Vir­gil Abloh Thinks Streetwear Can Be a Trap

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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 ►

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