This week, Virgil Abloh auctioned off an unreleased pair of sneakers from his streetwear label, Off-White, for more than $185,000. Abloh, the artistic director for menswear at Louis Vuitton, is donating the money to support an anti-racist organization in the U.K. that introduces Black history to children.
The donation caps a turbulent few weeks for one of the world’s most prominent Black designers. Earlier this month, Abloh was accused of not showing enough support for the Black Lives Matter movement, after he expressed dismay at the looting of businesses and publicized an underwhelming donation to a bond fund. But in an exclusive interview with Fast Company, he shares his side of the story and what he has learned over the past three weeks. “I’m a passionate designer and artist,” Abloh says. “I’m not versed in public speaking, especially on topics that are quickly evolving. I’m not made for a podium, but I’ll design a podium that ushers in systemic change.”
The trouble began three weeks ago, as protests broke out across the country in response to the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. As looters took to the streets of Chicago and Los Angeles, Abloh posted images of galleries and businesses he knew that were destroyed. “Our own communities, our own shops . . . this shop was built with blood sweat and tears,” he wrote in an Instagram Story. Many people responded angrily that he seemed to be showing more concern for the business community than for those fighting for racial justice. “A building and the contents can be restored and replaced,” wrote Tonja Renée Stidhum on The Root. “Can we say the same thing about Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and Tony McDade? I think the hell not.”
Abloh explained that he struggled throughout his life to become a business owner himself, and one of his central goals now that he is a successful designer is to support other Black businesses. In January, he created an Off-White T-shirt with the words, “I support young Black businesses” emblazoned on it. But he quickly realized that in the context of the protests, his posts bemoaning the destruction of businesses suggested that he cared more about the shops than the protesters. He apologized for his comments on Instagram, writing, “People who criticize ‘looting’ often do so as a way to make it seem like our fight against injustice isn’t legitimate. I did not realize the ways my comments accidentally contributed to that narrative.”
Then, the following weekend, Abloh posted an image of a $50 donation he made to a Miami-based organization called Fempower that helped pay for the legal expenses of arrested protesters. This fueled even more anger, as people complained on social media that it was a measly sum to donate, particularly from such a wealthy person. Abloh insists it was a misunderstanding. A group of his friends had gathered online, encouraging one another to donate to the organization by matching each others’ donations. The $50 reflected how he had matched a friend’s donation, and he posted a picture of his receipt to spur others to donate as well. “The goal was to say, ‘Get together with your friends and do what you can,'” Abloh says. “It was meant to say that no amount was too little to donate.”
In his Instagram apology, he also said that he had donated $20,500 to bail funds and other causes, though he “was on the fence about publicizing the total dollar amounts because I didn’t want to look like I’m glorifying only higher amounts,” he wrote in the post.
The criticism has stung. But Abloh hopes people will judge him not by his words, but by his actions. “I’ve taken all the (negative) feedback into account,” he says. “But the one thing I would say is that if you’re privy to my work, it’s clear what side of the line I stand on. If you’re privy to the fact that I’m a Black business owner, and that I’ve hired Black people at an industry-leading scale, it’s glaringly obvious that I stand with Black people.”
The fashion industry is notoriously racist. Black models, designers, photographers, and other creatives have been marginalized, leading to an industry that upholds white standards of beauty and regularly releases racist products. Within the Council of Fashion Designers of America, one of the industry’s most prominent trade organizations, only 3% of members are Black. So when Abloh was named artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, making him one of the only Black designers at the helm of a luxury fashion house, the fashion media celebrated his appointment.
Abloh understands the broader implications of his ascent. “I accept the circumstances of this position,” he says. “With great opportunity comes great responsibility. My goal is to lead by example.”
One way he does this is by supporting other Black designers, he says. The idea is to help Black creatives break into the fashion industry and move up faster than he did. “I didn’t grow up with many icons or idols to pattern my career on,” Abloh says. “But at my businesses, I’ve seen artists and designers of my skin color do things in two months that took me 25 years to accomplish.”
There are still big structural hurdles. Abloh’s own employer, Louis Vuitton, and its parent company LVMH, were sued in 2014 after a store manager made racist comments to African employees. Louis Vuitton also faced criticism for being tone-deaf when it launched a handbag line in the midst of the George Floyd protests, with an online activation asking influencers to pose with their bags.
Abloh is part of a working group at Louis Vuitton that hopes to increase diversity internally. Since the protests began, he has helped organize three webinars to build an agenda for making the company more inclusive. “The problem before was that many racial issues were systemic, underneath the surface,” he says. “But over the last three weeks, these issues can be vocalized.”
Abloh describes himself as an optimist. He believes that we can undo systemic racism in his lifetime, and the current moment could push the fashion industry to tackle racial justice head on. It’s not just wishful thinking: There are several newly formed organizations that aim to bring about long-term change, from the launch of the Black Fashion Council, which will publicly report on fashion brands’ diversity to the Fifteen Percent Pledge, which asks retailers to stock at least 15% of their shelves with Black-owned brands. (Sephora and Rent the Runway have already signed up.)
“I believe there’s going to be a Black Renaissance,” Abloh says. “Before I felt very alone in this struggle, but now, people are ready for change. The atmosphere is different.”