Referring to Virgil Abloh as a designer feels extraordinarily inadequate. Even ‘creative director’ doesn’t do justice to either the breadth of his career or his work ethic; the 38-year-old is one of those people who makes you feel woefully under-productive. As well as being the founder and head of high-fashion-meets-streetwear label Off-White and the freshly minted artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, he is a prolific collaborator, partnering up with everyone from Byredo and Jimmy Choo to Ikea and Nike, and regularly DJs. So diverse is his oeuvre that next month Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art will host a retrospective exhibition of his work. Technically he’s based in Chicago, where he grew up and where his wife Shannon and two children (daughter Lowe, four, and son Grey, one) live full time, but he travels around 320 days of the year, phone permanently in hand.
“I don’t notice it,” he says when our interview finally happens late on a Friday night after months of trying to navigate his jigsaw puzzle of a schedule. “It’s a by-product of wanting to do the things I want to do. There’s always a commitment. It’s hard to do them via satellite, so if I want work for Louis Vuitton, I have to be in Paris; [if] I want [to] work on Off-White, I have to be in Milan. I think most people assume that there’s not enough time to do the things that they love and I find a lot of times people are like, ‘How do you do that?’ There’s a lot of time in a day, a lot of time in a year.”
Doing the unexpected comes naturally to Abloh. His route to the top of the luxury fashion industry has been far from conventional: the son of Ghanaian immigrants, he studied engineering and architecture before embarking on a game-changing stint as the creative director of Donda, the creative agency of long-time friend and collaborator Kanye West. His background is steeped in men’s fashion and streetwear, but he has successfully conjured must-buy luxury women’s pieces that are dreamed up in Milan and shown in Paris – fashion capitals better known for polish and refinement than hoodies and sneakers – and thus transforming the way the front row dresses.
The word ‘disruptor’ doesn’t sit well with me because it’s not articulating exactly my frame of mind. I stay away from words, I’m more about actions. A body of work is what I focus on”
His shows are cultural phenomena, both on the streets outside and in backstage areas heaving with Supreme-clad fans. His innovative approach means that, if you scan through any interview or profile on him, the word ‘disruptor’ will crop up at least once – not that he would use it himself. “The word ‘disruptor’ doesn’t sit well with me because it’s not articulating exactly my frame of mind,” he explains. “I stay away from words, I’m more about actions. Words are often just another box to be put in. That’s why I focus on making things because those aren’t so descriptive. A body of work is what I focus on. The name ‘Off-White’ is my measuring stick: it’s not black or white, it’s not gray either, it’s a way to be in-between. It’s fine to be in-between. It’s fine to not be so exact.”
It’s hard to think of Abloh as an outsider now that he boasts both a credible self-built label and a job at one of the biggest heritage brands around. The days when he, West and their crew pitched up to Paris Fashion Week, dressed to the nines (see the now legendary Tommy Ton-snapped street-style picture) and hoping to hustle their way into shows, are the dim and distant past. “I would agree, for starters, that I am a part of the establishment [now],” he says, “but it’s not just me, it’s a whole generation. There’s more than just one person – those that are in their thirties practicing creativity, we all are the establishment, so things will start to take shape and look different.”
When he started Off-White back in 2013 on the back of an art-meets-fashion project, Pyrex Vision, Abloh’s name and aesthetic were synonymous with streetwear, and the label’s geometric logo became a badge of honor. Along with that other prolific agitator, Demna Gvasalia at Vetements, he elevated the genre to such cult luxury status that swathes of women usually more inclined towards blow-dries and high heels were suddenly throwing on hooded sweatshirts and long-sleeved T-shirts. But a canny marketeer alongside everything else, Abloh had the good sense to move on before the fashion crowd did; last season he used Princess Diana as his muse, and FW18 serves up feminine separates and checked tailoring perfect for a modern take on the working wardrobe.
“Streetwear has a million definitions, but for me it’s another word for ‘naturally occurring’,” he says. “Seeing street things on the runway, at a certain time in fashion, was intriguing and interesting to me. But then, over time, that quickly changed. It wasn’t as striking as it became the norm and I then started being more inspired by taking ready-to-wear and making it more street, switching the ratio.”
I am a part of the establishment [now], but it’s not just me, it’s a whole generation. Those that are in their thirties practicing creativity, we all are the establishment, so things will start to take shape and look different”
Now, he’s dressing powerful women who aren’t afraid to express themselves, whatever they’re wearing. Case in point: Serena Williams, whose much-discussed black catsuit-and-tutu tennis dress was a collaboration between Abloh and Nike. “She’s inspiring beyond words,” says Abloh. “I’d been struggling with the way fashion can feel like it’s just arbitrary or like it doesn’t really matter. Doing runway shows [can be] very figurative. I like the idea that working within sport, it’s something more matter-of-fact and it’s based on something practical and has an aesthetic expression. I love having to work within that structure. It’s a new challenge, it’s another way to look at the work that I do.”
Given his output, it would be easy to assume that Abloh is all about ideas and aesthetics, but in reality he’s hands-on. Thanks to his mother, who worked as a seamstress when he was growing up, he has a good working knowledge of how to put together a piece of clothing. “[Sewing’s] like riding a bike – you don’t forget how to do it,” he says. “In a way, I’m secretly an arts-and-crafts person. I make things, not just design. People see things that I collaborate on – they see the output, they associate it with my name, but they don’t realize that behind the scenes I’ve actually made it before; that in my studio, there’s cut-up shoes, there’s pieces of paper and scissors.”
It’s a reminder not to underestimate him or his ambition and creativity. Whatever projects he turns his hand to next, it’s a safe bet that he’s going to push boundaries and confound expectations while he’s at it. Which, conveniently, is just the way he likes it. “I think I’m a person that thrives off that feeling of nervousness. That’s usually what compels me to come up with a better idea than if I’m in a relaxed state,” he says. “Nervousness is like a protection mechanism to not do something. It’s like a ghost, it’s literally like believing that there’s a ghost under your bed, when actually you can just get up and do whatever you want.”
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