Game changer” is an overused phrase, but in the case of Virgil Abloh’s appointment as Louis Vuitton’s artistic director in March 2018, it’s perhaps justified. That’s not just because he’s Vuitton’s first black design lead (one of the first at any heritage fashion house, in fact) or because he has no formal fashion training. (That didn’t stop Raf Simons.) It’s because the streetwear aesthetic, hitherto considered lowly by some, that Abloh has helped propagate through his self-started brands Pyrex Vision and Off-White, not to mention his role as creative director to a certain Kanye West, is now the highest height of fashion.
The Vuitton move has been variously hailed as a historic victory for diversity in the so-white industry or a triumph of hype over substance. (Show us a brand that is killing it without hype.) Whatever the case, Abloh is now in a uniquely powerful position to change what you wear, even if you’re not one of the fortunate few who can afford to shop at Vuitton: the colours, shapes and pieces – see the wearable bags below, for instance – will ripple outwards and trickle down. And thanks to his cultural connections, plus collaborations with everyone from Ikea to Nike, he can influence at scale – and even redefine what you consider “luxury”.
Here, FashionBeans recounts how he got there.
The world’s most influential fashion designer was born in 1980 in Rockford, lllinois, to Ghanian immigrant parents (his mother was a seamstress, his dad managed a paint factory), Abloh grew up skateboarding, playing soccer, watching Michael Jordan and listening to NWA and Guns N’Roses like “an average sort of suburban kid”.
Abloh: “I was a kid who didn’t have the first-world knowledge of art and fashion. I was the kid shopping in malls.”
Abloh’s parents let him DJ at the weekend but expected him to get a proper job, which explains how he wound up studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin.
Abloh: “I didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
Around his studies, he continued to DJ, whether at parties co-hosted by his roommate Gabriel Stulman or at a local bar, and read fashion magazines, cultivating both the art of curation and his personal style.
Abloh: “I’ve been DJing since I was in high school… DJing is my only peace of mind. When the phone is off, I play my favourite songs really loud for myself and I’m not talking to anyone, I’m not managing anything; it’s just like a time when I can listen to music… I’ll be DJing after I’m done designing or doing anything else.”
Stulman: “He had the boldest, strongest fashion sense of anyone in Wisconsin. He looked like he was out of a magazine. And he’s in them now.”
In his final semester, he took an introduction to art history.
Abloh: “It was the humanities classes that I had put to the side that ultimately started me on this path of thinking about creativity in a much more cultural context – not designing for design’s sake, but connecting design to the rhythm of what’s happening in the world.”
Abloh later graduated with a masters in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Abloh: “I figured if you could build the tallest building, you could design a spoon, you know?”
The example of architect Rem Koolhas’ long-term collaboration with Miucca Prada (on the look of her stores and catwalks, among other things) helped Abloh bridge the gap to fashion and understand that creating a successful brand is much more than designing clothes.
Supposedly, Abloh engineered a meeting with Kanye West by leaving a printout of looks he’d designed featuring Kanye’s GOOD Music logo at the shop where the rapper’s merch was screen-printed, encouraging the store manager to call Kanye’s. In other accounts, Kanye came across Abloh while the latter was DJing on the scene in Chicago under the (genius) name of Flat White. One or both may be true, but either way, Abloh started working for Kanye in 2003 as a creative consultant at the age of 22.
Kanye: “Virgil is one of the smartest, fastest, most innovative people I’ve created with.”
Abloh: “We’re all the children of Kanye’s trailblazing. This generation wouldn’t have the freedom to cross genres had it not been for his passion to find more than what was delivered to him.”
In 2009, Abloh interned with Kanye at Italian fashion house Fendi, where Michael Burke, now Chief Executive Officer at Louis Vuitton, was CEO at the time.
Kanye: “We interned at Fendi but we ain’t do shit. We ain’t get to do nothing, man. I was just happy to have a key card… We couldn’t figure out how to actually make the clothes, so we’d just do it in Photoshop. And Virgil became the fastest Photoshop artist that I have ever met in my life.”
Burke: “I paid them $500 a month! I was really impressed with how they brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way. Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since.”
Kanye: “We brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said no. How many motherfuckers you done seen with a jogging pant?”
In the same year, and together with another of Kanye’s creative consiglieres, Don C, Abloh opened RSVP Gallery, a “conceptual retail experience” in Chicago where clothes by Comme des Garçons, Chanel and Bape hung alongside art by Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami and Kaws: music was a common theme throughout.
Kanye and his entourage also attended fashion shows en masse: their outlandish fits in a photo taken outside Comme in Paris, which became an inception moment in the Tumblr-blogging hashtag menswear movement, was also savagely mocked in the infamous “Fishsticks” episode of South Park.
