-Isaiah Jamal (who became the first trans person to walk at a Vuitton menswear show), filmmaker Wu Tsang, rapper Yasiin Bey, and multi-hyphenate creative legend Saul Williams the result was a beautifully poetic and powerful outing that highlighted the Black experience.
Despite this, connecting with Saul from across the Atlantic, he shares the stark reality that survives even after the morsel of justice (read: the rightful guilty verdict) was achieved for Floyd’s family. “Even today, there were five separate mass shootings in the United States. Guns are part of fashion here in some way.”
Despite the rich storytelling they concocted while miles apart, the pair are yet to connect in person, but come together here to discuss their collaboration, muse on community, Black creativity and where they think it’s headed.
Virgil Abloh: I became familiar with your work in my college years, so that’s a fair 20 years back. I’m from Chicago, so the circle of artists that I was closely related to included names such as Common Sense, or Common as he’s mostly known now, Kanye West, and record labels like Rockets – what we would call the real hip-hop scene. That was the first moment that I came into contact with the artistry that Saul Williams possesses. It came to me at a particular time, in those teenage years when you’re finding yourself through the art you like and those who are making the art. More recently, we were casting for Louis Vuitton (AW21) and everything was done during COVID so the distance part was a big aspect of it. There was no other choice than contacting Saul for the project, so it was a full circle moment.
Saul Williams: We’ve not actually spoken in person and we actually first spoke on the day the Louis Vuitton film was released, but I first became familiar with you through a personal conversation with Kanye and Taz Arnold. It was an incremental, growing appreciation of your vision and prolificness. From the outside, I felt as if Virgil was becoming a legend well before I actually understood what that legend was rooted in. What’s beautiful is that the more I learn, the more I see, the more I’m impressed, and the more I think: ‘This is a beautiful dude.’ In fact, I’m still waiting for the opportunity to build on that in person, but every encounter otherwise whether that’s been seeing articles of clothing, shoes, furniture, whatever I’ve said: ‘This is Virgil’. It’s been a mutual appreciation.
VA: Exactly Saul, you’re a master of words. We have a mutual community that we both exist in and it’s across different generations. So when you say names like Taz Arnold or Kanye, a few degrees of separation has always been the only distance between us.
My point of view in fashion is very much about representation and those that are unrepresented. I’ve always likened my career to a Trojan horse – the constructs of which the world is built in for Black people are very much seen in plain sight. So, in order for me to exist behind those walls, I’ve always had to follow and promote a sort of Trojan horse mentality and inside that horse is a community of artists that have been doing poignant work. When it comes to my show, every season I’m trying to express a certain logic and I go within the community to see who is willing to build and Saul resonated from the inception of the idea.
SW: What was beautiful was that I was approached with this James Baldwin essay “Stranger in the Village” and told that what they were working around was the story of this essay. Already I thought, “Any opportunity that is encouraging me to reread Baldwin is the type of thing that I’m interested in,’ but what they were asking me was if I could write something inspired by it. I mean, who wouldn’t do it? Any writer would be honoured to have the opportunity to write some sort of response to Baldwin. That’s definitely one of the most beautiful aspects of this collaboration with you and the fashion house. Not only are you giving space to that Trojan horse to thrive within the community, but he is also bringing that level of dramaturgy to Louis Vuitton and giving us something to sink our teeth into.
The most beautiful experience of the rehearsal process, and I think you will agree with me on this, was going into the main hall where the rehearsals were after recording with Yasiin bey and seeing all the models and dancers being choreographed to James Baldwin speaking. There was no music, they were literally moving around based on the words of the essay – the choreography and everything that happened emerged out of pure speech. That was such a rich experience because most of the production had to take place online because of COVID-19. Yet, in that exact moment, I had the opportunity to feel like, ‘this is theatre’ and I had missed it so much.
It was just a beautiful connection of ideas, ideologies, and a way to use a platform to make sure that whoever you touch is touched through the process.
VA: From my side, it really has something to do with the frustration that me and the community of Black artists that exist out there can only manifest in the output of new work. It’s almost like a puzzle set that has an infinite amount of pieces, a puzzle that tries to find an answer to questions like: ‘How do we change our history?’ James Baldwin is obviously an important figure to many but that text just resonated with us and the whole show emanated from there.
