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The Thirst for Merch

On Friday morning, a cloudless sky stretched above the Brooklyn Museum. As the sun marked the arrival of a sweltering July, clusters of people lined up an hour before opening to be the first ones inside.

It was the first day that “Figures of Speech,” a multimedia retrospective of work by the designer Virgil Abloh, was open to the public. Fans were eager to get to the exhibition shop, hoping to take home a piece of fashion history. Some craved that history for themselves, while others chased the resale value.

Mr. Abloh, who shattered barriers in the luxury fashion world and beyond, was the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear and the founder of his own brand, Off-White. He died last year at 41, after a private battle with a rare heart cancer.

The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, curated by the writer and curator Antwaun Sargent, is the first posthumous showing of “Figures of Speech” — its first iteration was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago — and it celebrates milestones of Mr. Abloh’s prolific career. The show is a testament to a life that overflowed with creativity in realms across the creative spectrum, including architecture, fashion, art and music.

Hank Strong, a 41-year-old actor, and his son, Elijah Akinsanya, were among the first people in line on Friday morning. The two are big fans of Mr. Abloh’s work. “Like father, like son,” Mr. Strong said. He had assembled his outfit for the day “to pay homage to Virgil,” with an Off-White x Jordan T-shirt, Off-White x Air Jordan 1 “Chicago” sneakers and Louis Vuitton sunglasses.

Hank Strong, who visited the museum with his son, Elijah Akinsanya, said he dressed for the day “to pay homage to Virgil.”Credit…Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

“I guess you could say, we’re a little bit of a hypebeast,” Mr. Strong said, laughing. Mainly, though, they respect Mr. Abloh for his legacy as a Black designer who opened doors for other young Black designers and artists, bridging the worlds of streetwear and luxury with his many collaborations and projects. “He did a lot for Black culture,” Mr. Strong said. “To push it forward. Push forward the envelope for fashion, music, clothing, everything.”

Also, he added: “Word on the street is, you know, the green Air Force 1s may drop.”

“That’s the main thing,” Mr. Akinsanya, 19, said.

Online rumors brought a number of people to the museum, hoping to be there for a “shock drop” of lime green Off-White x Nike Air Force 1 sneakers via Nike’s sneaker app, SNKRS. Resellers lingered outside the museum, eyes glued to their phones, waiting for 11 a.m. to strike to see if they could click fast enough to claim a pair of the shoes. But when the time came, there was nothing on the app. (The museum, in social media posts and elsewhere, tried to dispel the rumors by making clear that the sneakers would not be for sale with the exhibition merchandise.)

Inside, the shop was integrated into the exhibition. Called “Church & State,” the store is a nod to the way that Mr. Abloh “made little distinction between art and commerce,” according to the show description.

The show celebrates milestones of Mr. Abloh’s prolific career.Credit…Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Kristel St. Omer, top left, and Angel Torres, bottom right, at the exhibition. “I’m definitely going to buy something,” Ms. St. Omer said. “But I want something I’m going to use again. I’m not the hypebeast crowd.”Credit…Photographs by Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

People lined up to buy merchandise, including tote bags, hats, posters, mugs, sweatshirts, postcards, stickers, key chains and shirts.Credit…Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

It turned out that, for many, the most coveted work at the show wasn’t displayed on a mannequin or perched atop a table, and it wasn’t for sale. Instead, the sought-after green sneakers were worn by museum security guards, as part of a uniform that Mr. Abloh had envisioned for the public safety team.

A security guard said that multiple people had asked him about the sneakers. At least one visitor tried to sweet-talk his way into the sneakers, even flashing a wad of cash and offering to buy them on the spot.

“He pulled out $2,000 in cash and was like, ‘I will buy them right now,’” the guard said.

The security staff members are not allowed to take their “Figures of Speech” uniforms home. Their special shirts and sneakers stay in lockers at the museum, the guard said. On the StockX resale site, pairs of the sneakers are being sold for $2,249 to $12,500.

Museum security guards wore specially-designed T-shirts and lime green Off-White x Nike Air Force 1 sneakers, as part of a uniform Mr. Abloh had envisioned for them.Credit…Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Two hours into the show, the shop had filled up. People stood with arms full of products: tote bags, hats, posters, mugs, sweatshirts, postcards, stickers, key chains and shirts. By 1:30 p.m., the line stretched across two rooms of the exhibition, snaking along the walls near the full-scale wooden house that is the show’s centerpiece. Some were disappointed that things they had wanted to buy had already sold out, but others were glad to have the chance to soak up some of Mr. Abloh’s work and legacy.

Akinyemi, a 27-year-old musical artist who lives in Brooklyn, remarked on the difference between those buying merch for themselves and those who planned to resell it: “We’re getting it for ourselves, too, you know? They get it just to make the most money on whatever platform they’re on. But this is like, ‘We like the clothes, and we want to wear them.’”

Some were there mainly to support Mr. Abloh and to see the show, curious about it from an artistic and cultural point of view. “I’m always interested in people from the diaspora that are able to be put on display and you’re able to see their art and their thought process,” Kristel St. Omer, 38, a high school teacher who lives in Brooklyn, said. “So I’m just here supporting, looking to see what I did not know, what I can learn about him.”

Visitors to the museum. Clockwise from top left, Akinyemi, Anthoni Gary, Damon McCalla and Nia Delaney.Credit…Photographs by Nathan Bajar for The New York Times

Did she plan on checking out the shop? “I’m definitely going to buy something,” she said. “But I want something I’m going to use again. I’m not the hypebeast crowd.”

Others expressed the joy of witnessing history and celebrating a designer who ushered in a new future in fashion. Damon McCalla, a mental health counselor who is also a designer and a stylist, gazed around the room as if it were a sprawling feast for the eyes.

Motioning toward a rainbow neon gradient Louis Vuitton look, Mr. McCalla, 44, said, “I think I fell in love with this.” He cherished the opportunity to buy something for his personal collection, comparing it to the way people collect antiques.

“It would mean that I have a part of history, a part of something that you can never get back,” he said. “You can have a couture shirt for years, and it never goes out of style. To own a piece of Mr. Abloh’s last work before he died would be to own a timeless artifact. It’s like a time capsule.”

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