Virgil Abloh Thinks Streetwear Can Be a Trap
Abloh credits his success to defying convention and being in constant communication with his customer.
Virgil Abloh used the term zigzag often during his appearance at WWD's Apparel and Retail CEO Summit. It describes how he's climbed the ladder in fashion to launch his own line, Off-White, and land the artistic director position at Louis Vuitton men's. Streetwear was how he got his foot in the door — the zig — but once he got inside he's pushed himself past the confines of “streetwear designer” — the zag.
So far, the element of surprise, along with balancing his many other creative jobs, is working and he's not looking to disrupt the industry as much as he wants to evolve it. In a conversation with WWD's editor in chief Miles Socha, Abloh spoke about the sustainability of streetwear, how he avoids clichés, and what younger customers are looking for that most luxury brands don't offer.
WWD: You trained as an architect, so you are an outsider of sorts to fashion design. Has this helped you to break rules and what principles do you bring from architecture?
Virgil Abloh: I first studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But I would say my sort of education started well before that. It started with being passionate about culture. So I was very involved in how pop culture manifests itself because that dictates what the world will shape into the next five, 10, 15 years. So more of my approach was to combine these sort of higher education things that I was learning in a very practical field like engineering and a figurative field like architecture, but giving those two-thirds of a component. And one-third is my upbringing and what I could understand from the existing pop culture world. Those three things made a petri dish to do anything and I chose fashion because I believed that it was an industry that connected all of the disciplines and many more.
WWD: Do you see streetwear as a passing trend or an enduring movement?
V.A.: The world evolves and I think an industry was, in my mind, caught blind by thinking that these existing trends and existing metrics had no variable of return and just stayed the same. So my interest in fashion was how can I evolve this system. Disrupt is a word that often gets used when associated with something new. I always akin it to an earthquake. Tectonic plates need to move in order to have an event, and I have just focused on what's a way to create an event that pays respect to the history of fashion and even the years before I could partake. And the buzzword now is called streetwear. I think it's a little bit of a term that's a trap. It's sort of seen as an ingredient that you just sprinkle on anything, but more what it means in the practical sense is clothing that people wear on the street. Fashion started as a thing in a Parisian fashion house like Cristobal Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent. They make a silhouette and they make couture clothing. That's just the order of a 50-year-old idea. Then Yves Saint Laurent and others start this thing called ready-to-wear that's not for a select few but for a select moment. They were clothes that were linked to couture but more widespread. So when I was starting about 10 years ago, it was apparent that there was this upswell of interest in fashion that wasn't trickling down from top tiers and using the already occurring trends and already occurring clothes. After the collections distill down into what people are buying from the stores, there is a new ready-to-wear and that's how I think about streetwear, even though the term takes a little bit of a left from what it is.
The way I see it, it's no longer a topdown strategy. It's not brands saying this is what the trend is. The customer, especially in my field, can thumbs up and thumb down your brand in two seconds. I think the key word is relevancy. If something is relevant it's already occurring on the street, you see it. You see a passion for it. For example, Supreme right now probably has a line that's four blocks long around it versus a luxury store just a few blocks away might not have anyone in it. When the brand is sort of communicating relevant things you are going to see a major sort of engagement. But it's not a figurative thing that can be designed into products or designed into campaigns.
WWD: You mentioned you're shooting your first campaign for Louis Vuitton. Who is the photographer?
V.A.: Just your question in itself is a traditional notion. You are already making an assumption that someone either unknown or notable is the crux of the campaign, and I decided to think about the most relevant way to communicate the message. And the success of it comes through a zigzag. So my campaign will have a dialogue against the whole industry that has traditionally used campaigns as a way to message what the campaigns are about. The practical answer is I have four different photographers shooting four different concepts. Some digital. Some traditional. It's reanalyzing the idea of what a whole campaign is and I would link that to streetwear.
WWD: Your last Off-White show had a lot of ballgowns and Vuitton had a lot of suits and coats. Are you ready
WWD: You also curate art exhibits, design furniture and DJ. Why do you do all of these extra things? How does your DJ career feed your fashion and vice versa?
V.A.: Well one thing I believe, and this is sort of like a message to bring to this community that we have, is that Millennials is like a buzzword, but the different silos are mini prisons. Culture exists because it's a merger. It's an ecosystem that one thing changes the other. So I prefer to exist and contribute to the larger ecosystem. Fashion is just one small silo that dictates the pop culture that exists. So for me I don't think of it as a novelty. I'm a creative. So the way I see it I can have a suggestion on a painting to use in an exhibit, or on runway set design and the soundtrack, or on the campaign. It's more of an old architecture principle. Maybe from the Bauhaus era. It's about total design. So I approach this new time knowing how much freedom there is to exist across multiple categories. DJing is probably the best other job to have. It attributes the success that I have with releasing clothing. On a micro level, my DJing schedule creates different events in each market. The designer and the brand interact with local consumers and I've been doing it since I was 17. So 20 years of DJing means that I've had this following that's my base. And a lot of the success I've had, I would say, is because I remove the boundary of designer and consumer and I'm more often in conversation with them. I'm in dialogue and I think what's great is that the role with Louis Vuitton is it gives me an opportunity to bring some of those ideals to what I believe is the best brand in the luxury sector.
WWD: You dialogue with other brands including Nike. Why do you think collaborations are so popular and ►