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Her Creativity Is Giving: HugsNoSlugs Founder Aleta Clark in Conversation with Virgil Abloh

Published October 26, 2020


Back in July, Virgil Abloh reached out to Aleta Clark of HugsNoSlugs to help raise money for her mutual aid initiative that provides groceries and Covid-19 supplies for underserved communities on the Southside of Chicago. Notre was fortunate enough to partner with Virgil and Aleta on a donation raffle for the Off-White x Air Jordan IVs that raised over $187,000 to help Hugs No Slugs further its mission. With these funds Aleta was able to secure and operate several additional safehouses and continue work on one that’s especially dear to her, the Tyshawn Lee Center. This center commemorates the little boy that inspired her to start doing this work in the first place. She currently operates three safe houses with three more opening soon.

The moment we’ve all found ourselves in has asked us to collectively come together and use our resources to help one another. “You have to know better to do better” — a sentiment that I recently heard Virgil articulate that speaks to a level of empathy we could all use right now. He recently founded Public Domain, a black-led creative team that works on his various Nike collaborations, and it’s this sort of intentionality that you’ll see woven throughout Virgil’s many projects. For example, his newly-launched, million dollar scholarship fund “POST-MODERN,” which will be managed in partnership with the Fashion Scholarship Fund. The goal is to offer mentorship and advocate for equity and inclusion in the fashion industry by providing scholarships for black students.

On Tuesday, October 27 starting at 10AM and running for 24 hours, we’ll be running another donation raffle for the Off-White x Air Jordan V in "Sail/Fire Red." Funds raised from this raffle will support Aleta’s initiative Club 51, started four years ago. To enter the raffle, hit our New Arrivals page, make a donation of $3, and select your size. One donation of $3 equals one entry. You may purchase multiple entries, but note that they’re non-refundable and don’t guarantee a chance to purchase sneakers. Winners will be contacted with instructions to purchase by . All donations will be given directly to HugsNoSlugs to support its ongoing work.

Through Club 51 Aleta provides a full-course meal every night for the unhoused people that she first encountered under a viaduct when bailing out her brother from a police station nearby. The mission of Club 51 is to “remind homeless people that they are loved, that they are somebody, that they are respected, that I'm not going to ignore them,” which can be seen in her desire to only refer to those she’s serving as her friends and not what society at large has deemed we refer to them as. Something that started as a spontaneous idea that now feeds 30 people a night speaks to Aleta’s passion for this sort of work. Aleta, Virgil, and I met one early evening a few weeks ago over Zoom to talk about what underserved communities really need from those wanting to lend a hand and what big plans they have in store for the friends at Club 51. (This interview has been edited and condensed. Click here to watch the full conversation via Virgil's POST-MODERN.) 

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

Adeshola Makinde
Aleta Clark
Virgil Abloh

What drove you to start Hugs No Slugs? Was there a moment or person who inspired the mutual aid initiative?

Yeah, in 2015, when my mother died. Her anniversary is actually the 15th of this month. Right after I buried her, this little kid named Tyshawn Lee was murdered. I saw so many people talking about how bad Chicago was and how horrific his death was but I didn't see enough people talking about what they were going to do to make Chicago better. I wanted to be a person that was attached to solutions, or at least hope. The last five years I've really tried to live by this idea: if this is where you have to be, let's try to make it a better place to be.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

Virgil, how did you become aware of Aleta’s work and what made you want to empower the work she’s doing?

Don C and his wife, Kristen Crawley, put my wife and me on. We're all from Chicago and I think where we're from, people just do their own thing and they get it done. And then how they talk about it lets you know what they're really doing. They're actually doing the work, they're in control of it. You don't find that every day. So, when I came across Aleta’s Instagram, I was like, this is the honesty and integrity and the actually doing the work that I want to be a part of. Not something that's just a big organization where you don't know where the money is going, you don't know if they're actually helping people. This is 100% what I would devote energy to.

Which you have. I have been in constant, genuine communication with Virgil since the very first time he reached out to me. He's being very modest right now, but because of him, I've been able to obtain five more safe houses. I've been out here for so many years and people have always done what they could, but he was the one that was just like, I'm going to stick my neck out for this girl and see what happens. I'm going to drop this bag in the hood and see what happens. People don't do that. And even if they do, they don't follow up with that person. They're not trying to be attached. But he's literally been instrumental throughout this entire process.

MY CREATIVITY IS THE WAY I CHOOSE TO LIVE.

That speaks to what I think should come from this moment: so often we look to people in higher power to help us, but we can all help each other more than we'd think.

