Opinion: Virgil Abloh doesn’t get it

Virgil Abloh - GSAPPstudent - Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

When Virgil Abloh became the creative director at Louis Vuitton in 2018, shea butter Twitter rejoiced. Many black fashion enthusiasts saw this as a huge moment of progress in a historically racist industry. For many of them, Abloh was an inspiration and an example of a black space dominating a white space. But just because someone looks like you, doesn’t mean they understand you. Virgil Abloh fits this to a tee. When he and fellow businessman Sean Wotherspoon had their stores looted during these riots, Abloh justifiably expressed outrage on social media. “You see the passion, blood, sweat and tears Sean puts in for our culture,” said Abloh on Instagram. “ To the kids that ransacked his store and RSVP DTLA, and all our stores in our scene just know, that product staring at you in your home/apartment right now is tainted and a reminder of a person I hope you aren’t.” After getting a lot of backlashes, Abloh (whose net worth is $4 million) donated a meager $50 in bail fund money for protestors; This, of course, prompted even more backlash.

The quote that caught my eye reading his Instagram story was, “Streetwear is a culture. ‘Streetwear’ is a commodity.” I get why he’d be defensive about Streetwear. From spray-painting sneakers to repurposing luxury goods —it’s a great medium for self-expression. For Virgil, Streetwear is part of who he is. But what irked me about these comments was how inward-looking they came off. It felt like he was more concerned with gate-keeping a subculture than sympathizing with his friend. Let alone addressing the socio-economic problems that have sparked these riots. Whether we like it or not, this subculture, like many, is heavily tied to consumption. Because of that, only people with the most disposable income can participate in it. For a lot of kids who aren’t so lucky, they’d either have to work or hustle to keep up. Thus, it creates a situation where only well-off kids can afford things like bots to keep up with the latest releases, ultimately gentrifying the culture. Abloh often lacks self-awareness when dishing critiques towards “the culture,” often ignoring his complicity in it. Did “the culture” need $600 hoodies? Did “the culture” need $85 masks during a pandemic? Streetwear for decades now has made a lot of people rich, so of course, people are there for the wrong reasons. It’s because of Abloh’s class status he can idealize Streetwear while being insulated from the economic anxiety most people are currently facing.

Also, if we’re being honest, the morality behind looting is a bit greyer than we’d like to admit. It’s not to say that burning down your local teriyaki joint is justified, far from it. The act itself does make the protests seem unsavory to the public eye. But what would make someone commit a crime in the first place? It’s easy to write them off as animals, but environments shape animal behavior. Things like rioting and looting are byproducts of people not having their material needs met. Something Abloh probably can’t rap his milk dud head around. I personally disagree with those acts, because it’s an easy way for pundits to wave off people’s frustrations. However, it’s such a moot point to make when unemployment is nearing almost 15 percent, with most employed Americans hanging by a thread working dead-end jobs. The pandemic, systemic inequality (i.e., police brutality) and massive job loss only poured gasoline on an existing fire that is our social climate. To loot a store like Round 2, one would most likely steal stuff to flip a profit later on. Instead of outright shaming, societal reforms must be made so that civil unrest wouldn’t need to be an option. Looting, like most petty crime, is an act of desperation.

Abloh is unable to see the bigger picture because his livelihood doesn’t hinge on working a regular 9-to-5 or reselling box logo hoodies. He doesn’t have to deal with police brutality and poverty daily. It’s a shame that his friend got robbed, but the fact that he equated civil unrest to a petty culture war, along with his chump change donation, felt incredibly tone-deaf. You can get back your business, but you can’t get back a human life. The fact that Bobby Hundreds and even Wotherspoon himself understood that, shows how out of touch Abloh is with regular people.