“High-fashion people are dressing and designing in a streetwear way, which is why I got into it”
Virgil Abloh’s meeting is running over by 20 minutes. Sleek predicted this might happen, so instead we pin him down in the Uber en route to tonight’s event: a launch party for an exclusive collection of Abloh’s fashion brand OFF-WHITE.
Straddling the borders between fashion, music and art, the globetrotting Abloh combines diverse roles including designer, DJ and ideas man for Kanye West, whom he first encountered on the scene in his home town of Chicago. But if someone at tonight’s party was to ask him what he does for a living, he’d probably describe himself as a creative director. “I’m just a kid, really,” downplays the softly-spoken 35-year- old, “I think of things and try to realise them.”
Abloh is a busy man. Eyes glued to his buzzing iPhone, he dashes between hotel corridor and the rabbit warren of Soho en route to the party. There’s just time to make a pitstop at the London outpost of Supreme, or “my Louis Vuitton” as Abloh calls it. The cult skate fashion brand is known for its red-boxed logo that it ‘borrowed’ from artist Barbara Kruger, and usually has queues to rival an Apple launch, but there isn’t one right now. The security guard doesn’t recognise him, but a few teenagers inside do a double take as Abloh leaves. A twentysomething guy outside asks for a selfie.
Supreme and Abloh’s own label Off-White are often described as ‘streetwear’, a term associated with graphic-heavy T-shirts and hoodies. It also implies something more pedestrian and populist than high fashion’s exclusive catwalk shows and pricey boutiques. Increasingly, the borders between the two are harder to delimit. “If anything, high-fashion people are dressing and designing in a streetwear way,” says Abloh. “Which is why I got into it, because I noticed that what I liked was becoming the trend.” The hoodie, in his formulation, has become the new suit jacket; the proliferation of casual dress codes, the democratisation of knowledge enabled by the internet, and stigmatisation of traditional signifiers of success – e.g. the suit jacket – caused by global economic crises have all combined to raise humble streetwear to the pinnacle of fashion.
That’s not to say that £30 tees and £150 hoodies have become the glass ceiling of luxury. Instead, high fashion has appropriated streetwear as it has other rebellious garb before (for example, Alexander McQueen’s take on punk and Marc Jacob’s adaptation of grunge), producing its own version of the new uniform with elevated materials, silhouettes and price tags. Hence why designer Demna Gvasalia, whose Vetements label hit headlines for sending a £185 DHL T-shirt down the catwalk, was last year appointed creative director of storied Parisian house Balenciaga. “I want to take streetwear ideals and do them in a high-fashion way that feels contemporary, like Demna,” says Abloh, who harbours his own ambition to take the helm at an established house. Unlike Gvasalia, who trained at Antwerp’s famous Royal Academy of Fine Arts and previously worked for Vuitton and Maison Margiela, Abloh is an outsider who used to turn up at runway shows as a kid and get turned away. Perhaps that’s why he desires the external validation of joining an established maison in spite of the acclaim currently being lavished on his own brand.
“I just want to take it all the way,” says Abloh, whose Off-White was conceived to inhabit and expand this grey area between affordable streetwear and traditionally, reassuringly expensive high fashion. That Abloh was the only American to be nominated for the prestigious prize awarded to young designers by the Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton luxury goods conglomerate in 2015 suggests that he’s going about things the right way. He contends that he doesn’t yearn to be accepted by the establishment though, but wants to turn it inside-out: “Imagine if high-fashion stores all felt like Supreme, with products that you really wanted to own, not that seemed from yesteryear.”
“One of the true concepts of streetwear is using whatever means you have to make clothing”
Abloh, who was born in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanian immigrants, originally studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin while DJing on the weekends. Emboldened by a Balenciaga graphic T-shirt that was a more expensive version of the streetwear he’d grown up wearing, he made his first foray into designing in 2012, by printing the logo of his nascent label Pyrex Vision onto discounted Rug- by Ralph Lauren shirts. That could be interpreted as a bold statement: new superseding old, or “Youth Al- ways Wins”, as that first collection was called. Yet it was in fact as much a practical decision as anything: “One of the true concepts of streetwear is using what- ever means you have to make clothing, whether that’s buying blank T-shirts, or what I did.” Pyrex quickly evolved into Off-White, a fully-fledged fashion brand based in Milan that shows on the Paris catwalk during fashion week. Keeping to this DIY-theme, he still creates open invites for his Yeezy-soundtrack shows, inviting kids from all backgrounds in one swoop, while probably pricing out many in another (at least until they get well-paid jobs).
