VIRGIL ABLOH AND THE AESTHETICS OF POST-IRONY
17 November 2019
Early in the morning on Friday November 1, hypebeasts and brand-fans awoke atop freshly-assembled couches in the cold, London air to find that even the IKEA sign got an OFF-WHITE makeover. The line, many of whom travelled from all over Europe, waited outside the Wembley “IKEA” location for the much-anticipated release of MARKERAD, Virgil Abloh’s furniture collaboration with the Swedish fast-furniture company. The fifteen-piece collection, riddled with Abloh’s signature quotation marks, boasts high-fashion design at Ikea prices, opening up to edge of contemporary fashion to the mundane consumer.
Despite this supposed democratization, the collection is only available in stores and while supplies last, prompting queues outside of Ikeas all over the world reminiscent of Supreme drops. Aesthetically, however, MARKERAD has all the classic imagery of the former Louis Vuitton designer. There’s a rug modeled after an Ikea receipt, a minimalist, white clock faintly adorned with the word “TEMPORARY”, and Ikea’s iconic Frakta bag reimagined in a paper-bag brown color and the term “SCULPTURE” strewn across it.
Oozing with artistic references and minimalist visual markers, the collection—and perhaps even the advent of the collection itself—feels almost frighteningly contemporary. In a report by the Guardian, one 21 year-old in line explained the fascination of Abloh’s visual language: “It’s almost like taking a piss; it’s a bit meta. You’re paying for an Ikea receipt that you’re going to receive when you buy it.” That notion is echoed by the United States designer himself, who claims in a video made by Ikea that “Just because I’ve made it, doesn’t mean it’s special.”
The theater of it all—from the designs themselves, to the lines outside of the furniture stores, to its pseudo-accessibility—perfectly represents our current discourses around art, design, and popular culture. With athleisure, workwear, and streetwear styles at an all-time high, there is an underpinning appropriation of working-class aesthetics into the contemporary fashion conversation. Ushered in by the 2015 Comme de Garçon x Converse drop, designer brands have collaborated with mundane-yet-iconic brands (think Uniqlo, GAP) in order to capitalize off of the newly-minted YouTube generation, whose upper-middle class allowances permit them just enough money to scoop a sliver of designer wear.
This aesthetic merging, one could argue, is indicative of the new voices in the high-fashion world. Abloh himself is native of the Midwest and son of Ghanaian immigrants, perhaps the last place that one could think the world’s most famous designer could emerge from. Streetwear, moreover, is quite the United States phenomenon, emerging out of the 1980s hip-hop aesthetics of Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. Perhaps, the high-fashion moment of streetwear and accessibility is indicative of those cultural producers—black and brown folks working in the United States—finally obtaining (or creating) the coveted positions in design houses that have stolen their style for decades.
At the same time, Abloh’s work signifies another underlying trend in the art and design world; that is, the overwhelming irony of our hyper-capitalist, globalized society. In that same report by the Guardian, a 19 year-old construction worker claimed that his interest in Abloh is, in part, attributed to the fact that a lot of people hate him, a claim echoed by Trump supporters and Quentin Tarantino fanatics alike. Remarkably, however, Abloh is completely aware of this, knowing that his creativity and language fuels his ironic, anti-hero stardom. Attempting the blend “an artful quality [with] anonymous objects,” MARKERAD signifies the pinnacle of this post-ironic, “self-aware” moment in capitalism, one in which those who are committed enough to the brand can win the social capital that comes with Abloh’s design. The quotation marks—which subconsciously embody notions of irony or parody—draw on the methods of communication and language of online meme culture that exaggerate the anxieties of universal political turmoil and the urgency of climate change as a means of coping with what feels like inevitable destruction.
By admitting to the irony of high-fashion workwear, or the exclusivity of Ikea furniture, fashion houses are merely repositioning themselves within the anxiety of the present time, acknowledging their contribution to the aesthetics of neoliberalism and other forms of oppressive capitalism in order to alleviate some of the guilt from their consumers. High-fashion and design have always thrived off of exclusivity, whether it’s unaffordable fur coats of limited edition furniture drops. We have terms like “hypebeast” to poke fun at those of us who unapologetically line-up for a pair of shoes that probably cost less than five dollars to make, yet we gloss over the fact that all of us participate in the thrill of exclusivity embedded into capitalism.
Virgil Abloh will rightfully (and thankfully) go down as one of the key designers of our time precisely because he teases out all of the idiosyncratic paradoxes that compromise the contemporary moment. Personally, I am a sucker for a collab, and I admit that my Virgil Abloh x Jenny Holzer tee-shirt is one of my favorite clothing items that I own, despite the fact that it's just a white tee shirt with black block letters strewn across the front of it. I justified the splurge by saying, “Well, all the proceeds went to Planned Parenthood.” It’s true, I probably would not have bought it if there was not a concerted effort in this country to undermine and attack non-profitable systems of healthcare. At the same time, I understand the particular social position that comes along with wearing designer clothing, especially those with references to the art world that seek to subvert systems of commerce while simultaneously propping them up. In our current moment, wearing over-the-top, blatantly expensive clothing is both tacky and indicative of a lack of political awareness that is inexcusable for anyone with access to the internet. But, by masking a designer label with simple, “minimalist” visual language, high-fashion adapted to the cultural rejection of all things overindulgent while still clinging to the notion of an “in-group” of fashion connoisseurs who can tell a Gildan tee shirt from a Jean Paul Gaultier from a mile away.
By employing quotation marks—whether on an Ikea clock or Hailey Bieber’s wedding dress—Abloh is drawing out this irony, pointing to the ridiculousness of our collective impulsions and short-attention spans paired with the privilege of constant streams of money. As Millenial and Gen-Z consumers, moreover, we have enough education and awareness of the pitfalls of capitalism to understand this irony, yet we do it anyway with almost troll-like awareness. So many of us who rattled off, “THERE IS NO ETHICAL CONSUMPTION UNDER CAPITALISM,” shrug our shoulders in resignation, and swipe our debit cards anyway. We think that if we’re aware of our hyper-consumption, it makes it okay. Abloh’s quotation marks bring this counterproductive self-awareness to the forefront, prompting an entire generation of over-indulged, anxious young people to find some sort of relief in our resigned, ironic spending. The ritual of capitalism, it seems, has only adapted to our “self-aware” Twitter culture, and quotation marks, for some reason, make the guilt go down a little bit more smoothly.