Issa Rae Receives the First-Ever Virgil Abloh Award

·3 min read
Photo credit: BFA - BFA
Photo credit: BFA - BFA

Last night, the first runway of New York Fashion Week appeared in front of Ulysses S. Grant’s final resting place, a domed mausoleum illuminated with pink lights on West 122th street in Morningside Heights. Despite an epic New York downpour, a hundred-something guests came out to attend Harlem Fashion Row’s 15th Anniversary Style and Awards Show, held in partnership with LVMH.

A reminder was sent out hours before the event asking attendees to to carry an umbrella and dress in collections by designers of color. Alongside the white runway, Telfar bags could be spotted on every other seat. Guests jumped over puddles in Brother Vellies clogs and Pyer Moss Reebok sneakers. Luckily, the torrent stopped just in time for the award show to kick off with stylist Ade Samuel—a Bronx native who started her career at Teen Vogue and now works with Yara Shahidi and Kelly Rowland—winning Stylist of the Year.

Next up, Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large at The Washington Post, was awarded Editor of the Year. In her acceptance speech, she urged the aspiring fashion writers in the audience, “Do not be a fashion journalist—there’s no need to qualify it. Simply be a journalist. Give the industry that respect because it deserves it.”

Minutes later, an unexpected guest took the stage. Shannon Abloh, the late Virgil Abloh’s wife, arrived to award actress Issa Rae the first ever Virgil Abloh Award presented by LVMH. Issa Rae told the audience she didn't get the chance to know the designer very well while he was here, but that she was always an admirer from afar. “When I think of him, I think of pure ingenuity, I think about bold breaking of barriers, a path-defining confidence, and I most appreciate him as a high-fashion doorman because of all the doors that he opened for others.”

Photo credit:  Deonté Lee/BFA.com
Photo credit: Deonté Lee/BFA.com

She mimicked the movement of a revolving door with her hands, laughing, before continuing, “It was intentionally, and through his visibility—because he existed, because he believed in himself, because he looked after so many others who looked like him, like us.” Before she could get to the rest of her speech, she was cut off by a roar of applause and foot-stomping enthusiastic enough to splash the rainwater right back on the runway— although no one seemed to mind by that point.

Rae said she was overjoyed to be the inaugural winner of the award, adding “I love to be the first, but I vow as long as I’m working to not be the last.” Before walking off the stage, she gave a shout out to designer Sergio Hudson, who made one of her “favorite Emmy dresses ever,” a bright orange cutout dress she wore on the red carpet in 2020.

Hudson was presented Designer of the Year shortly after. He spoke of his desire to be acknowledged foremost for his work, not his background: “We are not a monolithic people. We don’t just do one thing, we do everything. We are human beings, we’re not just Black. I don’t run away from being a Black man. I’m a Black man who happens to be a designer. I’m a designer who just happens to be Black man.”

Photo credit:  Deonté Lee/BFA.com
Photo credit: Deonté Lee/BFA.com

The awards were followed by collections from three presenting designers, Clarence Ruth, Johnathan Hayden, and Nicole Benefiel, all of whom have been entered into a mentorship program through Louis Vuitton Americas. To end the night, Janet Jackson was awarded Icon of the year at the afterparty at the Jazz at Lincoln Center.

It was still raining on and off when the evening concluded, but when they look back on the evening, guests most likely won't even remember the damp. And they'll probably never see a doorman again without thinking of the doors Virgil Abloh opened.

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