irgil Abloh died on Sunday at the age of 41 after a two-year battle with cancer. In 2017, Katrina Israel met him and wrote this profile for ES Magazine.
It is the eve of London Fashion Week and Virgil Abloh, founder of cult label Off-White, has just flown in from San Francisco — where he attended Apple’s iPhone X launch — making stops on the way in New York, Paris and Mexico.
‘That’s all in 40 hours,’ the peripatetic 37-year-old smiles, somehow looking as fresh as a daisy, kitted out in his uniform black graphic T-shirt, Supreme boxer shorts, black Levi’s Made & Crafted x Off-White jeans and Nike Air Presto x Virgil Abloh trainers. He’s here to launch the second phase of ‘The Ten’ collection’s Off Campus workshop event celebrating his blockbuster Nike collaboration, which deconstructs 10 of its most iconic trainers. The result has had sneaker freaks swooning, but it is far from Abloh’s only current concern.
For example: when I ask, in the context of his forthcoming furniture project with Ikea, if he’s seen what Tom Dixon recently did with the home retailer, he pauses, taps out of the WhatsApp convo that he’s currently approving menswear design skews on, and searches through his inbox. ‘You’ve reminded me,’ he replies in his rhythmic Chicago inflection, fishing out an email from the man himself about yet another possible partnership.
Working with collaborators is how Abloh does things. In London alone his creative sounding board includes art director Peter Saville, DJ and radio presenter Benji B, SHOWStudio’s Nick and Charlotte Knight, and super snapper Juergen Teller. For his latest SS18 runway kicks he enlisted Jimmy Choo’s Sandra Choi after bonding over a shared love of Comme des Garçons at NYFW. ‘The creative process was a WhatsApp journey where we bounced ideas back and forth,’ Choi says of his collaborative style. The match yielded Instabait gold, from ‘glass slipper’ stilettos wrapped in cling film to quilted, 1980s-issue boots.
Off-White, the four-year-old independent fashion brand that is known for its bold use of text and street sensibility, is stocked from MyTheresa to Matchesfashion.com, sported by A$AP Rocky and Kendall Jenner — while Naomi Campbell closed its latest show. Its SS18 season was an ode to Princess Diana, broadcasting her style legacy to Abloh’s legions of fans, many of whom are too young to remember her. ‘Off-White is not a clothing brand, it’s more of a vehicle to express ideas,’ he says of the ‘open source’ concept that rose to acclaim in 2015 as a finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize.
‘My idea is to collaborate with the best in a category and then, almost similar to DuPont [he paraphrases the American science conglomerate’s old slogan]: “We don’t make the products you buy, we make the products you buy better”,’ he smiles. Abloh’s first fashion project, Pyrex Vision, saw him screen-print the word ‘Pyrex’ on to dead stock Rugby Ralph Lauren flannels and sell them for £410 a pop. Today the disruptor’s high/low hoodies retail from £369. ‘Off-White is meant to be an additive quality that almost highlights the importance of whatever brand we’re working with,’ he adds.
The polymath, who studied architecture and engineering, and DJs under the moniker Flat White, has also been Kanye West’s creative director for the past 15 years, overseeing everything from tour merch to album covers. ‘We’re workers from the same sort of spirit, I think,’ he says of their shared Chicago upbringing. ‘Kanye West represents this independent train of thought, like, “Hey, I’m not a fashion designer, but I can be a fashion designer,” and, “Hey, I don’t know high art, but I can make music.” Think about his influence on musicians but also every kid that’s outside wearing their outfit trying to be photographed. It was his idea to go to fashion week, you know.’
The pair interned together at Fendi in 2009. ‘Fashion [week] has now become like a thing that regular people know about,’ he says of the once closed industry event that’s now streamed live via smartphones. ‘It has opened up this conversation with the word “influencer”.’ Is he a fan of the term? ‘I like it!’ he smiles, ‘Because it acknowledges. Usually we just call it celebrity, but [just] because you’re a celebrity doesn’t mean you’re an influencer. Just because you’re an influencer doesn’t mean you’re a celebrity. But now, at least there is a term to say this brand, this product, in this person’s hands, is that same 1+1 = 3.’