Abloh: “We got into about 60 per cent of the shows. We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
Kanye: “Do you think there’d be a Givenchy in the hood if it wasn’t for that South Park photo? But no one thinks of that. No one thinks of the names I got called for wearing tight jeans.”
Abloh launched his first fashion label, Pyrex Vision, in 2012, screen-printing onto Rugby Ralph Lauren flannel shirts that he bought at a discount when the diffusion brand shuttered and sold them for $550 (a 700 per cent markup). Nothing to do with the eponymous make of cookwear, Pyrex nevertheless sold like hot cakes in hip retailers such as Colette in Paris, thanks in part to Abloh’s endorsement from the likes of Kanye.
Abloh: “On a practical level, we were literally taking a [Rugby] Ralph Lauren shirt or a Champion sweatshirt and printing a graphic over it… But it was more than that. I wanted to insinuate an emotion around clothing, and that became a metaphor to represent what I thought was happening among young kids who were reinventing fashion – taking clothes and wearing them, maybe, in an ironic way or wearing them in a way that was surprising, transcending what the designer might have intended.” [continued below]
The Abloh Aesthetic
Like many designers, Virgil Abloh has recurring themes and guiding principles that steer his work. Below, the FashionBeans team picks five of his most eye-catching design tropes.
A recurring theme in Abloh’s collections for Pyrex Vision and Off-White, this is the designer playing with the unexpected in high-low clothing that mixes urban and “luxury” aesthetics. Thereby making them one and the same, of course, hence the £400 price tag on an otherwise regular cotton-jersey hoodie.
Acknowledging and even poking fun at the hype culture that he himself helped to create, Abloh is fond of a loud slogan or logo that either states what the item is or deliberately confuses it. See the Off-White tote bag that says “Tote” or a red mat in his Ikea collection emblazoned with the word “blue”. Ironic streetwear design taken to the nth degree.
Abloh understands that in the age of Instagram, recognisable branding is vital for any brand in the business of generating hype. So, like the Adidas three stripes or the Burberry check, you can spot somebody wearing Off-White a mile off. Whether it’s caution tape-style branding, four arrows that form a cross or signature stripes over the shoulders, these motifs are deliberately designed and completely covetable.
Abloh wants to innovate, and that includes creating what he says is an entirely new class of garment. Accessories that work more as mid-layers in an outfit rather than an additional extra, Abloh’s latest collection includes cross-body bags with sleeves or holsters with the same luxurious LV prints as the brand’s famous travel bags.
A Riot Of Colour
Colour was key at Abloh’s maiden show for Louis Vuitton in more ways than one. As well as putting more black models on the runway than most fashion houses manage in a full year, the collection (and even the runway itself) was a rainbow, The Wizard of Oz Abloh’s stated inspiration. Everything from T-shirts to tailoring appeared in primary, pastel and neutral shades, with iridescent holdalls reflecting the collection’s entire spectrum. The message? Be bold. Stand out. Enjoy it. Not a bad metaphor for Abloh’s career right now.
[continued from above] British designer Samuel Ross became Abloh’s creative assistant after looking at his blog and emailing him. He’s since gone on to found his own fashion label A Cold Wall.
Ross: “I thought I knew what hard work was and then I started working with Virgil. He works every single day, Christmas day, every single day. It’s really just the pace of work – it needs to be phenomenal to get anything done, and also to not become comfortable. There are so many points where he could have stopped before he got to where he is now.”
Also in 2012, the relentlessly hustling Abloh cooked up the DJ-turned-designer collective Been Trill, which included fellow DONDA illuminati Heron Preston and Matthew Williams (who since founded cult brand Alyx). The next year, he unveiled yet another fashion label: Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh. The inspiration was a Balenciaga graphic T-shirt with the phrase “Join A Weird Trip” in Iron Maiden font superimposed over a sphinx, designed by then-creative director Nicolas Ghesquière (now at Louis Vuitton). It highlighted a growing grey area – in aesthetic and price tag – between previously distinct streetwear and luxury. Abloh contends that the hoodie is the new suit jacket.
Abloh: “With fashion you have to choose if you’re high-end, contemporary or streetwear, men’s or women’s. Off-White is between black and white, there is no choice.”
With its recognisable caution tape branding and air quotes, Off-White can be seen on cool kids and Kendall Jenner. In 2015, Abloh was nominated for the prestigious LVMH (as in Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) Prize for Young Fashion Designers. He lost out, but despite Off-White’s success in its own right, he kept his eyes on a different prize.
Abloh: “The end goal is to modernise fashion and steer a house.”
