Rising Fashion Star Virgil Alboh on His Inspirations: Youth Culture, Andy Warhol & Jeff Koons

Fabian Montique
Virgil Abloh

“To the modern generation, music and fashion are not seen as separate works of art,” says Virgil Abloh, 35, and he should know: as the founder of buzzy Milan-based luxury/streetwear brand Off-White, a sought-after DJ, and Kanye West’s creative director, his entire life revolves around the nexus of the two.

His lines for men and women, both of which made Paris runway debuts this year, mix high fashion tailoring and draping with an edgy street ethos. The Chicago-raised Abloh takes inspiration from graffiti art (“my first and only art class in my high school years”), skateboarding, concert tees and the music of his ’90s youth -- “everything from N.W.A to Nirvana.” His signature stripes and effortlessly cool blend of high and low have endeared him to musicians from BeyoncĂ© to Bieber, and has earned him critical acclaim as the line’s progressed since its late-2013 inception. In 2015, the self-taught Abloh (who earned his masters in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology) got the stamp of approval from the fashion elite with a nomination for the prestigious LVMH Prize, which supports burgeoning designers.

More than anything, he’s driven by “the bright-eyed optimism of youth culture,” he says, speaking from Indianapolis while overseeing the first night of Kanye West’s 39-date Saint Pablo tour. “Fashion and music are two great artistic forms that can be molded by the youth culture -- our taste and our passion for evolving things in our limited time on earth allows us to look at things with fresh eyes. I created Off-White and I DJ now more than I ever have in my life as ways to stay in tune with a younger self.” 

Working in the digital era has fostered a vast network of cross-platform artists in different cities (he cites multi-disciplined creatives like A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean, and DJ Tremaine Emory as friends and peers) who have a similar vision, adding up to what he likens to a virtual Studio 54 where “shared creativity is happening -- it’s got wider legs, it's a little bit more global, but we're all still interconnected, pushing our own ideas as artists but also pushing culture along because we care.” 

 “What I’ve learned so far within these seasons of doing the clothing line and the expressions of deejaying is that the pinnacle is being an artist. All of this is preparing my thesis, if you will, for that in the future—just creating fine art.” Does he paint of sculpt? “Nah. I think,” he says, citing conceptual artists such as Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Tom Sachs (who is a mentor to Abloh) as inspirations. But don’t get the wrong idea about some massive ego. Of his working relationship with Kanye West, with whom he’s been employed for 14 years, he says: “I’m still his assistant, like, for life. I have the title of creative director, but for a talent like him, you can only be an assistant.”

Which up and coming musicians are catching your eye in terms of style?

I’ve always felt that A$AP Rocky embodies another level of personal confidence. I'm not really into style. I'm more into confidence or having something to say. Fashion is not that interesting. But the A$AP crew of kids -- A$AP Nast, Bari, the designer of their crew, A$AP Illz, A$AP Ferg -- they’re a generation that have modernized fashion in their own way. 

What’s the most epic garment you’ve made or dressed a musician in? 

l would probably say A$AP Rocky's first tour; we did the wardrobe for it. For me it was a great opportunity that pre-dated any of my direct fashion projects. It was before Off-White, before Pyrex Vision—the project that spurred Off-White—it was the ambition to create a tour that meant something with it’s own identity down to the outfits, the tour poster, and everything like that... it still stands as one of my favorite projects. 

The design was pure... but also fully resolved into this sort of Apocalypse Now theme. Our references in fashion were something that we were both into, that we sort of were bringing to the forefront in its own way. It allowed the whole A$AP Mob to partake in the vibe of the creative direction that we set. I worked on the album cover for it and everything. 

You have so many creative endeavors. Is there anything that you haven't done yet that you're dying to do?

I'm in the midst of working on it, but I think what I've learned so far [through] the clothing line – is that to me, the pinnacle is being an artist—an artist without a specific genre.

What artists are you inspired by?

Duchamp and Andy Warhol. Tom Sachs is sort of like a mentor of mine—all the way to like a young artist friend by the name of Jim Jones who like inspires me greatly. People that are able to think in terms of concepts and offer us valuable forms of art are very exciting to me. 

A version of this story appeared in the Sept. 17 issue of Billboard.