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Virgil Abloh: ‘I Am Not a Designer’

The Off-White founder and Wizard of Oz fan isn’t just making clothes. He’s blazing his own Yellow Brick Road from nowheresville to the Emerald City of Paris and reprogramming Louis Vuitton in the process.
Virgil Abloh, the founder of streetwear label Off-White and the new artistic director for Louis Vuitton Menswear.
Virgil Abloh, the founder of streetwear label Off-White and the new artistic director for Louis Vuitton Menswear. (Karim Sadli)

PARIS Virgil Abloh is not a designer, and he’s OK with that. “I would sort of agree I’m not a designer; that term seems like it’s for traditionalists,” he says. “TBD the new title.”

His official job title is men's artistic director of Louis Vuitton. But it's clear from the first few minutes of our conversation that the polymathic Ghanaian-American who founded haute streetwear sensation Off-White after training as a civil engineer and architect, and working as Kanye West's creative director, is out to fundamentally redefine what that means.

His debut fashion show for Louis Vuitton, held in June in the gardens of the Palais Royale, took the perception of exclusivity on which the French luxury brand trades and flipped it. “We Are the World,” the title of the show and a reference to the 1985 charity single written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in support of Ethiopian famine relief, reinterpreted Louis Vuitton’s heritage in making lightweight luggage for travel as a call for globalism and inclusivity.

A multi-racial cast from all six inhabited continents — including the black musicians Playboi Carti, Steve Lacy, A$AP Nast, Dev Hynes and Kid Cudi — walked down a rainbow runway. Some wore the results of what Abloh calls “Accessomorphosis,” or the transformation of accessories into garments. Others were clad in jeans and sweaters etched and intarsia-ed with imagery from the 1939 musical film “The Wizard of Oz,” a reference to the American Dream and Abloh’s own journey along a Yellow Brick Road from Rockford, Illinois, where he was born to two Ghanaian immigrants, to his new perch in the Emerald City of Paris.

It was a highly personal milestone. “The message is that diversity is key to the modern way of thinking and living, and not as a marketing line,” says Abloh. “It’s me and my skin colour and my refusal to believe that it wasn’t possible to be in this position.”

“It’s like looking at Mount Everest thinking you’re going to climb it,” he recalls. “You may prepare, you’re trained. But when you look up, there’s still a daunting reality. Even the most experienced climber winces. That’s where the emotion was coming from. That moment took 14 years of work. It was like, wow, this actually happened.”

“It was like a judging moment,” he adds. “You get appointed to a house and the first collection is almost like the World Cup. Like, the ball has to go in the net in order for you to win.”

There were plenty of naysayers. For years, critics have noted his lack of fashion schooling and called his work derivative. After the Louis Vuitton show, some cast Abloh himself as the Wizard of Oz, who at the end of the film is exposed to be a fraud hiding behind a curtain.

The cynics may be missing the point. Abloh, who is 37, says he has “fully downloaded” the critique, but comes from a different school of thought. “I would say touché, that’s a good one. It’s not something that I haven’t thought about. I’ve decided to operate left of that.”

Virgil Abloh.

His approach is born of hip-hop and the omnesiac culture of the internet, where the past is impossible to forget; always just a few clicks away and open to constant referencing.

“It’s called hip-hop, it’s called sampling. You take a record and you make this new format of music from these adjacencies,” he explains. “We don’t exist devoid of the artists and thinkers that came before us: Mies van der Rohe, Rem Koolhaas, Kanye West, Pharell, Caravaggio. They give us soil,” he continues. “It’s dangerous when you start naming yourself as the oracle.”

If there’s seeming incongruity in Abloh’s name-dropping of starchitects and Italian painters alongside rappers like West, that’s partly the point. His interests in Van der Rohe and Koolhaas are a product of his education. Van der Rohe, in particular, is a towering figure for Abloh. After the rise of Nazi Germany, the director of the seminal Bauhaus school fled to the United States, becoming head of the architectural college at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he was commissioned to design a master plan for the campus, complete with new buildings, including Alumni Hall, the Chapel and his masterpiece S.R. Crown Hall, where Abloh studied. Koolhaas, too, designed a building at the Illinois Institute of Technology. As for Caravaggio, his work was another early revelation for Abloh, who discovered the Italian master and catalyst of the transition from Renaissance to Baroque when he went off-piste and enrolled in a class on art while studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

On October 26, 2017, the same day that he confirmed the Louis Vuitton deal with Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of parent company LVMH, Abloh was set to give a lecture at Harvard University. "I got the deal in the morning with Mr Arnault and had no time to prepare." He tried to cancel but went ahead with what he called a "stream of consciousness" presentation put together on the plane detailing his personal design language.

