PORTLAND, United States — “It’s potential career suicide to touch ten things that are iconic,” says Virgil Abloh, the 36-year-old founder and creative director of streetwear-inflected fashion label Off-White, on one of his biggest design gigs to date. Abloh, who rose to prominence as a creative consultant to Kanye West in the mid-aughts, has been enlisted by American sportswear giant Nike to reimagine ten models from its sneaker archive, including the classic Air Jordan 1, Air Max 90, Air Max 97, Blazer, Hyperdunk and Air Force 1. Also on the list are newer, more technical models like the AirVaporMax, Air Presto and Zoom VaporFly, as well as the iconic Chuck Taylor All-Stars, produced by Nike-owned Converse.
Since Abloh wore his edition of the Air Jordan 1s to the Met Gala in May, glimpses of what Nike hopes to be a blockbuster collaboration have appeared on the social media accounts of influencers ranging from Bella Hadid and Wiz Khalifa to Brazilian footballer Neymar and 032c editor Joerg Koch. Now, “The Ten: Icons Reconstructed by Virgil Abloh,” is only days away from its September launch with five of the ten models – the Air Jordan 1, the Nike Blazer, the Nike Air Presto, Nike Air Max 90 and Nike VaporMax – to be pre-released at NikeLab stores during the upcoming Spring/Summer 2018 fashion weeks in New York (September 9-13), London (September 18-22), Milan (September 21-25) and Paris (September 26-30). The full collection will be launch worldwide in November.
“I always like a challenge. The idea of ‘The Ten’ is Nike going into its history and asking a designer such as myself to tell a story by highlighting a design detail and innovation within [each of the] ten models,” says Abloh. “What’s interesting is the scope of the project. It’s a hallmark, a very important idea of post-modern culture, innovation and athletic performance all intertwined into one.”
With demonstrated success at attracting today’s social media savvy youth, Abloh, who trained as an architect, has collaborated with several major brands, including Levi’s and Moncler, though his relationship with Nike dates back to the mid-aughts, when he worked with Kanye West on the American rapper’s Nike Air Yeezy sneakers.
“What’s very interesting is that we look at how the shoes are put together. It’s quite common in the architectural world but no one is really looking at how you’re building shoes in the sneaker world,” says Andy Caine, vice president of footwear design at Nike, noting Abloh’s revamped Air Max 90 and Air Jordan 1 models which expose some of the internal functionality of the shoes often hidden in more traditional designs.
Other models, such as the redesigned Blazer, are more subtle. “That shoe exemplifies making a product interesting by only changing a design element by three percent. The swoosh logo of that shoe overlaps the sole without it detracting away from the iconography, which makes it more interesting and wearable,” explains Abloh.
Some of the new designs feature Off-White’s signature, Instagram-friendly use of the Helvetica typeface, employed to spelling words like “Air,” “Foam” and “Shoelace.” “It’s not design for design sake. Different shoes have different design techniques that are based around a set of ideas,” adds Abloh, who says he took inspiration from Frank Ocean and Tom Sachs, among others.
“The Ten” is more than “just another hypebeast project,” insists Abloh. “The future of streetwear is that it should no longer serve itself. This project is truly a democracy of how design explores the world. I’m interested in how the kid that’s standing outside his or her local Foot Locker or Nike Town buying Jordans and taking my ideas gets inspired and takes a marker to the shoes or attaches a red zip tie and now they’re part of the conversation.”
“At Nike, we have this ethos built around this idea of bringing in creatives and cross-pollinating when we do collabs. We’re looking for creative diversity and Virgil brings such a richness and variety in his approach, which is very powerful,” says Caine. “It’s something we wouldn’t be able to do on our own. The power of collaboration is that you get something interesting on both sides.” Abloh agrees: “The future of fashion to me is rooted in the idea that one plus one equals three.”
The collaboration comes as Nike, still the world’s top sportswear player in revenue terms, has lost some degree of “cool” in the eyes of young consumers, who have shifted attention to arch-rival Adidas, which has launched a series of highly successful collaborations with a roster of fashion designers and musicians, including Kanye West and Pharrell.
Last year, Nike collaborated with several major fashion designers, including Riccardo Tisci, Louis Vuitton men’s designer Kim Jones and Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing. “I wouldn’t say they didn’t work, I would say it’s more so the case that Nike hasn’t put as much focus and energy into the fashion collabs as Adidas,” says Jeff Carvalho, managing director and partner at influential streetwear site Highsnobiety.
But Nike’s partnership with Abloh is widely seen as a smart move. “For Nike, it’s a comeback with a more long-term plan compared to what it used to be with one-off collaborations. They now see these natural people that have the right branding for them to align themselves with,” says Yu-Ming Wu, founder of Sneaker News.
“I don’t think we’re seeing everything,” adds Carvalho. “They’re doing things very strategically to seem as if they’re not chasing the culture.”
As part of the collaboration with Abloh, Nike is set to launch Off Campus, “a destination for the advancement of sport, design and innovation” at 23 Wall Street in New York from September 6 to 8 and in London from 14 to 17 during the fashion weeks.
See all models from “The Ten: Icons Reconstructed by Virgil Abloh”