Having served as Kanye West’s creative director for the last decade, Virgil Abloh has been privileged enough to work with some of the most interesting and influential members of the fashion industry, but, right now, he’s more concerned with the opinions of the kids he sees on the streets. Born in Rockford, Illinois, Abloh studied engineering before completing a Master's in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
It was here that he learned not only about design principles but also about the concept of collaborative working, studying a curriculum devised by Mies van der Rohe, the third and final director of Bauhaus, on a campus he had designed. “That was like church to me,” says Abloh of the experience. “I was so inspired by the concepts, let alone the actual building.”
Abloh is a busy man. Alongside his work with West, he owns an art gallery and now has his own label, Off-White, an extension of Pyrex Vision, the art project-cum-clothing line he launched in December 2012. When it emerged that the flannel shirts that formed the range were end of the line Ralph Lauren Rugby stock that had been screen printed and priced at $550, controversy ensued. However, that first collection still sold out from its prestigious stockists, which included Colette in Paris. Off-White might share an aesthetic ideal with Abloh’s earlier project, but it is actually a far broader collection, and one that is made for the brand in Italy.
It’s probably easiest to categorise Off-White as streetwear, although high fashion’s growing interest in that genre is making it an increasingly hard-to-define aesthetic. One way in which Abloh’s designs differentiate significantly from the established ideals of the style is his distressed aesthetic – fabric is ripped and frayed, subverting the usual prestige of keeping an item box-fresh.
“Pyrex Vision was an artist’s statement that was [recognisably] street wear, and then it transformed into Off-White, which, just by its name, its premise, is the polar opposite,” says Abloh, who has previously worked with Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, another phenomenally successful brand. “All of a sudden I realised that I don’t love modern design – I like shabby chic things. I like dirty sneakers; things that are worn and used and I find a beauty in that, but I come from a culture that favours the pristine and the box-fresh. I’m working with those opposing ideals to try and make something new.”
I meet Abloh at Copenhagen International Fashion Fair in early August where he has created an installation in the venue’s Crystal Hall, alongside a Malcolm McLaren retrospective.
“Fashion is about what’s next, who’s next,” says the trade show’s fashion and design director Kristian Andersen of his decision to work with Abloh, a name still relatively unknown by the mainstream. “Crystal Hall is where we play, dream and work with some of the most relevant figures in the fashion industry. We have the opportunity to inspire, provoke and tell the stories we find to be the most interesting. There’s a very cool vibe in Copenhagen and Virgil’s approach matches this perfectly.” Abloh’s approach to the installation, entitled Industrial by Nature, was to focus on his inspiration rather than the end product.
“I purposefully didn’t bring very many clothes,” he explains. “I felt it was more poignant to focus on the imagery that I started the collection with, as the mood board often gets left by the wayside when you move on to developing a collection. I wanted to spend as much time on just one reference in the same way I would on a collection that meant [installing] two tonnes of sand and four industrial fans.”
A self-confessed “compulsive collaborator”, Abloh worked with visual artist Cali Thornhill DeWitt for the installation’s imagery, who he connected with via Instagram. He recognises that such modern inventions have completely reshaped the way that people in the creative industries work. He sees a shift in people’s knowledge of fashion and taste that is in part spurred on by the way sites such as Tumblr create visual juxtapositions that had rarely been pursued by traditional print publications.
“In a general sense, my whole career is a collaboration with a number of artists,” says Abloh.
As a long-time fan of Raf Simons’ work, it’s surprising that the Belgian designer isn’t actually top of his collaborative list, although Abloh would jump at the chance to work for him:
“I would be an intern – sweep the floor, clean his living room – just to be in that space. He’s such an inspiration, but I wouldn’t collaborate because I don’t think I’m worthy,” he says.
This confession is a rare moment of humility from a man who sees himself designing for an established luxury brand such as Hermes or Goyard in 10 years. But such confidence is warranted, currently at least, as customers clamour to buy Off White – Selfridges has already had to re-order menswear for autumn/winter 2014.
“He’s been a real fashion presence for a while now,” says Terry Betts, director of menswear for the department store, which carried the line exclusively for spring/summer.
“He’s been on the radar of people who work in the industry for years. Most of the guys I that know working in fashion also keep a close eye on Kanye’s work and the input Virgil has had has always been really respected.”
Before it flies off the rails, Off-White is housed in Selfridge’s contemporary department in the company of streetwear labels such as Hood by Air and KTZ: “Collections that develop from street culture and quite niche beginnings, but go on to experience meteoric rises, are doing hugely well commercially for us,” explains Betts.
“With labels like this, having a strong visual identity is everything. Guys will see a brand name or a logo and go online or onto Instagram to find out what it’s about. It’s a really exciting way of spreading the message and Off-White’s easy-to-understand aesthetic emphasises that powerful idea of being part of something.
“When streetwear really works, more than anything else, it’s about ideas. It’s clever – even when it’s completely simple.”
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