One of the most important elements of this language is “readymade,” a term coined in 1915 by Marcel Duchamp, the French-American artist best known for taking found objects (most famously, a standard-issue urinal) and re-contextualising them as art, which Abloh interprets as a way to birth new ideas with recognisable parts.

Another is what he calls the “3 percent approach,” the notion that you only need to edit something three percent to make it seem at once familiar and completely new, a winning proposition for Abloh. “You notice a lot in my work the referencing or taking a thought and adding a component,” he explains. “Duchamp is my favourite. Duchamp is my lawyer.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates this approach better than his blockbuster collaboration with Nike. Last year, the American sportswear giant enlisted him to reimagine ten models from its sneaker archive, including the classic Air Jordan 1s, Air Max 90s and Air Force 1s, which Abloh deconstructed and reconstructed, splicing them with signature design elements like his use of typography in quotes and producing a set of shoes with an unmistakable architectural edge.

The message is that diversity is key to the modern way of thinking and living, and not as a marketing line.

“Virgil is an innovator and definitely a remixer and editor,” says Fraser Cooke, streetwear guru and Nike’s senior director of influencer marketing and product collaborations, describing Abloh’s core skill. “It’s no coincidence that he’s a DJ, too, and has an innate ability to filter what already exists and put it back together again in his own unique manner.”

Abloh’s experience in the fashion industry stretches back to 2009, when he interned at Roman fur and leather brand Fendi alongside fellow Chicagoan Kanye West, who he first met soon after graduating from university. In 2010, West named Abloh creative director at Donda, West’s creative agency. “We are from the same city. It is not a fashion capital. It’s not a cosmopolitan place. So, when one person comes from there, the degree of separation is very small,” Abloh explains. “Kanye had a big dream, he was also looking at Mount Everest — three Mount Everests stacked on top of each other.”

“I owe a lot to him,” adds Abloh. “We crafted a way of working, a way of thinking, a way of dedication and tirelessly being focused on trying to do cultural work. It was great, all the peripheral work that we were doing between music, art and fashion. We challenged the notion that commercial art and fine art were separate; there are countless instances where we pushed these boundaries. We made — and we continue to make. We’re still friends and collaborators.”

"It's never been researched or written about: the amount of time behind the scenes we both spent in this process of creating, not only our music, but specifically clothing," emphasises Abloh. "We have an amazing wealth of personal experiences." After Fendi, the two met with Louise Wilson, then the director of the fashion MA programme at London's Central Saint Martins, the world's most famous fashion school. "We met with her specifically to join the MA programme," recalls Abloh. "She looked at us and laughed and told us we were ridiculous and idiots. She said, like, 'You two have surpassed the programme I'm teaching. I wouldn't let you go to school here. You're dumb. Go into the world and do what you're compelled to do.'"

West and Abloh also worked with the likes of artists Takashi Murakami and George Condo, and photographer Nick Knight. But Abloh was impacted most by their work with Riccardo Tisci, who was then the creative director of Givenchy. "It was the first time I saw high fashion that related to me. It was hip-hop, the silhouette and graphics, the spirit. He was doing couture dresses and Air Force 1s. It was blowing my mind and I was like, 'I'm American, I come from skateboarding, I come from hip-hop; I'm going to make streetwear but in the context of fashion."

Abloh's first brand was called Pyrex Vision. Launched in New York in 2012, it was inspired by a new way of dressing embraced by rappers like A$AP Rocky, who had taken to mixing his Rick Owens with streetwear brands like Palace. The line consisted of simple T-shirts, hoodies, basketball shorts and flannel shirts, plastered with Renaissance artwork and collegiate lettering, and was picked up by Sarah Andelman, founder and creative director of the influential and now defunct Paris concept store Colette.

Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show.

A signature T-shirt, styled like an athlete’s jersey, read: “Pyrex 23.” It was a poem. Pyrex was a reference to the glass used in crack pipes; 23, Michael Jordan’s number, stood for basketball: the two ways out of the ghetto. Abloh closed the label the following year. But the venture underscored a theme that appeared years later at his Harvard lecture: “societal commentary.”

Abloh was discouraged by the failure of downtown streetwear labels like Nom de Guerre. “I stopped Pyrex,” he says, “because I had sat through an era of New York streetwear brands opening and closing because they didn’t know how to manage growth — you get tripped up really fast. I was like, ‘I’ve seen this movie before. I’m not trying to get in over my head.’”

When Abloh founded Off-White, the move that really put him on the map, he aimed to do something differentiated from simple streetwear and, ultimately, did so with a sophisticated partner: New Guards Group, the Milanese production and distribution company — founded by Marcelo Burlon, Claudio Antonioli and Davide de Giglio — that now controls Off-White, Palm Angels, Heron Preston, Unravel Project and Marcelo Burlon County of Milan.