I have to highlight that it’s sort of taboo in fashion to say that the clothes are secondary, but, in this specific case, it’s fundamental to understand that this film and the message behind it are primary. When the world is in turmoil and everything is coming to an end, I’m not interested in clothes, I’m interested in a message of clapping back. I have always been cautious about the feedback loop to tell me if my work is good or not and I’m actually cautious of fashion and the whole idea behind it. The idea of fashion in culture is, ‘We love you now, we hate you later,’ so that’s not really within my system. The idea that between Yasiin bey, Saul, Josh Johnson, Wu Tsang, Mahfuz (Sultan), my team, and our whole network is that we feel a breath after us coming together. We inhale, exhale, that’s the point. Everything else after that is artificial in a way.
SW: When our history is being discussed and when there’s a platform to do so, an open door to engage in that sort of conversation, it’s important to walk through it and use that opportunity. For me, it’s always been about that. I feel like we’ve been living in a sort of state of emergency for our entire life as people of colour on this planet and I just couldn’t fathom any wasted opportunities, any wasted beats. Hopefully this project will make people walk away with a greater sense of themselves and that goes for everybody because it’s through this game that people can actually meet themselves beyond the propaganda, beyond the miseducation, beyond all of this, to use the platform to defeat the wrong in our society. That’s why I was excited about participating in this, because I wasn’t asked to do something other than that – other than to take that and run with it and say: ‘Well, if you had the opportunity to say something here, what would you say?’
VA: Just being frank, the hot topic in fashion is diversity. There’s a lot of talk about number counts and representation and I think that if you watch the body of work that we came together to create, it’s all about the story. It’s past number count and that’s because there are experiences that are ingrained in our blood, in our DNA, that aren’t popular knowledge there isn’t an understanding yet. If you watch the work that we did, every 10 seconds has a valuable moment in terms of understanding the Black experience and I hope that people will be able to fully appreciate that. We were all our genuine selves for the longest part of our existence and I think that’s what is resonating.
SW: Being focused on the bigger story or the lines that connect with the times is crucial because of how this might empower us to see beyond, within, to transcend and change the times that we speak of. We can’t change our history, but, yes, we can allow our history to inform and push us into greater and greater heights and depths of understanding. It should push us into confrontation and all of these things should be reflected in fashion.
It’s clear that things go in cycles and that our attention span is cyclical. Even the sort of attention society might give to poetry, for example, seem to span in 20 year cycles – that’s the usual attention span that goes before we focus on something else. There is an importance though to breathe through that and to be rooted in something richer than what comes and goes, right? What I love about what Virgil is conceiving is being very wary of the ins and outs and focusing on the big picture or on the richer story. We are called to make the clothes secondary in a sense and have fashion rooted in something richer than that. There’s a power and richness in seeking to connect with people standing for your same values.
VA: Yeah, that’s the job, you know? I think all of our art forms, whether it’s music, film, fashion, or whatever, these are just different constructs that record our history on Earth. So, ultimately, what you’re seeing is us pouring in our message through these different outlets. It’s since 2019 that we’ve been talking about a fashion system that is more interested in talking about issues related to race. In 2019, 2020, and 2021, the debate has become a different kind of conversation, there a different tolerance to understand. I like to think that this community which we created just for that show, has something poignant for the time.
For me, it’s like a pendulum that swings between engagement and escapism. I too agree that, frankly, being Black and living in such an oppressed society, engagement or being able to dream, or using imagination and manifesting these things becomes vital. It’s about using this time when the pendulum is swinging and there’s a sort of an ear or eye for understanding, to be poignant with the same messages that I’ve had in the whole arc of my artistic being.
SW: Hopefully, we’re not so seduced by capitalism and by the imperialist nature of the country that we’re from or by the forces that would have us disengage. I’d like to think that art heightens the human exchange, that it can bring out the best of us, that it can heighten imagination, that life can become more fun, more free, more loving and that that can be reflected in fashion, music, literature, and film.
VA: The tools are at our fingertips, literally. Ultimately, I’ve learned the strength of community, I’ve learned that the power to create is godly and should be respected, cherished, and put in a place that allows for it to give that gift to others – that should be the ultimate goal of life. Maybe it’s my age, I’m very much a child, a product of my teenage years, but I’m finding ways to keep that same flame burning as I grow as a person, as a human being. I hope that I’ll eventually feel fulfilled but equally inspired to continue doing this work.
Text Dominic Cadogan