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Brief Published: 3 Jul 2019

Virgil Abloh Blends Commerce & Creative Diversity in Chicago


Reimagining the retail pop-up, American designer Virgil Abloh (artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear and founder of Milan streetwear brand Off-White) has partnered on two temporary spaces in his native Chicago. Working with Nike and the Museum of Contemporary Art, the goal is to merge art and commerce while fuelling creative diversity.

Abloh’s pop-up for NikeLab, the sportswear giant’s experimental retail division, focuses on increasing youth access to creative capital. Ten young Chicagoans were selected to participate in a mentorship scheme where they’ll collaborate with Abloh-vetted local creatives including photographer Paul Octavious and fabric designer Alyx Harch. The project will be presented at the store’s closing on July 28. 

The emphasis on upskilling smartly engages small-scale entrepreneurially minded Gen Zers (see Powering the Brand of Self in Dynamic Youth) – a strategy Nike also deployed at its Sneaker Academies in April 2019. Pure retail is limited: NikePlus members (Nike’s free loyalty programme) can purchase limited-edition product, but free, bookable special events are the main draw. The public can attend panels on Chicago’s cultural legacy, or one-off workshops with participating mentors.

Virgil Abloh — Figures of Speech
Virgil Abloh — Figures of Speech

The interplay between creation and commerce also informs Abloh’s retrospective Figures of Speech at the Museum of Contemporary Art, which highlights work ranging from his 2019 rug collaboration with Ikea, to upscale Off-White looks. A pop-up Off-White outpost within the exhibit sells limited-edition garments. Dubbed Church and State, the name references the binaries Abloh wants to dismantle: the separation between art and commerce, and high versus mass culture. 

With that in mind, alongside the show’s launch, Canadian streetwear drop app Frenzy gave remote fans access to limited-edition T-shirts Abloh designed for the exhibit (see also Frenzy’s Phygital Drop-Zone App Taps FOMO & Tenacity). Figures of Speech runs until September 22.

Hybrid designer/museum shops are gaining ground: American design duo Eckhaus Latta installed a shoppable exhibit at New York’s Whitney Museum in summer 2018.