In 2017, Balenciaga – then helmed by Demna Gvasalia – baited the internet with a $2,000 homage to Ikea’s humble Frakta blue bag. Abloh went one better by announcing Markerad, a full-blown furniture collaboration with the Swedish interiors institution, in his trademark high-low style. Prices range from €229 for a table to €9.99 for a brown bag.
Abloh: “Given how tremendous this opportunity is, I’m not content to just make another chair… It’s about elevating the anonymous, everyday icons that we use without noticing. When we put a doorstop on one of the legs of an ordinary chair we create something unexpected – an interruption… I want each item to bring a sense of pride, and I want the great design to be the biggest reason why you get it.”
Henrik Most, creative leader for the collection: “Virgil has a fantastic ability to work with essential functions and basic materials and create something new. Each Markerad item is both a design object and a piece with high artistic value.”
The same year saw Abloh unveil “The Ten”, a collaboration with Nike in which he reimagined a number of the swoosh’s iconic silhouettes, adding zip ties and air quotes for good measure. The resale market went batshit even by its usual bonkers standards.
Abloh: “We were enamored with Air Jordans. Michael Jordan was larger than life – he was Superman to me. My entire design background and ethos came from the 90s.”
Despite accusations of iterative design from Diet Prada and unoriginality from Raf Simons, even as he professed to like “the Off-White guy” personally (but not enough to remember his name), Abloh lectured at Columbia and Harvard. The former talk’s original title “Everything In Quotes” is later changed to “Young Architects Can Change The World By Not Building Buildings”, while the latter’s is “Insert Complicated Title Here”.
Abloh: “Irony is a tool for modern creativity. There’s a reason why we all probably look at 60 memes a day… I love the fact that Off-White can be questioned.”
Perhaps having witnessed the riot earlier in the month outside Off-White’s A/W 18 show in Paris, Louis Vuitton appointed Abloh as its artistic director of menswear in March 2018, making him one of the first black designers at a French heritage house, along with Ozwald Boateng, at Givenchy from 2003 to 2007, and Olivier Rousteing, currently at Balmain.
Burke: “I am thrilled to see how his innate creativity and disruptive approach have made him so relevant, not just in the world of fashion but in popular culture today. His sensibility towards luxury and savoir-faire will be instrumental in taking Louis Vuitton’s menswear into the future.”
Abloh showed his first Vuitton collection in June 2018 at the Palais-Royale in Paris, featuring hoodies and sweatshirts on the catwalk, printed T-shirts on the seats and his squad on the front row. His appointment makes fashion a little less white.
Abloh: “Someone said it felt like Obama getting elected president – like the same epiphany.”
Virgil Abloh’s Key Designs
Watch The Throne (2011)
Under the DONDA umbrella, Abloh produced the visuals for Kanye and Jay-Z’s album, which earned a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package. The artwork was by Ricardo Tisci, then at Givenchy, who was also responsible for the associated memorable menswear moments: Rottweiler prints and leather kilts. But Abloh was the power behind Watch The Throne and has since continued to influence hip-hop style.
Pyrex Vision (2012)
Marked up in two senses, the Ralph Lauren Rugby flannel shirts with collegiate lettering prefigured many of the design motifs of Off-White: high and low, luxury and street. You could interpret it as a bold statement: new superimposing old. Or as Abloh said, using whatever means you have to make clothes, whether plain Hanes tees or another brand, in a very streetwear way.
Nike “The Ten” Air Jordan I (2017)
The one of “The Ten” that most made sneakerheads lose their minds and money, Abloh’s take on the iconic basketball shoe is a perfect encapsulation of his modus operandi, as he explained it to the Columbia crowd: making it “three per cent to five per cent” different. In this case, a reconstructed heel and lace panel, blue and orange contrast stitching, zip tie and, of course, “AIR” quotes.
Off-White Hooded Sweatshirt (2018)
A streetwear staple, the hoodie is an Off-White ever-present – until it sells out – and an illustration of how screen-printing seemingly transubstantiates the most humble of basics. This latest iteration bears a portrait of Baroque movement founder Gian Lorenzo Bernini alongside the brand’s signature hazard-tape diagonals – inspired by Duchamp, who transformed everyday objects such as a urinal into art.
Louis Vuitton T-shirt (2018)
Arguably more so than the cross-body bags, the translucent holdalls or the red sunglasses (a meta reference to that Paris Fashion Week photo), the highlight of Abloh’s Vuitton debut was the printed tee on the seats, in a spectrum of colours corresponding to the Rainbow Road runway: at once exclusive and democratic, catwalk and street, textbook Abloh. Maybe you can buy one on Grailed.
Sources: Guardian, New York Times, GQ, Refinery29, W Magazine, Complex, Dazed, Business of Fashion, WWD