Virgil Abloh conquered the world in air quotes

With the death of design icon Virgil Abloh, we remember his rise, his output, and his perspective that creativity was not to be siloed within the bounds of any one medium.

The man was impossibly prolific at his label Off-White and as an artistic director at Louis Vuitton, completing a lifetime of work in little more than a decade. Yet for whatever reason, in this moment, I can’t stop circling back to one of Abloh’s patterns that I’d long stopped seeing in the shadow of his fame: his use of quotes.

As a designer, Abloh will be remembered for many motifs, and few were subtle. He added giant Xs and diagonal stripes to clothing, noting that the icon made them unmistakable across social media. He added prominent zip ties to shoes—a brand signature that was notably removable, so someone could put it on any other shoe, ostensibly turning any stray pair into their very own Abloh collab.

[Photo: Nike]

These ideas were brilliant but also straightforward to unpack. Meanwhile, his third motif required constant reassessment. It’s a provocation rich in ambiguity, worthy of critical debate for years to come: Abloh’s use of quotes.

We saw these quotes labeling all sorts of items that Abloh touched, from apparel and accessories to his brand collaborations. An Off-White “scarf.” A Nike “Air” Jordan. The short answer to why he did this is simple. Abloh’s goal was often to redesign objects with as little design as possible (sometimes this was called the 3% rule). And by using quotation marks, Abloh practiced redesign judo. With minimal intervention—just a couple of marks around a word—Abloh forced us to reevaluate an object. The object itself became an “object,” if you will.

[Photo: Ikea]

That single answer, however, has never quite satisfied me. After all, Abloh’s quotes read as air quotes—as if Abloh was reading the word aloud with his fingers and a smirk. In this context, quotes called out the artifice of the brand or object. It was a wink and a nod from Abloh that he knew that you knew that this whole thing was a construct. Abloh was a self-described student of Marcel Duchamp, the turn-of-the-century artist known for producing “Readymades”—objects like a urinal, placed into a gallery context, to call out the absurdity of art itself.

Quotes transformed anything Abloh touched into a Readymade. Consider how Abloh handled his collaboration with Ikea. He didn’t actually need to craft a giant Ikea receipt rug to call out Ikea as an irresistible capitalist phenomenon. All he really had to do was label an Ikea store “Ikea” to make that same point. That’s the disarming power of a quote.

[Photo: Ikea]

But to view the quotes merely as critique overlooks their duality of meaning, and the reality that people can feel two or more opposing emotions at the same time. It also overlooks that Abloh used quotes for some of his most personal projects, like his “Post-Modern” tuition program for Black fashion students, or his book of personal “Artwork” sold during his 2019 show at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA).

When I talked to Abloh in 2019—during the launch of his Nike store in Chicago and the opening of his Figures of Speech exhibit down the street at the MCA—I brought up how his use of quotes ranged from ironic to sincere, and from superficial to disarming.

“It’s a device, it’s a contextualization of a word without getting into the design. It was always meant for that,” he said. “I can be literal and figurative at the same time, or not.”

[Photo: Jeremy Moeller/Getty Images]

Herein lies a deeper purpose than mere irony. The quotes stripped the word of its old meaning and created a white space for new interpretation, even on the humblest of objects. It was an instantaneous visual effect akin to saying a word over and over again until it sounds like nonsense. Take a red scarf Abloh designed for Off-White, labeled “scarf.” It’s a big, obvious, red-as-heck scarf. Its superfluous label just drives this point into the ground that much more, forcing you to see and hear “scarf” over and over again in your brain. Soon the very idea of a scarf means nothing, although it is the entirety of this object and its label. The rest of Abloh’s design, mixed with your own imagination, fills in the gaps.

“[Quoting] automatically makes you question whether that’s the right definition, so to speak. It opens up possibilities for questioning, for reimagining,” says Michael Darling, James W. Alsdorf chief curator of the MCA who worked closely with Abloh during the creation of the artist’s 2019 show. “It turns everything into a meta conversation. So it’s not just a ‘hat.’ It’s a hat in the broader scheme of hats, or whatever it might be.”

[Photo: Nick Harvey/Shutterstock]

One of my favorite Abloh pieces is a handbag labeled “sculpture” (it’s actually an idea he riffed on in several permutations over time). At first, your brain reads the word with cognitive dissonance. “Wait, this isn’t a sculpture, it’s a purse!” Then you might reasonably conclude that Abloh is labeling his new fashion as timeless art worthy of the Louvre. And then, as you consider the word more and more—sculpture, sculpture, sculpture—you may contemplate a deeper truth in fashion. Bags, like shoes, are absolutely sculptures. They’re the only things you wear that keep their shape, even when removed from your body. This bag, unironically, is a sculpture. Its label? Apt.

[Photo: Hanna García Fleer/courtesy MCA]

A misspelled “Lewis Vuitton” jumpsuit and jacket—created for Abloh’s MCA show—might be viewed as self-effacing, a commentary that the design brand he helmed was as important as Joe Schmo. In all actuality, Darling tells me that this piece came about before Abloh had landed his position with Louis Vuitton, and before “The Ten” project, for which he redesigned 10 Nike shoe styles.

“He was still almost an outsider at that point, riffing on the pinnacle of luxury,” Darling says. ” I think it makes you question if that’s really a Louis Vuitton piece or not. It taps into piracy culture, full of cheap knockoffs—he really appreciated bad knockoffs, and how amazing they could be when they were really bad.”

Of course, “Lewis Vuitton” is also just a funny, adolescent joke. What is “Lewis” but the spelling equivalent to an air quote of “Louis”? Darling points out that this one misspelled brand name hints at Abloh’s theory on tourism versus purism in design: that a tourist is a wide-eyed outsider who appreciates a topic with wonder, while a purist is the insider who knows everything on a topic, perhaps to the point where the path to enjoyment becomes too overwrought. (Abloh saw himself embodying both extremes. He was, both figuratively and literally, Lewis Vuitton.)

At times, Abloh even took to using quotes as his literal signature—he’d sign customized Jordans with a permanent marker for his friends, writing anything from his name to the sorts of slogans you might expect on an ironic T-shirt, like “Hate Instagram” or “For Red Carpet Only.” You’re meant to hate Instagram with a shoe designed by someone who claimed he was famous because he “made Instagram [his] magazine.” Or don a Jordan for a formal occasion? Yes, these were ironies. Yet they might also be read as sincere statements, meant to be taken at face value. Instagram is superficial and hateable! Abloh did make Jordans runway-worthy. These clashing ideologies create a spinning vortex of ambiguity about the purpose of the objects themselves, and the place we ascribe them in our lives.

Whatever you see, or don’t see, in Abloh’s use of quotes, I would argue that his playful ambiguity never got in the way of one serious meaning. Because when Abloh wrote “Ikea” it no longer belonged to Ikea, much like Nike “Air” no longer belonged to Nike. With a few subtle dabs of ink, these things became Abloh’s. They “belonged” to him.