And that's what the movement really is. The movement is really geared on showing the hood how much you can do yourself. Like, I'm not creative at all. But my creativity is the way that I choose to give. I always say that's my biggest flex. And like Virgil said earlier, we all do things our own way, and the way that I've done it for so many years has been accepted and respected. I like to put that energy out there, encouraging people to figure out who you are and be the best version of yourself that you can be. You don't have to be rich. You just have to want to do something and you have to follow through. And I'm the queen of following shit through.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

With the first raffle you were able to raise $187,000 in just two days. What were you able to do with the funds raised?

Since I've gotten this money, I've been able to find locations for the safe houses — three up and running, six total — and purchase food weekly. I have another grand opening on November 2nd. And I'm working on the two next grand openings. I train staff at each location on how to run a safe house, and then I'll pop in just to make sure that they're doing things the right way and to see if they need anything. I pay all the bills and just make sure that every week, Monday and Friday, the community knows they can go on 63rd and Ashland to get groceries, 90th and Ashland to get groceries, 82nd and S. Shore to get groceries. Right now, every week. I'm also continuing to build the Tyshawn Lee Center. I did a lot more with this one because Tyshawn is the reason that I even woke up and got active, and the fact that I have his family involved speaks volumes. Now I have the opportunity to do what I've only been able to do in Englewood all throughout the city of Chicago. Originally my goal was to obtain 10 safe houses before the end of the year, but I told Virgil that I want to stop at six, continue to learn about how to fundraise, continue to follow him in the way that he chooses to fundraise on our behalf, and maintain each individual space. But as of right now, everything is going great.

To me it's all about combining resources. How can I contribute in a way that's meaningful and long lasting? Especially with how grassroots it was set up. The scope of thinking is not just injecting money, as much as that’s important, because I didn't have money even to start. I just had networks and relationships. So, along with fundraising, my legal team, my assistant, my accountant all bring our heads together to make it sustainable. Because it's few and far that you find someone who's figured it out from Aleta’s end forward—building the community, what people actually need on the ground. It’s an active process, but we're just about to go into fundraiser number two, which we're planning with the help of Notre and the team to be as impactful as the first one was, and hopefully more so.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

What are your plans for the funds raised with this next raffle?

Club 51 is an initiative I started four years ago. I want to remind homeless people that they are loved, that they are somebody, that they are respected, that I'm not going to ignore them. All throughout the day they eat last, so when I’m there with them, they eat first. I don't serve them leftovers. When I want them to have something I raise money or just use my money to go to the store. I buy them all new things because I want them to remember what it felt like to snatch a tag off. When I feed them, I want them to know that this food was cooked especially for y'all. And so I did the numbers and it cost me like $25,000. And I know it sounds so crazy because prior to Virgil, I had never seen $25,000. But then I realized I feed 30 people a night. And when you add up the plates, the water, a full course meal and dessert, that all came out to $130 a night. So when people ask me how can they help, I'll say sponsor a night for $130. Sometimes people will cook the meal, bring it out. Some people will just send the money, then I go buy the food. And I've been doing that for the last four years. I call it Club 51 and people enjoy it. The friends look forward to it. My ultimate goal with them is to have a shelter. And I'm going to call this shelter the Viaduct, because that's where I really became who I am. I was under that Viaduct when I learned about humility and how to really treat people. And I know how it feels to be homeless, but I was too ashamed to ask for help. Even just being under the Viaduct with the friends, I’ve reconnected a lot of them with their families. I've buried some, I've rehabilitated some. Some of them work for me at my cleaning business. And I'm even fortunate to have that because I have the power to hire people who just need a second chance, who just need a little push. I might not be able to give them work every single day, but when they come to work, they know they’ll work hard and it's going to be good money. And it's just something to look forward to. So, I'm just grateful to be in that position where I can help. I told the friends, no matter where God takes me in life, I’ll never forget about them. I'm always going to come back under this Viaduct and be with them for the entire winter, until God puts us in a shelter.

You don't have to be rich. You just have to want to do something and you have to follow through. And I'm the queen of following shit through.

Virgil, I recently saw you say “You have to know better to do better”. What does that mean to you?