The key for Abloh was the union of American streetwear and Italian manufacturing. "I thought, if I can take that sensibility but make it in Italy with the quality, fit, fabric," he recalls. "It's the DNA for why Off-White can sit at Barneys but also relate to a screaming Travis Scott fan." There was only one catch: New Guards wanted control of the company. Abloh was unsure.

“I was in a club DJ-ing and Marcelo Burlon came up to me,” he recalls. “It was like, ‘Hey, we see you have something successful, we’re going to come take 50 percent or whatever.’ I was very dismissive. But Marcelo said: ‘Just come check out my showroom.’ When I went, he had branded hangers and it clicked for me. I was like, ‘I want to meet these guys from New Guards Group.’”

“I met Virgil when he had just launched Pyrex Vision, dedicated to friends and family and sold in just two stores in the world,” recalls New Guards Group’s De Giglio. “Through Kanye we had the opportunity to meet and, during a trip to New York, I asked him if he was interested in creating a new project with us. And Off-White was born.”

When Abloh develops the concepts that inform his work for both Off-White and Louis Vuitton, his primary tool is a “fully charged iPhone,” he says. “I’m making stuff in dialogue,” he explains, calling his creative process “legit conversational.” His passport is equally essential to his toolkit.

Abloh travels constantly and has come to see himself as a citizen of the world. His wife Shannon and their two children, Lowe and Grey, recently relocated to Paris to start a new chapter of life in the Emerald City where he now spends more time, but when we spoke at the tail end of July, he was looking forward to heading “home” to Chicago for some summer relaxation.

They know I’m speaking to them, the kids that magazines call streetwear aficionados, the ones in line at Supreme.

Abloh, it seems, is eternally out of office but never not working, hopscotching around the planet from meeting to meeting, DJ gig to DJ gig, everywhere and nowhere. “I surround myself with engaging people that have independent thoughts. They challenge me; we have respectful dialogue about this artist or this T-shirt graphic. When I travel, I start synthesising.”

“I’m making this loop,” he continues. “I do the conversation. Sit here, have brunch in Spain, New York City, Beverly Hills Hotel in LA, the Chiltern, and I find that everyone’s ordering kale, I know that kale is relevant now and I also know if I’m going to open a juice spot, I am going to open a green juice spot. Then maybe matcha is going to be popular, then it’s not.”

Abloh can be hard to decipher. He makes up words and speaks in circles, employing a stream of consciousness style that can sometimes obscure as much as elucidate his ideas. It’s almost as if he has authored his own language, his own vocabulary, if only to prove that more commonly used words and phrases are equally invented. It can take time and processing power to decode his flow. But below the torrent of signifiers, there is often a precise and prescient point.

Virgil Abloh.

While fashion purists may cringe, Off-White is an undeniable success. The label now operates standalone boutiques from Mykonos to Melbourne, and has attracted over 220 stockists, including Selfridges, Barneys New York, IT Group, Matches Fashion and Net-a-Porter. A representative of the company declined to reveal revenue figures.

Yet the most telling metric may be the size of the label’s social media following. Off-White has amassed 4.4 million followers on Instagram, while Abloh himself has attracted 2.8 million on his personal account. “Virgil is extremely fluent in the current language of online and social media communications to spread messages and share information directly with his audience,” says Nike’s Cooke. “The youth truly feel connected to him. He’s managed to break down the walls between the elite designer and the kids.”

Top fashion designers often live rarefied lives far removed from their customers. Abloh is different. His fans mob him at events but he takes pleasure in communing with his tribe. “They know I’m speaking to them, the kids that magazines call streetwear aficionados, the ones in line at Supreme.” Asked what gives streetwear labels their power, he says it’s obvious: “Because you have a dialogue with the people that consume it. Simple as that. We speak the same language.”

In this way, Abloh isn’t designing clothes as much as he’s designing a community.

His fans don’t flock to his drops just to purchase product. They come to hang out. It’s more about belonging than buying. “Off-White is the first fashion brand that the tribe doesn’t have to wear. It’s a way of thinking. It’s between black and white. It’s individualism,” he explains. “In the ’90s, I didn’t subscribe to fashion as much as I subscribed to skateboarding,” he continues. “You were hanging out with your friends on a corner. That’s what skateboarding is. You skate, you sit on the bench, you sit on the curb, you watch someone else skate. So, fundamentally, it’s like hanging out. It’s a sport, but it’s the hang-out factor.”

