Virgil Abloh's Fashion Path: From Interning Alongside Kanye to Helming His Own Label (Twice)
Outside the L'Université Paris Descartes on a Thursday evening in October, a line of hiply dressed young women and men stood hundreds deep, hoping to nab a standing spot at Off-White’s Paris Fashion Week show. The crowd, and the difficulty of getting through it into the venue, was a testament to just how influential a figure the label’s designer and founder, Virgil Abloh -- who also serves as the creative director of Kanye West’s think tank, Donda -- has become. So, too, was the presence of most of the fashion establishment, which had given Off-White one of its greatest endorsements (or, more specifically, LVMH had) when it named Off-White a finalist for its annual emerging designers Prize last year.
In three short years, Off-White has carved a space for itself among buzzy labels like Vetements and Y/Project, offering a luxe -- and, as Abloh will argue, more intellectual -- take on streetwear, cutting up and reworking staples like sweatshirts and jeans and loudly emblazoning the words “Off,” “White” and the label’s signature diagonal lines on fronts and backs. He tends to pair these with dressier items, like blazers and asymmetric, multi-layered skirts, rendered approachable in materials like cotton and frayed denim. Rita Ora, Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid are among its high-profile fans.
Hailing from Rockford, Illinois, Abloh began consulting with West at just 22 years old, fresh out of Illinois Institute of Technology with a master’s degree in architecture. Fourteen years later, he has a range of impressive projects to his name, from revolutionary concert merch concepts to groundbreaking set design. (His working relationship with West is not something he often talks to the press about, however, and Abloh declined to discuss anything related to the artist in this interview.)
West’s and Abloh’s interest in creating -- and not just consuming -- luxury fashion has largely coincided. After interning together at Fendi in 2009, West went on to launch his own designer label at Paris Fashion Week in 2011 (which, following a slew of negative reviews, shuttered after two seasons) before taking on creative partnership roles at Nike and now Adidas. Abloh introduced his first clothing brand, Pyrex Vision, at the end of 2012, quickly selling out of a run of designs screen-printed on to dead-stock Ralph Lauren flannels (sold for hundreds a pop). Though it closed in 2013, he was able to establish relationships with a number of influential retailers, including Colette in Paris, paving the way for the launch of Off-White later that year.
Critics of Off-White are quick to point out that Abloh is not introducing anything “new” to clothing design -- but in an age where branding, marketing and speed are better insurers of success than the novel cut of a sleeve, that’s hardly the point. And certainly it isn’t the point for Abloh. He’s not trying to change the way women dress so much as create “a luxury version, a designer version, of what I see in the street,” he says.
“For me, I analyze the modern girl, the girl that I’m friends with, and they’re empowered, they pay their own bills, they have their own style, they wear clothes, the clothes don’t wear them,” he said in an interview at Off-White’s Paris studio. He gestured to a stranger standing several yards away. “Like look at this woman here, wearing Stan Smiths, a tailored pant and a dress shirt. I feel like it’s fashion’s job to underline that. And I see women’s collections that don’t even address that. For me, just as a social recorder of 2016, there’s a new girl that emerged that can shop in between Zara and designer and still maintain a sense of her personality and identity.”
But for Abloh to describe himself merely as a "social recorder" is to undermine just how novel and boundary-pushing his ideas can be, particularly in the luxury sphere. Take the very first ad Abloh created for Off-White, which ran in the indie style magazines 032c and i-D. It shows hip-hop artist and West collaborator Ian Connor (pre-rape allegations) standing on a box in a Supreme T-shirt, Off-White jeans and an Atlanta Braves hat, his shoelaces wrapped around his knuckles like shackles. A tall white model, in a look straight from Off-White’s spring/summer 2016 runway, stands just behind him, gazing at the back of his head. It’s an arresting image, and a somewhat uncomfortable one -- Abloh says it was inspired by Grant Wood’s seminal painting, “American Gothic,” but it is also reminiscent of illustrations of 18th-century slave auctions.
But what is radical about it, from a fashion perspective, is the mix of brands from high (Off-White) to mass (Atlanta Braves) to street (Supreme). It is indeed a reflection of how a certain set of fashion-conscious men and women dress today, mixing their Chanel with their Zara (and indeed, the shirt Connor wears in the ad was the very one he showed up to the studio wearing) -- it’s just not one that is ever reflected in fashion advertisements, which almost universally show brand looks head-to-toe.
A new ad, released earlier this month, shows Italian “it” girl Chiara Capitani standing in a red pantsuit and cross-body bag from the brand’s most recent collection, her outfit partly obscured by a passerby in an anonymous denim skirt and Margiela handbag. Abloh loves it, he says, because it’s an example of an artistic impulse completely trumping conventional commercial logic. “That’s thinking about commerce and fashion and luxury from a completely honest, artistic place.”
Off-White™ "binder clip" handbag campaign photographed and art directed by @piotrniepsuj featuring @chiara_grazia_it select runway bags available at these retail partners ANTONIOLI COLETTE FWRD - ELYSE WALKER SELFRIDGES MAXFIELD MY THERESA NET-A-PORTER Off-White™ Tokyo Off-White™ Hong Kong Off-White™ Singapore SSENSE www.off---white.com
His approach to social media is also atypical. While other CEOs and designers might delegate those accounts to teams that push out pre-packaged marketing content, Abloh uses his Twitter feed more as a community forum, retweeting fans who take photos of the Off-White emblem of white diagonal lines, frequently found at construction sites but also on many city crosswalks. When he came up with the logo -- which, in the fashion of Apple and Target, has successfully appropriated a common symbol and made it his own -- he didn’t foresee such activity taking place. “Art is made in hindsight,” Abloh said. When he made the logo, he was crossing out his old Pyrex logo, and from that the pattern emerged. “It was construction. [I was like] wait, there’s a pattern that’s glaringly in front of everyone’s eyes where you don’t see it, that’s amazing.”
Abloh’s real ambition is to become the creative director of a big fashion house, like Dior or Saint Laurent. He is a big fan of what Demna Gvaslia has done with Balenciaga, fusing the house’s codes with streetwear classics like down puffers and re-worked Levi’s, and making them contemporary and desirable for a modern luxury consumer. “In a way, Demna is collaborating with Cristobal Balenciaga from another era, and then putting out a commercially viable product that’s ultimately relevant. That’s what everything should be like,” he says.
“Off-White is just sort of my resume to prove if these things actually work, do these concepts of a new independent brand work.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t have big plans for Off-White. The business is rapidly expanding, with products now available in more than 200 stores, including seven of its own, and a full-time corporate staff of more than a dozen. This spring, he will be making a big push into the handbag category, launching a host of classic styles, like bucket bags and totes, given an Off-White twist -- some feature yellow cross-body straps in the style of construction tape and emblazoned with “Off-White,” while others have handles laser-cut with diagonal lines.
“I’m not doing it for my health,” he jokes. “All I do all day is think of ideas and implement them, that’s an industry, you know. I’m trying to make art on a commercial scale… That’s what Off-White is, it’s rooted in art and architecture but mass, like Canal Street, so people buy it.”