When an artist’s death takes the world by surprise, observing their final works tends to elicit a mixture of awe and melancholy. Such is the case in the New York exhibition of 47 pairs of Louis Vuitton and Nike Air Force 1 sneakers created by Virgil Abloh. The shoe represents part of the legacy of Virgil Abloh, the American designer who died on November 28, 2021, at the age of 41, after a private battle against cancer.
The exhibit, which was inaugurated on May 20 and remains open to the public through May 31, features the sneakers first seen in Louis Vuitton’s spring-summer 2022 menswear collection, which debuted in June 2021.
The Greenpoint Terminal Warehouse in Brooklyn houses the exhibition, which does not charge an admission fee. The building announces the show with an electric orange façade painted for the occasion, flanked by a sculpture of a breakdancer wearing sneakers from the collaboration between Louis Vuitton, Nike and Abloh.
The installation evoke’s Abloh’s spirit of play and daring. The 47 pairs in the show, all manufactured in the Louis Vuitton atelier at Fiesso d’Artico in Venice, Italy, are playfully arranged around a space that feels like a house of mirrors. The walls are adorned with clouds, a reference to the visuals of Abloh’s presentations and campaigns, while the sneakers appear on magnetic walls that allow them to be seen from all angles.
The sneakers include Abloh’s signature quotation marks around the word “Air,” emphasizing the shoes’ distinctive, countercultural identity. The color palette ranges from neutrals to rich tones, with vibrant textures of whites and reds, whites and blues, golds and multicolors, some featuring a graffiti print. Each shoe in the exhibition is accompanied by a screen with a three-dimensional digital version that the spectator can manipulate.
The exhibition ends in a tree house, a reference to the haven that so many children desire. The viewer finds inside an audiovisual record of Abloh’s design process, including inspiration boards and a video that shows the designer in action.
The exhibition precedes the commercial launch of nine models of the high-end sneakers: the mid-tops will be sold for €2,500 while the low-tops will cost €2,000. Pre-orders will be available to a selection of the Louis Vuitton community, while the June launch will take place through a special digital campaign, the brand said in a press release.
Abloh founded the fashion house Off White in 2013 and was artistic director of the Louis Vuitton menswear line from 2017 to 2021. His unexpected death elicited many reflections on his place in fashion. “The world lost a fashion superstar, an innovator, a creator for the history books,” designer Donatella Versace said.
Each design in the exhibition reveals Abloh’s urban influence, the vocabulary of materials juxtaposing leather alongside the Louis Vuitton monogram and checkerboard pattern. The installation quotes the questions that shaped Abloh’s creative process: “Who did it first?” “Where did that idea come from?” “Is this idea new?”
Aside from his bold work for Louis Vuitton, Abloh’s collaboration with Nike brings together two cultural icons: 2022 marks 40 years of the Nike Air Force 1, a pop culture symbol. The basketball shoes, designed by Bruce Kilgore and presented in 1982, combine references to hip-hop and streetwear and have become part of the collective imagination.
“I’m not comfortable with the status quo,” Abloh said in a 2018 interview with Hypebeast, discussing his aim to elevate streetwear and celebrate black culture’s influence on fashion. That goal echoes through the show.
The sneakers have had significant market success: in early 2022, 200 pairs were sold at Sotheby’s for a total of $25.3 million. Proceeds from the auction went to The Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, an organization that advance’s Abloh’s mission to promote equity and inclusion in the fashion industry by providing scholarships to promising students of African-American and African descent.
The scholarship, in collaboration with the Fashion Scholarship Fund, is a crucial effort to address the lack of diversity and inclusion in the fashion industry. An Instagram post announcing the designer’s death noted that Abloh regularly stated, “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.” The words are reflected by his faith in the scholarship fund and his youthful aesthetic.
Apart from celebrating Abloh’s art, this show underscores the designer’s optimism. The exhibition is a memory of his life, his vision and his work, as his heartbeat continues reverberating through the fashion industry.