On that score, Abloh himself is no slouch. Instagram, which he likens to ‘a window into the world’, is his preferred social media channel, and it loves him right back to the tune of some 985K followers. He’s got the type of cool-factor pull that has editor-in-chiefs postponing their dinner plans to watch his 9pm show slot (sometimes served with a Kardashian/West clan sighting). In fact, the dichotomy of Abloh’s interests and inner circle (from mentor and artist Tom Sachs to hip-hop star Lil Uzi Vert) has made him something of an expert in what the post-Tumblr generation wants. Born on the border of Gen X and Y in 1980, he sees himself as a go-between who can relate to those who experienced life before email as well as the digital native Snapchat crowd. ‘I’m going to do a dissertation on the [blurred] cuts,’ he laughs of the generational divide, while sipping on a ginger juice shot.
Now a married father of two, Abloh grew up the son of Ghanaian immigrants in Rockford, Illinois. ‘I was just an average middle of America, stable, DJing, suburban kid, playing soccer, you know, no plans, never took an art class,’ he reflects. ‘My parents were from West Africa, their dream was to move to the US, and they did that so that I could have a better life. I just grasped on to it…’ he trails off. When I ask him whether he has always had such a strong sense of purpose and self-belief, he says that ‘in hindsight my motivation comes from the belief that I didn’t have the potential’.
He recalls an architecture professor who said he’d never be a designer, and is not fazed by Raf Simons’ recent remarks that his work is unoriginal. ‘Nah, that’s the greatest,’ he smiles, clearly not perturbed. ‘I am already motivated. Imagine how one more ounce of motivation sends me off to another sphere. I’m ready for 10 more years based on one perspective. That’s what that does to my psyche,’ he smiles. ‘My main message now is to tell young people that this idea of failure is false.’
In the next room hundreds of millennials are customising their own pairs of Nike Air Force 1s with spray paint. This interactive element was really important to Abloh, and it’s why the Off Campus NY and London pop-ups were key to the project’s marketing plan. ‘It’s not enough for me to do a victory lap for doing 10 shoes,’ he continues. ‘It doesn’t even sound interesting coming out of my mouth. What’s interesting is having thousands of kids leave with this impression that they too can design sneakers.’
Abloh is also increasingly using his influence to shine a light on more serious issues.
For his June men’s presentation at Florence’s Pitti Uomo fair, he was inspired by the international women’s marches, and teamed up with American artist Jenny Holzer, whose work harnesses the power of words. ‘I needed a strong female voice,’ he says of their collaboration, which saw poetry from Anna Świrszczyńska penned during the 1944 Warsaw uprising fused with voices from the present day conflict in Syria, and projected across the show space. The clothes themselves were inspired by the inflated safety vests, protective hoodies and waterproof anoraks worn by the real-time flood of young refugees washing up on the shores of Italy in the spring.
The plight of youth is particularly at the top of Abloh’s mind. ‘I look at how the votes would have gone had it just been the younger generation,’ he says of the Brexit vote. ‘Social media leads us to believe that the world is more like a homogeneous, caring, sort of open-minded place, and then these issues are decided by the older generation, you know, like how the young people should live,’ he pauses. ‘My style is not meant to be polarising, but it’s still meant to make a stand.’
He is, he says, a man with a core belief that design can unite and uplift. ‘I think of Nike as a tech company,’ he maintains of his experience at Nike’s high-spec Oregon campus. ‘I don’t think of it as frivolous design.’ He pauses, adding, ‘You know, the team that I was with yesterday designed this phone,’ he says, holding up one of his two iPhones — the first is labelled ‘Here’ for domestic use, the second ‘There’ for international. ‘People that hate each other still meet at this design, or a pair of shoes. Then they have something in common. That is the central ethos with my art,’ he explains of his mission to unite the world that he grew up in with the one he inhabits now, and beyond.
So just how would Abloh like to be remembered in the history books… or Wiki, as it may be?
‘It’s easy,’ he smiles. ‘I’m leaving evidence in the work. That’s the hieroglyphics,’ he says of his design legacy that’s already archived between storage units and hard drives, in preparation for an exhibition at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019 (which should catalogue some 950 of his projects and counting). ‘They see my practice as something that is generational,’ he says of the planned showcase, which also explains why he’s currently ‘skim’ reading Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist. It’s also why he’s archiving the audio from this interview. ‘It’s a thought pattern over time,’ he smiles, ‘so I’ll know what I was discovering at a particular point.’