In 2018, when Louis Vuitton named Virgil Abloh as its men’s wear artistic director, it made Mr. Abloh, the founder of Off-White, a Nike collaborator and the former creative director for Kanye West, one of the first black designers at the top of a French heritage house.
The appointment was seen as the dawn of a new era and a move by an industry that had long struggled to face its racism. Rather than merely appropriating or pillaging the traditions of black culture, it was acknowledging the truth.
Mr. Abloh was initially cheered as a pioneer and a symbol of progress, and held up by many as a role model. “To show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look is a fantastically modern spirit in which to start,” he said two years ago in an interview with The New York Times.
This weekend, however, as the killing of George Floyd by a white police officer spurred anguished waves of Black Lives Matter protests and riots across the United States, Mr. Abloh became for some a symbol of a different kind: disappointment. And a chunk of social media — the communications tool that he mastered and used to build his empire — especially a chunk from the subculture of Black Twitter, began to take sledgehammers to the pedestal on which he had been placed.
In response to questions about the building anger, Mr. Abloh sent a lengthy statement to The Times addressing the issue of racism and clarifying his posts and record, and then decided to rescind it. A spokesman texted that he had no comment for the moment, as “he has changed his mind in how he will respond to this whenever he does finally respond.”
Here’s what happened.
As reports of protests and looting spread across the country, Mr. Abloh started posting on Instagram Stories and chastised looters for damaging businesses to which he had a connection. He began with a familiar topic: the notion that “streetwear is dead.”
“Case & point # 81 why I said ‘streetwear’ is dead,” read one post, alongside a video of the Round Two vintage store in Los Angeles after it was broken into and looted. Another photo, depicting smashed artwork amid broken glass at the Fat Tiger workshop in Chicago, was accompanied by a caption that read: “Our own communities, our own shops … this shop was built with blood sweat and tears.”
Then came another post, this time of a busted door at the RSVP Gallery in Chicago. In a long note alongside the photo, Mr. Abloh said that 11 years ago he and the gallery owners had made a “commitment to make something our local community could see without the access we had been fortunate to access.”
“Today that same community robbed us. If that heals your pain, you can have it …” the caption read.
He also wrote a passionate comment under a post by Sean Wotherspoon, the owner of Round Two. It read:
“You see the passion, blood, sweat and tears Sean puts in for our culture. This disgusts me. To the kids that ransacked his store and RSVP DTLA, and all our stores in our scene just know, that product staring at you in your home/apartment right now is tainted and a reminder of a person I hope you aren’t. We’re a part of a culture together. Is this what you want?? When you walk past him in the future please have the dignity to not look him in the eye, hang your head in shame….”
Some people applauded Mr. Abloh’s message. But the series of posts soon triggered a fiery online debate over his contribution to the black community and wider global conversations about contemporary fashion and culture, including the commodification of the civil rights struggles of African-Americans.
Tensions were stoked further on Sunday, when Mr. Abloh posted a screen shot to show that he had made a $50 donation to a Miami art collective called Fempower to help with the legal expenses of arrested protesters.
Twitter swiftly took exception to the amount of the donation, with scores of users pointing out that most of Mr. Abloh’s products cost multiples of that number.
By Monday morning, Mr. Abloh’s name on his Wikipedia bio had been altered to reflect the anger (it has since been changed). His own signature quotation marks, which he uses as a tool to demand reconsideration of words, phrases and ideas, setting them apart with a raised eyebrow while also demanding a reckoning through decontextualization, were turned against him.
As a black American fashion designer, Mr. Abloh has always been a rarity in an industry famous for its elitism and lack of diversity, though slow signs of change have begun to appear.
Still, most fashion corporations have been relatively quiet in their public responses to the protests, despite the fact that America remains the world’s most valuable market for sales of personal luxury goods and that a growing chorus of consumers is demanding that brands stake out a moral position.
For some companies, the lack of response may stem from the sector’s own shameful history with race, recently embodied by the controversies around Gucci’s blackface balaclava and Prada’s “Little Black Sambo” figurines. Others may simply be terrified of saying something insensitive in a charged and painful moment in history.
A number of designers, including Tory Burch, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, have made statements of solidarity with protesters via personal social media accounts. “Property can be replaced, human lives cannot,” Mr. Jacobs wrote in a post, later acknowledging in response to a comment below the post that several of his stores had been damaged by looters.
Telfar Clemens, an African-American designer with a growing fan base and industry attention, simply posted a burning police van with no caption. Duckie Thot, who models for Fenty Beauty and is a vocal supporter of better representation in fashion, demanded that the industry be more vocal in its support for protesters.
But other high-profile industry figures faced a backlash when they entered the conversation. As violent scenes unfolded from New York to Los Angeles, Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue, wrote a letter on vogue.com. In it, she said Joe Biden should pick a black woman to be his running mate.
The move prompted many Twitter users to point out that the first time a black photographer had shot a cover for the American edition of the magazine had been in 2018 and at the behest of Beyoncé. (Ms. Wintour has been at the magazine since 1988.)
Criticism was also leveled at Louis Vuitton, Mr. Abloh’s employer, which appeared to go ahead with a women’s handbag introduction via influencers on Instagram as the crisis in America gained momentum.
Diet Prada, the Instagram site that acts as the self-appointed moral police of fashion, raised questions about the LV decision, asking, “Considering both the luxury brands and the influencers they work with have a global reach, do they have a duty to align their activations with world news, particularly amid such growing unrest?” (The site has not addressed Mr. Abloh’s posts.)
None of the opprobrium has reached the level now surrounding Mr. Abloh, however. “Once you’re a success, especially a unique success, and a pop culture exemplar, this comes with the territory,” said Bethann Hardison, a former model and modeling agent, and a longtime advocate for diversity in fashion. “You become a victim of it, but you are also a winner of it, and you have to wear that crown. The question is how you wear it.”