It's exactly that. I'm at a point where I've seen a lot. Something about the modern world with the internet and social media—everyone’s posting to project this finished version of themselves. You're constantly living half-digital, half-real. Let's not lose sight of the fact that you have to grow. You have to be a human. You should never feel like you're complete. And if you feel like you're doing the most, or you feel like you're making the world a better place, think about how much more there is to do. People can look at me at Louis Vuitton or Off-White and be like, "Oh, he’s got it.” But I'm just born that way where I feel like I'm 17 all the time. And that means that I still want to achieve and I want to make a dent. So, as I get older, I'm less into the tangible materialistic thing. I'm more into doing better. Learning. How can whatever I have help somebody else? That should be my new challenge. The goal was to make it, right? But no one tells you what to do afterwards. And this has more value for my mental state than doing a collection in Paris, which I thought was the goal in life. They told me I couldn't do that, and I didn't look like a designer. I didn't go to school the same way that they did. Now I look at them and I'm like, “What do you guys do?”

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

What do you want people to understand when wanting to advocate for communities that are so often forgotten about?

I don't want them to be forgotten. I want people to selflessly step outside of themselves and make that a challenge. Do something for someone else that can’t do nothing but say thank you. I feel like if that was the challenge around the world, the world would be a better place. You don't even know how the smallest thing can impact somebody. The smallest thing could save someone's life. The smallest voice could be so loud. So, I just want people to care more.

When I post Club 51 or I post the safe house, the majority of the comments are, “You are so inspirational,” “I want to be like you one day.” Being a girl from the hood, still grinding and still trying, that shit right there is what builds it for me. I want to invite people to that feeling. And the only way to invite them to that is to encourage them to get out of here like I am. Really get out. You decide what that looks like for you.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

Virgil, what has your time in fashion and design taught you about community involvement?

I brought Don C on to design the NBA collection at Louis Vuitton. We came up together, he’s always been about basketball. The NBA asked me to do a collection and I was like, I'm not doing it without bringing Don, who is my mentor friend. You have Don C and myself who used to just go to the store on Michigan Avenue and tell the salespeople, “Yo, you guys should have done this in black python." And now, 10 years later, we're telling them, "Do the hat like this with the snakeskin on it.” When I go to work, I'm trying to break down those barriers and showcase that we can do it, too. We can do it in a gracious way. We can be thankful. We can uncrack the relativity of fashion. It makes me emotional, too. In Chicago, a kid will get shot for a Louis belt. That's it, the belt itself. And I'm from that city. And now I design them. I'm trying to preach that they could be designers, too. This project with Aleta, with the Jordan element, we raffled off a pair of Jordans that people would literally be killed for in our city, but we turned that thing into a positive that's making people smile. We took that one thing and we're changing the narrative.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

And that one shoe helps thousands of people a week. Now that my eyes are open to Virgil, I feel like a part of his life to a certain extent. When I watched his fashion show, it was like, this is my friend that put this together. I'm friends with the guy that did this. He's black, just so you all know. Now I get to look into his window and see how creative he is. Like seeing him on a skateboard. I'm just like, now want to buy kids on my hood skateboards, to see if they ever thought about it. I think that relationship is a growing tool for both of us, because prior to this relationship, I didn't know anything about a business plan. I'm now spending more time learning about it. Virgil and his team are helping me create one so that I can have that to be a better helper. People can't always have these 45 minute conversations. Sometimes people just need to be able to read about you, decide whether or not they can help you. I don't know nothing about none of this shit, all I know is, follow your spirit. God said help that person, help that person. You can't do it? Figure it out anyway. I never knew the right way to do stuff, and now I'm learning—I won't even say the right way—but the more corporate way of doing things, but still maintaining my originality, if that makes sense.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

There's this artist that I admire that’s like the Michael Jordan of the art world. He's a friend of mine called Arthur Jafa. I talked to him this week, and he told me this great thing that I want to pass on to everyone else—Aleta, you'll love this. He was like, "Everyone that's black is born a conceptual artist." And he said that because we were born in these circumstances that aren't built for us.

That is so true.

Aleta has her own method to operating an organization. That's an art piece to me. You wouldn’t be like, “I love Andy Warhol, but I wish he didn't use a screen print.” So, when I came to her project, it was like, I'm only going to give you information and then you can decide, because your route might be better than someone that makes it all corporate tomorrow. That's how I made it in fashion.

Can I show you all my first piece of artwork in my house?

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark

Yeah, let's see it. Wow.

This is a picture of me last year, under the Viaduct for seven days. Someone took the picture and printed it out for my birthday. I never put up pictures. My first time putting up pictures was when I moved in here. I never did none of that stuff because I just never felt like nowhere I ever lived was really home. And I was like, when I finally move out the hood, the first piece of artwork I want in my house is me sleeping under the Viaduct with the friends, because that's where I felt I really became who I am, under there learning and being patient. So, when you first go to my house, that's the first thing you see.

Full circle.

Notre Interviews Virgil Abloh and Aleta Clark