Virgil Abloh: Fashion’s Culture Curator

Interviewed by: Jessica Michault

The man behind the Off -White brand is someone who likes to take current events and cultural benchmarks and turn them into sartorial statements. Using streetwear as his starting point, Abloh wants to create clothing that makes his customers think about big picture issues. He is not only dealing with the pressure of running his own white-hot label, he also finds the time to be the creative director for Kanye West’s clothing line. Then there are the deejaying gigs at clubs, create furniture for art fairs and collaborating with other brands like Moncler, that keep him busy. He is forever on the go and living in the now. In this exclusive interview, a version of which first appeared in the pages of the 12th issue of ODDA Magazine, he opens up about being an Instagram stalker, why he would like to design for a big luxury brand one day and working with West. 

Q: I see powerful intense imaginary in your work for your upcoming collections, is it a reaction to Trump and what is going on currently in politics?

A: I don’t know if it is necessarily a political thing. I think there is space for that in other arenas. I make things based out of a time in history. I want people to relate to this collection in 3,5, or even 10 years sort like… “Oh, I remember it was the topic of the day.” I have always been doing that, referencing current culture and trying and giving it an artistic statement. To me, the women’s portion it’s called “global warming?” with a question mark. The men’s portion is called “seeing things” which is sort of a surrealist take on menswear. For me, the root of the brand is 2.0 streetwear, or more like 6.0 streetwear, because it has lived and died a number of times already. It’s basically me trying to add something to the conversation, through the tools of fashion. Those are always the overriding themes for my work.

Q: So talking about adding something to the conversation, what are the issues that you want to push to the foreground?

To me, it’s current topics that are always sort of resonating. You know, with Off-White, it’s about an artistic statement, not a literal statement. It’s me, looking at the terms and getting inspired by them. I am often inspired by words and phrases, and what they are related too. It’s just bringing awareness to the term and in different contexts.

Q: I get the impression you really like to crash things together.

A: Well, that is what Off-White is literally all about. And I am not just talking about clothing; it’s how I approach everything. I like comparison and contrast as a means of communicating.

Q: You excel in quite a lot of different creative fields. When you were growing up, what was your first passion, was it fashion, music…something else?

A: I just always enjoyed participating in culture. The medium is irrelevant, in a way. I enjoy expressing myself, or ideas that I see and just synthesizing things in whatever medium that I could. Like if I could oil paint I would use that as another way to communicate. It is the undercurrent of everything I do, on a constant basis, present culture in a new light.

Q: You are 36 years old now, so I am wondering how you are able to stay tapped into that young street cool energy that is such the essence of your brand, as somebody who’s now no longer quote unquote young?

A: I like this term “Millennial.” Only until recently that I realized that I am still a millennial. Because it’s not really an age group, it’s a way of thought.

Q: It’s a state of mind….

Yeah. But even if you drilled it down to an age group, there a few things that have happened in our lifetime: the Internet, social media, and the way that people see the world has fundamentally change. If we are able to adapt to all those changes and embrace it, then you can make a set of decisions that relay naturally to a certain time. This is my thing, I relate to the new, I relate to the recently updated. I take pride in that and I am also interested in contributing to it.

Q: I hear from everyone that you are always on the go, non-stop. So I was wondering what’s your favorite app, what are you always on?

A: Probably Instagram.

Q: Really? But you’re not posting a lot.

A: No, just viewing! I think participating in it is weird. I look at Instagram as a cultural tool to use, and I am an art director so I use it for storytelling. But I am not into contributing to it. It has become a past-time, something to look at, like a nervous tick.

A: You’re an Instagram stalker!

A: Yeah, I am lurking on Instagram. If you are a creative it’s a great place to foster a dialog. Getting more followers or whatever is not what it is about for me. And I don’t need to post on it to be a part of it.

Q; What about where your brand stands currently? Do you feel like you are ready to make that next step? I mean, I know you have spoken in the past about wanting to maybe run a major luxury house is that still something you imagine for yourself?

A: Yeah, and I do have ideas about that. You know that Off-White is an independent project. It’s not backed by anyone. It’s also not anchored to history. And that is what I like about the idea of working in a big house. My brand is so embedded in the NOW and these brands that have a history, a rich archive, that intrigues me. I would be interested in how I would go about revamping one of them based on new ideas.

A look from the Off-White Fall/Winter 2017 runway show. /Imaxtree.com

A look from the Off-White Fall/Winter 2017 runway show. /Imaxtree.com

Q: Talking about history, am curious what was the first fashion, or luxury brand piece you bought for yourself?

A: That was definitely a luxury-brand thing. Probably a Louis [Vuitton] or Gucci…

Q; Really, you went straight to Louis and Gucci?

A: Yeah, I was always really aware of, and into, big luxury brands. I was always interested in clothes. I am a consumer. Those brands helped me get interested in the art of fashion.

Q: Talking quickly about your parents, what kind of influence, if any, did they have on your aesthetic?

