MARCHING TO HIS OWN BEAT
With his cool credentials and diverse creative skills, Off-White designer Virgil Abloh was never going to lead a conventional life.
Iwould die if I had a nine-to-five,” says Virgil Abloh. And he doesn’t: the 36-year-old lives “on an airplane” as a designer, DJ, architect, engineer, father, and collaborator c of Kanye West. Abloh, whose M.O. is that you don’t have to choose one thing in life, may for that reason be the quintessential modern fashion designer. His three-year-old label Off-White is a street wearcouture mash-up that has drawn critical rave sand become a mainstay of the Kardashian-Jenner crew. Abloh himself is part of the group currently leading the fashion vanguard, alongside European standouts like Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga and Vetements, and Alessandro Michele of Gucci. “Our upbringing was a little avant-garde, so the result is avant-garde,” Abloh says of himself and his peers. “You have to live a lifestyle to be able to design for that.”
His history is in a lot of ways very American. Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, the son of immigrants from Ghana. “I easily could have been born in a third world country, jumping over exposed gutters,” he says, “and I would still be the exact same person. I would just be in a space where I wouldn’t be able to have an impact.” Instead, Abloh grew up a suburban kid of the 90s, skateboarding and DJ-ing at high school dances. When his father said he should be an engineer, Abloh enrolled in college for that, but eventually segued into architecture, which led him to discover first the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, then Prada (Koolhaas designed some of the brand’s stores), and somewhere along the way fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. (Don’t all roads lead to West?) They began collaborating 13 years ago, with Abloh consulting on everything from album covers to West’s Yeezy line. “I started as an intern – I’m still his assistant,” he jokes. “He’s like a nuclear-level artist, making living pieces of art that happen to be pop-culture fixtures. He’s taught me a lot about how to be a creative in this modern landscape.”
That may explain the drive behind Off-White. The label, based in Milan, shows at Paris fashion week – and the rarity of a male African-American designer showing in Paris and being celebrated for it ( West himself tried several years ago, to mixed reviews) isn’t lost on Abloh. “I feel like it’s my job to go and break down barriers,” he says. His clothes don’t subscribe to norms, either: the autumn/winter ’16/’17 collection featured a one-shoulder tuxedo jacket paired with sweats. For resort ’16, Abloh played with oversized deconstructed denim and graphic shirting.
So how does the designer, who somehow combines 2am DJ gigs and global commitments with a wife, Shannon, and two young kids, describe his 100-miles-per-hour life? The way many of us would love to: “I’m basically the same 17-year-old version of myself as an adult,” he says. “I’ve just translated my interests into a formidable job.”