AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
The Chicago-based designer Virgil Abloh's artistic touch stretches from the runway to Ikea. That range is on display in a new exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art. From Chicago, WBEZ's Carrie Shepherd reports.
CARRIE SHEPHERD, BYLINE: Virgil Abloh has had many collaborators. But there's one he won't spend too much time talking about.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BOUND 2")
KANYE WEST: (Singing) What you doing in the club on a Thursday? She said she only here for her girl birthday.
SHEPHERD: Abloh was Kanye West's creative director for more than a decade. They met when Abloh was studying architecture in Chicago.
VIRGIL ABLOH: It's been told so many times that I, like, don't talk about it that much more.
SHEPHERD: In the exhibit, the nod to Kanye comes in the form of a life-sized plastic sculpture of the 2013 "Yeezus" album cover. Abloh designed that. But it's his fashion designs that feature most prominently in the exhibit, designs from a personal aesthetic that Abloh says he cultivated decades ago.
ABLOH: You know, I still feel like I dress the same way I did in high school.
SHEPHERD: He still searches and buys the bright T-shirts and sneakers that he coveted growing up in Rockford, Ill., a city about an hour-and-a-half from Chicago.
ABLOH: I'm a consumer, but I don't wear everything that I consume. You know, I like it as an object to be inspired by.
SHEPHERD: Those objects, that art are present at the start of the exhibit. There are racks of clothes Abloh designed for the fashion label he created called Off-White. Neon red knee-high boots are perched below a caramel-colored fur coat. A mannequin wears a dramatic black-and-white gown made for Beyonce.
Virgil "Abloh: Figures Of Speech" is an exhibit that frames fashion as art, Abloh says.
ABLOH: We're not talking about just fashion in the silo of fashion. We're talking about fashion in the silo of an institution of art.
SHEPHERD: But the fashion world is siloed, and some of it is inaccessible. Abloh says that's not a new revelation.
ABLOH: I would say that's an obvious statement. You know? Like, the world should be open to all those that want to access it.
SHEPHERD: There appears to be a nod to exclusivity in the exhibit. In the corner of the gallery, a duffel bag emblazoned with the well-known Louis Vuitton logo sits on the floor chained off. Don't get too close. Don't touch. But the designer is part of that untouchable world. Last year, Abloh was named men's artistic director at Louis Vuitton. He says the responsibility of making fashion and art more accessible can't fall solely on the creators.
ABLOH: That conversation is a perfect conversation for the civic infrastructure less than the creative infrastructure 'cause those two things have to meet in the middle.
SHEPHERD: It's probably not surprising, given Abloh's many areas of focus, that he's in constant demand.
ABLOH: So what do we have here, the VIP reception at 6?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah, 6:30 is the VIP reception.
ABLOH: ...And then the preview here at 7.
SHEPHERD: That's him talking to his two assistants, looking at his two phones about what's on tap, not in the coming days but in the next 15-minute increments. But he's honest, generous that he doesn't do it all alone.
ABLOH: Like, I'm not going to pretend like Off-White is just me - you know? - like I do the work of 80 people.
SHEPHERD: Abloh says that collaboration extends beyond his immediate colleagues to those he hopes are coming up behind him. Chicago's MCA curator Michael Darling agrees.
MICHAEL DARLING: This is something that Virgil said to me from the very beginning of this show - that he wants this exhibition to create five more Virgil Ablohs.
SHEPHERD: "Virgil Abloh: Figures Of Speech" runs through September at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. For NPR News, I'm Carrie Shepherd in Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.