Streetwear has hitherto been undervalued by high fashion, discounted as no more sophisticated than T-shirts and hoodies. “It’s actually the most intellectual realm,” says Abloh. “But it’s hidden; it plays on cheapness. A kid can see that font and be like, ‘Oh, it’s Supreme.’ Or I can look at it and be like, ‘Oh, that’s Barbara Kruger.’” There is an art to street- wear beyond slapping on logos or making clothing in limited quantities, which Abloh argues is less a marketing ploy and more a consequence of being a small brand that can only produce so much: “What’s more relevant is that the best streetwear brands have the best curation.” Supreme is pre-eminent in this regard, remaining on point for two decades while similar less substantial labels have come and gone. “It’s among my favourite brands for its art direction,” says Abloh. “It’s connected to culture. The music playing in there… Its art direction. It’s art. You’re barely getting that at a high-fashion brand. They should be charging me double for that.”
It’s that Supreme-esque attention to detail that Abloh is building on with Off-White, which caters to his own growing demographic: that grown-up streetwear kid whose tastes and purchasing power have matured, who’s equally comfortable in a hoodie or a silk pyjama top, and who doesn’t have to wear a suit to work. Indeed, Abloh characterises Off-White as an art project, not a mere brand. “There’s a set of decisions that go into a finalised design,” he says. “Basically, there’s a deeper meaning beyond just,
‘This works: let’s sell it.’” Abloh, who studied architecture at graduate school, cites the Off-White store in Hong Kong as one of his proudest achievements: “People need to experience what the brand means for the T-shirt to make sense.” The holistic rigour of architectural training was a solid foundation for the “full concept” that is Off-White, while built spaces help add substance – and longevity – to inherently seasonal fashion. Crucially, Abloh can also draw on his own cultural cachet, whether music or art, name- checking New York’s Jim Joe and the Moran Bondaroff gallery’s Know Wave collective as inspiration.
“Virgil is very interested in culture beyond the mainstream, and I think this keeps his aesthetic relevant,” confirms Damien Paul, head of menswear at Matchesfashion.com, who also witnessed first-hand the fullness of Abloh’s concept. “For the launch event in London, he brought in Ben Kelly, architect of the Hacienda – a British club culture institution – to help with the set. That’s attention to detail that many other designers would not consider, and it’s impressive.” According to Paul, the collection reflects Abloh’s “restless, disruptive spirit and energy”.
Throughout the interview, Abloh has been using his phone, occasionally trailing off when it demands his attention. But this isn’t the stereotype of the hard- charging CEO playing email tennis with the intensi- ty of Novak Djokovic, or the ADD Generation Y-er who is incapable of having a conversation without trawling Instagram listlessly. Abloh is actually creating on the hoof, making decisions, selecting images; he even designs collections via a mobile app. The barrage of messages requiring snap value judgements is incessant, but he never worries about not having a quick reply. “That anxiety is what gets the idea. And I’ll usually solve the problem within the first minute or 30 seconds.”
Rather than spurts of creativity, Abloh’s output is constantly flowing. “That’s what creative direction is to me,” he says. “It’s like a boxer sparring, or a doctor diagnosing a patient. You’re not just going to sit there like, ‘I don’t know…’ Your brain is trained to go down a list of things to come to a result really fast. That’s what pushes me – becoming good at it. But it’s not work. It’s like my sport. So I enjoy the challenge.”
With that, the vehicle pulls up outside the venue. There are still a couple of hours until the event and nobody is policing the door yet. In perpetual motion, Abloh walks in, without stopping, onto the next project.
Taken from SLEEK 52
Photography VICKY GROUT