At Harvard, he offered the audience “cheat codes” — advice he wishes he had received as a student — then unveiled a series of “shortcuts” to developing a personal design language like his own. Along the way he spoke about addressing both “the tourist and the purist,” the kid from Chicago as well as the fashion insider. The last slide of the lecture was coloured red and spelled in yellow type: “Insert Yourself Here.” If Abloh’s journey from Rockford to Louis Vuitton was unlikely, he’s blazing a path — a Yellow Brick Road — that his community can follow.

“You can do it too” read the caption under Abloh’s first Instagram after his Louis Vuitton debut. He says he’s leaving “trails of information” on social media that provide a “manual” for building a streetwear brand. He turns to science for a metaphor. “Like, a scientist just figured out DNA. Now, here’s the open textbook for all scientists. You can stand on this and develop everything else. That’s how I’ve always thought about my own work. It’s like the open-source community.”

That’s how I’ve always thought about my own work. It’s like the open-source community.

It’s a philosophy that’s reflected in the assemblage of his own team. “My core team are all hired off the street or Instagram,” he says. “Like the four people that are directly employed by me, I met from DM. My assistant is from a friend of a friend, my longest employee here right now.”

Since 2014, Abloh has mentored Samuel Ross, whose luxury streetwear label A-Cold-Wall takes cues from the style tribes of the British class system and, earlier this year, attracted investment from Tomorrow London Holdings. "The integral information that Virgil passed on came through doing: living through the creative processes and bouts of designing, funding, pitching, installation, reviewing, across a fledgling fashion brand," explains Ross.

Abloh had plenty of advantages in life. He benefitted from education and help from powerful associates like Kanye West and New Guards Group. But if “Pyrex 23” was a reference to selling drugs and playing basketball, he seems intent on building a third way out of the ghetto.

"The kids who are into gun violence, shooting and killing, what's one thing they love? They love rap music and they love Off-White, Gucci, Louis Vuitton. They love brands. If one of those kids knew that they could start with a screen printer — because, you know, I started with screen printing, too — they could make a name and a logo and start selling it."

What in the days of Pyrex Vision was societal commentary seems to be turning into social action. “My new thing is I want to modernise philanthropy,” says Abloh. “I don’t like the word charity, but I want to make it cool the same way we make Nikes cool.”

Abloh believes we’re living through a new renaissance where everyone is free to be whoever they want to be on the internet. “You choose an avatar and a name, and you have a new identity and you’re global now, you can travel; you cannot be judged by your physical attributes, but by the images you accumulate, tapping into the real self.” Otherwise put, you can be free from social constructs: like where you come from, like class, like race — like fashion? “The future of fashion isn’t going to be fashion,” says Abloh. “Clothes are on their last leg of being important.”

Skin colour doesn’t actually mean anything apart from the significance society gives it, Abloh reasons. This was a key message of his Louis Vuitton debut. “A colour doesn’t have an opinion,” he explains. “Humans put this on colours, you know black or white. We’ve just assigned stuff to stuff.” Same with money. “You put value on money.” Same with luxury goods. “If everyone believes in owning a Rolex and a Mercedes, then those things cost more, so they’re luxury.”

“There is a great Bob Marley quote about being rich, have you heard it?” Abloh asks at one point in the conversation, pulling out his phone and opening YouTube to drive his message home. In the clip, an interviewer asks the reggae legend how much money he has accumulated. “Are you a rich man?” he asks. “Rich, what do you mean?” inquires Marley. “Do you have a lot of possessions, a lot of money in the bank?” clarifies the interviewer. “Possessions make you rich?” puzzles Marley. “I don’t have that type of richness. My richness is life.”

“It is powerful,” says Abloh. “It was a simple question, but his brain was like, I’m not subscribing.” Of course, the power of exposing social constructs — from race to riches to Louis Vuitton — is also the promise of reprogramming them with the values of a new generation. This is Abloh’s game, and his genius. “The future of luxury? It’s going to be a whole different construct,” he says. “My value is delivering the message of my time.”

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Further Reading

The Off-White designer has reconstructed 10 iconic Nike models, including the Air Jordan 1, Hyperdunk and AirVaporMax in what some see as a promising ‘comeback’ play for the sportswear giant.

Having gained prominence as a creative consultant to Kanye West, Off-White founder Virgil Abloh is proving his three-year-old brand has the business chops to back up the buzz.

The Off-White founder has become one the buzziest designers in fashion who has made no secret of his end goal: to take the creative reins at a European luxury house.

About the author
Vikram Alexei Kansara
Vikram Alexei Kansara

Vikram Alexei Kansara is Editorial Director at The Business of Fashion. He is based in London and oversees BoF’s luxury, fashion week, sustainability, global markets and opinion verticals.

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