In 1990, when I was in first grade, I took a jazz ballet class where we performed a dance choreographed to Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror.” At home, in front of my own mirror, I pranced around in my leotard to the song.
Over the last few weeks, in the wake of the Leaving Neverland documentary about Jackson’s alleged abuse of young boys, that dance has resurfaced in my mind. Those once-happy memories no longer bring me joy. They are now interlaced with the graphic details of the sexual acts that Wade Robson and James Safechuck say Jackson forced them to perform. Reassessing Jackson’s legacy forces me to reprocess entire parts of my own childhood. What are we supposed to do with an artist who is so woven into our lives and our culture?
With his latest collection for Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh presents one possible answer. Abloh has no qualms talking about his love of Jackson. In interviews with The New York Times and The New Yorker, Abloh said Jackson was hugely influential in his life. It was not just Jackson’s music that stood out to him. Jackson’s personal style shaped Abloh’s own fashion sensibilities.
So for his second Vuitton runway show, Abloh sent invitations in the form of rhinestone gloves meant to evoke Jackson’s famous accessory. In Paris, where the show was held, he re-created the set of Jackson’s “Billie Jean” music video in a tent set up in the Tuileries gardens. Models walked on stage in outfits inspired by the musician. Some T-shirts paid homage to him by featuring the well-known image of the black shoes and glittery socks he wore when doing the moonwalk.
In The New Yorker, Abloh said he didn’t know about Leaving Neverland and that he was only interested in portraying Jackson’s “good side, his humanitarian self.” But that’s not the point. The allegations about Jackson’s abuse have been around for years. The documentary just presents the most recent, and possibly the most explicit, of them. The humanitarian MJ and the alleged pedophile are the same man.
In some ways, Abloh doesn’t seem to care about who Jackson was as an actual person. Instead, the designer relies on his own childhood memories delighting in Jackson’s music and fashion choices. But how can we separate the two?
This is what many of us are asking ourselves now. There is no clear, simple, or universal answer: How you deal with Jackson’s legacy will depend on your own personal experiences. We each have to ask ourselves whether there is more good or harm in deleting Jackson from our memories. I, for one, would like to find a way to preserve my own recollections from my childhood.
But it’s another question altogether how artists and designers handle Jackson’s legacy. Abloh is not just reckoning with his own memories, he’s designing a collection that will be seen by many people–and sold for a lot of money–by a French luxury brand. Business of Fashion has highlighted many branding experts who think this is a poor choice for Louis Vuitton, because it makes the company appear either ignorant about the allegations or callous toward the alleged survivors. There are also many die-hard Jackson fans who refute the accusers’ accounts with outlandish conspiracy theories. Abloh and Louis Vuitton risk appearing like they’re part of that camp.
Neither Abloh, nor Louis Vuitton, have responded to the controversy they’ve created by launching this collection. As a fashion critic, there is something worthwhile in at least engaging with the question of how we deal with Jackson’s legacy. Abloh’s answer–that we can’t ignore how Jackson changed our culture–doesn’t go far enough.
What we really need to reckon with as a culture is how to hold our own experiences with Jackson’s art in one hand, while also holding the experiences of his alleged victims in the other. It would be wrong for our happy memories to obliterate their horrific ones.