By: Naftali Shavelson  | 

Beauty Under the Sun: The Art of Virgil Abloh and Stephen Sondheim

Fashion designers, indoor sunglasses and all, sometimes manage to sneak or force their way into the ultra-exclusive world of high art through the boldness of their creations. In 2019, a Virgil Abloh retrospective titled “Figures of Speech” ran in various contemporary art museums across the United States. On Nov. 5, 2021, it opened in Qatar, billed as a “mid-career” exhibition of the designer’s most pioneering multimedia creations. Three weeks later, his family announced his death, of a rare form of cancer. He was 41.

Though unfamiliar to some, Virgil Abloh was among the most important names in fashion over roughly the past decade. Born to Ghanaian immigrants in Illinois in 1980, he earned degrees in civil engineering and architecture before meeting Kanye West and becoming the rapper’s artistic director in 2009. He founded the luxury fashion house Off-White in 2012, which catapulted him to the top of the haute streetwear world and proved that the runways of yesterday’s Paris and Milan were ripe for disruption. (From the beginning, Abloh’s Off-White prints on forgotten Ralph Lauren deadstock sold out, even after a 1,400% markup.)

What made his designs stand out? Other than their happenstance celebrity driving further demand, it seems to me that his works excelled by borrowing existing cultural references but adapting them with ironic touches that forced viewers to reconsider their relationships with those otherwise ubiquitous objects. The Off-White wordmark is itself a masterclass in this regard, featuring the brand name in Helvetica bold, a favorite typeface of 1960s corporate America, but offset with an oversized “TM" and bracketed with Abloh’s now-signature quotation marks, both serving as wry commentaries on the label’s own commercial stardom. Over time, his most successful product would become Off-White’s Nike Air sneakers, essentially standard save for uncommon color combinations, zip ties attached to the laces and the word “Air” plastered to the outsoles in Helvetica bold. With quotation marks.

Another artistic legend passed away this week. Stephen Sondheim –– Pablo Picasso or even Jan Van Eyck to Abloh’s Jeff Koons –– established himself over the better part of a century as perhaps the greatest composer and lyricist on Broadway during his lifetime. Responsible for hits from “West Side Story” to “Company” to “Into the Woods,” his work spanned eras and genres and was lauded for its color and depth of vision. Unlike Abloh, however, Sondheim didn’t secure runaway commercial success right away; his shows’ initial runs often failed to break even, as the complexity of his songwriting lacked the “hummable” appeal of many of his contemporaries’ projects.

Time would ultimately work in his favor; he went on to rack up eight Tony Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008, and just this month attended Broadway revivals of two of his musicals, “Assassins” and “Company.” On Nov. 25, he celebrated an intimate, traditional Thanksgiving with friends in Roxbury, Conn. He passed away the next day at 91, 50 years older than Abloh was to be at his own passing two days later.

Sondheim’s Broadway debut came in 1957 with “West Side Story,” a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s 1597 romance “Romeo and Juliet” (itself a reworking of the ancient tragic love story “Pyramus and Thisbe”). Often considered his magnum opus, it cemented Sondheim as a force to be reckoned with in the world of American musical theater. It also inculcated audiences with the notion that the oldest of stories could make for the most invigorating of modern musicals. “The story is … Romeo and Juliet. But the setting is today's Manhattan, and the manner of telling the story is a provocative and artful blend of music, dance and plot,” gushed John Chapman of the Daily News after seeing the opening show at New York’s Winter Garden Theater.

“West Side Story,” then, is far from a Bard ripoff. It takes the best of the source material and reshuffles it into a riveting drama that contemporary audiences could better understand and appreciate. Similar, in my mind, to Abloh’s literal and figurative quotations. On some level, I think both Abloh and Sondheim surveyed the artistic landscapes of their times and saw that the greatest images, the greatest tales, had already been drawn and told. But that didn’t stop them from creating. Abloh founded a fashion empire, and Sondheim went on to build what could be considered the most important body of work in Broadway history. Both their styles shifted during their careers on the spectrum between original, derivative and inspired, and throughout, they understood the very real need to navigate the minefield of the giants on whose shoulders they clambered about. Through their virtuosity, both artists taught us how to accept that there is nothing new under the sun while still stubbornly creating beautiful new things.
Their styles of appropriation were quite different. Sondheim took a classic story and wrote completely new music for it, while Abloh famously followed the “3 percent approach,” creating “new” designs by changing originals by only 3 percent. The trajectories, aims and spans of their lives were also incredibly divergent. I recognize the folly of attempting to draw conclusions from the juxtaposition of two very different people’s deaths; every life is of course its own whole world. Nevertheless, I submit that the losses of these towering creators should spur us to further create, though so much beauty has already been created. We must ponder the works of God and man, till them and tend them, and add our own humanity to make them just a little bit better.

Photo Caption: An Off-White adaptation of a Nike sneaker

Photo Credit: Chris Henry/ Unsplash