On Friday morning, a cloudless sky stretched over the Brooklyn Museum. As the sun ushered in a sweltering July, groups of people lined up an hour before opening to be the first inside.
It was the first day that “Figures of Speech”, a multimedia retrospective of the work of designer Virgil Abloh, was open to the public. Fans were eager to head to the exhibit store, hoping to take home a piece of fashion history. Some yearned for that story for themselves, while others chased resale value.
Mr. Abloh, who broke barriers in the world of luxury fashion and beyond, was the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton and the founder of his own brand, Off-White. He died last year aged 41, after a private battle with rare heart cancer.
The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, curated by writer and curator Antwaun Sargent, is the first posthumous exhibition of ‘Figures of Speech’ – its first iteration was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago – and celebrates milestones in the prolific career by Mr. Abloh. The show bears witness to a life that overflowed with creativity in areas across the creative spectrum, including architecture, fashion, art and music.
Hank Strong, a 41-year-old actor, and his son, Elijah Akinsanya, were among the first in line Friday morning. Both are big fans of Mr. Abloh’s work. “Like father, like son,” Mr. Strong said. He had composed his outfit of the day “to pay tribute to Virgil”, with an Off-White x Jordan t-shirt, Off-White x Air Jordan 1 “Chicago” sneakers and Louis Vuitton sunglasses.
“I guess you could say, we’re a bit of a hypebeast,” Mr. Strong said with a laugh. However, they primarily respect Mr. Abloh for his heritage as a black designer who opened doors for other young black designers and artists, bridging the worlds of streetwear and luxury with his many collaborations and projects. “He did a lot for black culture,” Mr. Strong said. “To move it forward. Push the boundaries of fashion, music, clothes, everything.
Furthermore, he added, “Rumor has it that, you know, the green Air Force 1s might drop.”
“That’s the main thing,” said Mr Akinsanya, 19.
Online rumors have brought a number of people to the museum, hoping to be there for a “shock drop” of lime green Off-White x Nike Air Force 1 sneakers via Nike’s sneaker app, SNKRS. Dealers lingered outside the museum, eyes glued to their phones, waiting until 11 a.m. to see if they could click fast enough to claim a pair of shoes. But when the time came, there was nothing on the app. (The museum, in social media posts and elsewhere, attempted to dispel the rumors by clarifying that the sneakers would not be for sale with exhibit merchandise.)
Inside, the shop has been integrated into the exhibition. Called “Church and State”, the store is a nod to how Mr. Abloh “made little distinction between art and commerce”, according to the description of the exhibit.
It turned out that, for many, the show’s most coveted work was not displayed on a mannequin or perched on a table, and it was not for sale. Instead, the sought-after green sneakers were worn by museum security guards, as part of a uniform Mr Abloh had designed for the public safety team.
A security guard said several people asked him about the sneakers. At least one visitor tried to make their way into the sneakers, even showing a wad of tickets and offering to buy them on the spot.
“He pulled out $2,000 in cash and said, ‘I’ll buy them right away,'” the guard said.
Security personnel are not permitted to take their Figures of Speech uniforms home with them. Their special shirts and sneakers remain in lockers at the museum, the guard said. On the StockX resale site, the pairs of sneakers are to be sold for $2,249 to $12,500.
Two hours after the start of the show, the shop had filled up. People stood with their arms laden with products: tote bags, hats, posters, mugs, sweatshirts, postcards, stickers, keychains and shirts. At 1:30 p.m., the line stretched across two halls of the exhibit, winding along the walls near the life-size wooden house that is the centerpiece of the show. Some were disappointed that the things they had wanted to buy had already sold out, but others were happy to have the chance to soak up Mr. Abloh’s work and legacy.
Akinyemi, a 27-year-old musical artist who lives in Brooklyn, remarked on the difference between those who buy merchandise for themselves and those who plan to resell it: “We also get it for ourselves, you know. ? They just get it to make the most money on whatever platform they’re on. But it’s like, ‘We love clothes, and we want to wear them.'”
Some were there mainly to support Mr. Abloh and to see the show, curious to know him from an artistic and cultural point of view. “I’m always interested in people from the diaspora who can be exposed and you can see their art and their thought process,” Kristel St. Omer, 38, a high school teacher who lives in Brooklyn, said. “So I’m just here to support, to look to see what I didn’t know, what I can learn about him.”
Is she planning to visit the store? “I will definitely buy something,” she said. “But I want something that I will reuse. I’m not the hypebeast crowd.
Others expressed the joy of witnessing history and celebrating a designer who ushered in a new future in fashion. Damon McCalla, a mental health counselor who is also a designer and stylist, looked around the room as if it were a sprawling feast for the eyes.
Heading towards a Rainbow neon gradient Louis Vuitton look, Mr McCalla, 44, said: ‘I think I fell in love with it.’ He cherished the opportunity to buy something for his personal collection, comparing it to the way people collect antiques.
“It would mean I have a part of the story, a part of something that you can never get back,” he said. “You can have a couture shirt for years, and it never goes out of style.” Owning a piece of Mr. Abloh’s last work before his death would be like owning a timeless artifact, Mr. McCalla said. “It’s like a time capsule.”