For Louis Vuitton's fall/winter men's 2021 collection, creative director Virgil Abloh gives us a 15-minute masterpiece featuring poet Saul Williams, Kai-Isaiah Jamal and Yasiin Bey, the artist formerly known as Mos Def.
"Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light" is the title of the fashion show's livestream, which screened on YouTube two weeks ago. It sets up the launch of Abloh's E B O N I C S collection, referencing the language of American Black English.
The film owes much to James Baldwin's 1953 essay "Stranger in the Village," which compares his experience as an African-American man living in a remote Swiss village to his life as a Black American citizen.
We open on Williams trudging through a snowy Swiss landscape, a dark and somber figure with a silver suitcase chained to his wrist. (It's so Snatch by Guy Ritchie—a delightful reference.) We cut to men gliding over ice, then Williams enters a room that feels like an urban landscape. A couple linger over a park bench, a man walks by with a newspaper under his arm; another is slumped against the marble, as if sleeping off a rough night. People wander as if they have somewhere to go, as if the room itself is a universe.
Indeed, it is. The room is a city, but enclosed, its denizens walking purposefully, but around and around the same space. Just as the room is only a representation of reality, the people, too, are more archetypal than real.
"As children, our dreams and aspirations are personified by archetypes: the artist, the salesman, the architect, the drifter … the unconscious biases instilled in our collective psyche by the archaic norms of society," read the show notes, which began, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
Back in the room: "Make it up to me," Williams' voice intones.
"Make it up to me," Williams repeats. As he passes the great wall of marble, he follows that statement with an incantation, citing ancient gods, orishas, artists, authors, civil rights icons, queens, symbolic figures, and cities aggressed:
"In the name of Robeson, God's, Hurston, Akhenaton, Hatshepsut, Blackfoot, Helen, Lennon, Kahlo, Kali, The Three Marias, Tara, Lilith, Lorde, Whitman, Baldwin, Ginsberg, Kaufman, Lumumba, Gandhi, Gibran, Shabazz, Siddhartha, Medusa, Guevara, Gurdjieff, Rand, Wright, Banneker, Tubman, Hamer, Holiday, Davis, Coltrane, Morrison, Joplin, Dubois, Clarke, Shakespeare, Rachmaninov, Ellington, Carter, Gaye, Hathaway, Hendrix, Kuti, Dickerson, Riperton, Mary, Isis, Teresa, Hansberry, Tesla, Plath, Rumi, Fellini, Michaux, Nostradamus, Nefertiti, La Rock, Shiva, Ganesha, Yemaja, Oshun, Obatala, Ogun, Kennedy, King, Four Little Girls, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Keller, Biko, Peron, Marley, Magdalene, Cosby, Shakur—those who burned, those still aflame, and the countless unnamed."
The words, drawn from Williams' "Coded Language," recall a phrase oft-repeated in recent years, Tish Thawer's "We are the granddaughters of the witches you weren't able to burn." Historically, churches and governments used "witch" to label social undesirables to justify ritual murder, often by hanging or burning.
Here the spirit of the words are reappropriated to align with the injustices lobbied against what we culturally understand as Blackness. But this great tide lifts many ships. In addition to referencing women's empowerment work like Thawer's, Jamal—now the first Black trans model to walk for Vuitton, intones—"I think as Black people, as trans people, as marginalized people, the world is here for our taking. For it takes so much from us."
The images, too, are symbolic, green armbands bringing to mind the inverted green triangle Nazis used to label convicts and criminals.
The work feels as hypnotic as a spell, a rallying call that speaks not to flesh but to the spirit. There's a strange air in this stone-wrought Eden, composed not of that mythical garden's illusory peace but of cool anticipation. A man lifts a flute to his mouth, and another begins to dance languidly through snow, then reappears back in the green room. Movement begins.
Yasiin Bey closes it with a contribution drawn partly from his song "Casa Bey": "You can't stop my go / born to be where I am / bright light from a distant star / miracles don't stop." Bey previously appeared for Vuitton in its "Core Values" campaign, reciting quotes from Mohammad Ali.
"Is a businessman always white, a basketball player always Black? Are they always heterosexual?" Abloh, who is Ghanaian-American, was quoted as saying about this particular collection, which features, among other things, Kente textiles hand-composed of silk and cotton, but rendered in the Scottish tartan style. "Does this make the Kente less Ghanaian or tartan less Scottish? Provenance is reality; ownership is a myth."
"Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light" was shot in the Swiss mountains and at the Tennis Club in Paris. It was directed by Wu Tsang and choreographed by Josh Johnson. It aired on YouTube during virtual Paris Fashion Week.
Since the Black Lives Matter uprisings, we've seen gorgeous work in fashion that pays just tribute to Black culture. With the excitement that's followed the U.S. presidential inauguration, we're likely to see even more. Late last year, Coach worked with Jean-Michel Basquiat's estate to bring the artist's works onto bags and other accessories. And we'd of course be remiss if we didn't recall Burberry's spectacular holiday spot, "Singin' in the Rain," performed by Dreya Mac and featuring Chantel Foo, Kevin Bago, Robinson Cassarino and Zhané Samuels.
It's also easy to compare "Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light" to Christian Dior's "Myth of Dior." This last, released for Dior's Autumn-Winter 2020-21 collection, was also a long work for virtual Paris Fashion Week. But despite its beauty and many rich references, it was, in contrast, a disconcertingly unsubtle tribute to whiteness.
On his personal Instagram, and to introduce the film to his audience, Abloh wrote, "Usually i have run-on-sentences for days but today i don't. my whole being has been poured out into this film here. the only thing important to me right now is that the names in the credits and every member of my @louisvuitton team feels their genius. it's not just fashion or films we make, it's space for new stories and artworks to be placed."
Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light
A Film By Virgil Abloh And 'moved By The Motion'
Starring yasiin bey, Saul Williams and Kai Isaiah Jamal
Film Directed by Wu Tsang
Show Creative Director And Performance Choreography by Josh Johnson
Story Adapted by Sophia Al Maria
Movement Direction by Tosh Basco
Dramaturgy And Scenography by Kandis Williams
Original Film Score by Asma Maroof
Musical Direction and Production by Asma Maroof And Benji B
LV Men's Music and Sound Direction by Benji B
Styling By Ibrahim Kamara
Set Design Playlab
Graphic Design Marco Fasolini
Art Direction and Research Leads Mahfuz Sultan And Chloe Sultan
Artist Managed By Nadja Rangel Qani At Outofocus Management
Visual Direction Lina Kutsovskaya and BeGood
Harp Ahya Simone
Saxophone & Flute Tapiwa Svosve
Cello & Piano: Patrick Belaga
Drums Mathieu Edward
Additional Music Production by Daniel Pineda
Additional Poetry by Kai Isaiah Jamal
Pyramide du Louvre © Arch.I.M.Pei