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It’s Virgil Abloh’s world; we’re just living in it

One-on-one with the omnipotent designer

Posted by Mitch Parker

Just hours before I meet Virgil Abloh he was announced as the star of System magazine’s new issue, with four covers shot by Juergen Teller. The night before he was awarded international designer of the year at GQ Australia’s 2017 Men of the Year Awards. A couple of weeks before that his label Off-White was named by Business of Fashion’s Lyst as the third hottest brand in the world, with a meteoric jump of 31 places in the last quarter. Later that night Abloh would be seen on Instagram hanging out with Drake, who was also in Australia on tour.

If this simplified list of 24 hours in Virgil Abloh’s public life hasn’t convinced you he is one of the hottest commodities in the world right now, perhaps the line of streetwear fans snaking around the block just for the slim chance of meeting him will. They’re largely young and decked out in the buzziest pieces of the hype clothing zeitgeist: Balenciaga sneakers, Raf Simons oversized knits, and, of course, anything by Off-White. Peppered throughout the line are a couple of people wearing sneakers from Nike x Virgil Abloh’s “The Ten” collection. The unprecedented collaboration saw the designer create not one but ten sneakers for Nike. He was given permission to rework some of the brand’s most iconic silhouettes—no small feat considering how beloved and protected the sportswear giant is.

“The Ten” has been hugely successful for Nike and Abloh. The official announcement of the collaboration back in August signalled one of the biggest sneaker collaborations ever and would sustain a frenzy right up to the November release date. “The funny thing is, I don’t see these shoes on people’s feet. They’re finally now out, where I can be like, ‘Oh, that’s what they look like on feet,’” Abloh tells me.

It’s an exciting and surreal feeling for the designer who as a teenager would create sneaker designs with his friends and mail them to Nike’s offices. “In a weird way, if I had told the 17-year-old version of myself like, ‘Ah, you’re gonna do Nike shoes’ I would have been like, ‘No way!’ Like jumping up and down, not believing it. And, now in reality, I’m like, ‘This is fun. I wanna keep doing it.’” Whether Abloh will keep doing it has been the subject of speculation by many but he denies there’s anything set in stone. “At the moment there’s nothing that is ready, or sort of in line. This project is only now releasing. We haven’t had too much time to sort of like, ‘Oh, now what?’ There are some ideas, but nothing is confirmed.”

Collaborating with brands is regular work for Abloh and his Off-White label—one of the early-adopters of the collaboration model that’s dominated runways in recent years. While the label’s mainline designs are hot property their collaboration products are some of the most in-demand products ever. Brands like Nike, Ikea, Timberland, Rimowa, Dr. Martens, and many others have all lined-up to work with Virgil Abloh and tap in to demand for his work. While some designers would worry about oversaturation, he isn’t fazed, “I’m not a ‘no’ type of person. When you say no that usually blocks you off from something that you would learn. I do so many [collaborations] ’cause usually if I see a creative path, then I’ll do it. I never use the excuse that I’m busy or I can’t.”

Burnout is another idea foreign to Abloh, “I just like working—it’s not work to me. It’s like asking Michael Jordan if he wants to play basketball, or if basketball practice is too much. Like, ‘Are you too tired? Don’t you wanna just chill?’ And, it’s like, nah—he’s Michael Jordan! I approach design the same way.”

While Abloh isn’t feeling burnt out by demand, there are some in his industry that are. Recently those within and adjacent to the fashion industry have begun to question the rampant hype cycle that dominates how people buy products, particularly questioning if it’s sustainable. “I think it will be faster than ever. The only thing that can really change or help it is this idea that better ideas get put into the system,” Abloh tells me, when I ask about the economy of hype. “I think in a lot of ways there’s a general, ‘Ah, this hype thing is getting annoying. It’s overrun.’ I don’t really buy into that.”

It’s not a surprising statement from someone like Virgil Abloh who has not only benefited from hype but who was an early predictor of its potential. He’s since used that knowledge to transform Off-White in to one of the most influential fashion brands in the world. Off-White’s meteoric rise was always going to ruffle feathers within an industry as old and elitist as fashion. But while some of the industry’s old guard were busy questioning Abloh’s talent and right to sit amongst them, he was busy making products that sold-out as soon as they hit the market.

It seems fitting then that Virgil Abloh has become the poster boy for the way digital disrupted the fashion industry. While fashion used to trickle down from secluded inner-circles to eventually affect those on the street, the modern industry is the opposite. Thanks to social media’s role in how consumers experience the world everything now flows from the street up to the old-guard. Fashion has been democratised. “I think it’s about share of information. The industry of the past was like, ‘Either you get it or you don’t.’ You walk into the store, ‘You’re not welcome here. You don’t get it.’ I think that when you say fashion is democratised, there’s new opportunity. There’s much to learn from conversation, not a one-sided delivery.”

“As soon as you change the way people communicate, you’re changing much more than what’s on the surface. So, I think it’s just representative of the now: what we’re seeing in music, art, fashion. Everything has been affected by the share of information,” says Abloh.

That share of information exists outside of his work as a designer too. The night before we meet Abloh DJed an event for Sydney party collective SETTINGS. The collective is run by a number of young Sydney creatives that focus on art direction, stage design, and photography. It’s barely a year old and while impressive in its short lifespan so far, hardly the kind of party you’d expect to be on someone like Virgil Abloh’s radar. And yet he eagerly performed for a sold out venue in Sydney on a Wednesday night.

This fact reminds me of the first moment I spotted Virgil Abloh on the day of our meeting. In a room full of media, and media handlers, and security guards, he takes his seat on a stool ready for a Q&A on his Nike collaboration. There’s a moment where he asks if the doors can be opened so the kids lining up outside can hear him talk. At the same time there is a small crew of teenagers pressed up against a glass wall that separates them outside with Abloh inside. They remain pressed up against the glass, staring and listening throughout the talk. Meanwhile the assembled media in the room are largely glued to their phones snapping and recording Abloh’s every word, which they would then share through various social media. They’d most likely go back to their offices and write about the encounter, just like I have here.

All of these people: the partygoers, the kids on the street, the media, the social media fans, all looking towards Virgil Abloh. I can’t tell whether it’s him or the hype that they believe in. Or if, in the end, it even really matters.

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