A: My mother has been a seamstress for something like 60 years. So I grew up always seeing clothing getting altered and made. But I wouldn’t say that was a direct influence to what I am doing now. It was more the skateboarding scene and listening to hip hop and watch rap videos as a teenager that had the most impact on me growing up in the 90s.

Q: As someone who says they like to live in the now, I have to ask…what do you think about the whole idea of the “See Now, Buy Now” fashion strategy?

A: To me, it’s not much of an idea. It’s sort of like… that’s not an innovation. That’s not like the fashion version of an iPhone 7. For me, it’s about making a product that people want. And, if they really want it and think it is cool, then it doesn’t matter if it’s brand new and you can get it right away or if you have to wait three months before you get it. If people really want something, they will be willing to wait for it. I don’t’ know, I probably am the least consumer-minded designer there is. I am not looking at numbers trying to sell things, I mean I am, but that is not dictating how, or the direction, I take my designs. I am more into thinking about ideas that are challenging people.

Q: So you have got a clear vision for your label and won’t let outside elements influence your process. And yet you seem to like working in collaborations with both people and other brands, like Moncler.

A: Again, like comparing and contrasting against different sets of values. And if the brand that I am working with is really good at something that I am not good at, then it can become the perfect pairing of ideas and execution.

Q: You seem to always be on the look out for some new. A new way to be creative – or a new direction to take your label. I am curious to know what’s fascinating you right now? What do you really can’t get enough of?

A: What’s fascinating me now is what’s the future of streetwear is going to look like. Or what will be the future of fashion. What’s the future of retail? The stuff that I don’t know is always what I find the most fascinating.

Q: Where do you think fashion is headed?

A: I think it’s gonna revert against whatever is popular now. Like if this is cool one season, it’s just gonna be uncool next season, the reactions age just gonna get faster.

Q: Do you think it’s gonna get so fast that it will revert to the point of going slow?

A: No it will just continue to get faster. It will go as fast as Instagram loads up. I would put a bet that “the good old days”, of things going slow again aren’t going to return… I think that’s not how the society works now.

 Q: Looking again at your work, some of the images you have on your clothing are quite provocative. Is that intentional? Do you want your clothing to be the catalyst for conversations?

A: I just want to make something that makes an emotion. It gets boring doing things that don’t mean anything. I am testing out ideas….who knows where it will go. It’s like visual communication: I am trying to make something that means something.

Q: What’s your design process like?

A: It’s 24/7 all the time. It doesn’t stop.

Q: You do men’s and women’s, you do collaborations, you do furniture designs. How do you balance it all? How do you separate it?

A: Deadlines. When something is due that is when I prioritize it and get it done. It’s not difficult; it’s more about having the right idea at the right time.

Q: Are you somebody that does moodboards or draws or sketches?

A: All of the above. Also computers, images, scanners…I have a Photoshop type mind.

Q: Here is a random question for you, that I sometimes feel can be revealing about a person, so….what emoji do you use way too often?

A: The trademark symbol. It’s my favorite one, hands down. It is kind of core to my brand. It just makes something official, in a way, by using it. It’s a powerful symbol.

Q: How do you feel your years studying architecture has influenced your designs?

A: It affects everything, 100% percent. It’s my foundation. I have worked the architectural concepts into my own sensibilities as a designer.

Q: What’s next for you? Other than fashion…. what the next big thing on your bucket list?

A: Nothing really, which is perfectly indicative of who I am. That’s my personality type not to be “oh I’m gonna do that one day”. I do it in real-time. I just do it, I don’t really talk about it or dream about it because it’s a waste of time to do that. Today you literally can do anything, and you can do most of it with your phone and swiping your thumb. I think that what separates me from a “normal person” is my ability to look at everyday as opportunity to do something new.

Q: You seem to live very much in the moment.

A: I don’t know how else to live. My work ethic is really high, I don’t really know how to chill. I can’t like take off for a week because my work is stressful and so I need to relax. It’s a state of mind honestly. Normal people don’t do this amount of stuff but to me, there’s a gratification that comes from it. I get to wake up everyday and I never feel like what I am doing it work. I am synthesizing reality and putting it into clothing and things, and that’s really fun.

Q: What do you think about the way that streetwear is dominating the fashion conversation now?

A: It’s exciting. I love it! I’m fortunate to be at the place with my career that I get to contribute to the conversation. I don’t think I’m leading by any means…. I think collectively we are all leading it (Demna [Gvasalia] Alessandro [Michele], J.W. Anderson)…These are my contemporaries. And I believe in their personal esthetics and that they are articulately expressing the latest version of streetwear in a sophisticated way. That is why I am specifically interested in it.

Q: I know it’s a sensitive topic but while doing my research on you,  there are always references to Kanye West. Are you looking forward to the day when your name and his are not associated?

A: No, he’s my friend, best friend, he is the most talented and creative person on earth. That is never a bad thing to be connected to. We’ve been working together for like 15 years. We are in this together. We are both not supposed to be here. We are two kids from Chicago, who were not born into it…we don’t even look like the typical people in this industry. Now there are more of us, which is great. But we just decided to use our voice to express certain things, and culture movements.