The prince of pop design has ascended to the throne of a major French fashion label. Can Virgil Abloh keep his cool? By K Austin Collins. Photographed by Alex Majoli.
Virgil Abloh is restless. We’re sitting upstairs in the white- walled Paris offices of Louis Vuitton, in a studio packed with sketch-strewn worktables, and, as we speak, the designer wheels to and fro in an office chair across the floor. Yesterday was the luxe, sunny debut of Abloh’s spring/summer ’19 collection, his first show since being named the fashion house’s new artistic director of menswear in March. Put another way: it’s the morning after Abloh made history, so pardon the jitters. Abloh is the first black man in Louis Vuitton’s 164-year history to debut a menswear line. He’s also, he might point out, the first man in his position to hail not from New York City, or even the suburbs, but from Rockford, Illinois – a far midwestern cry from the majestic largesse of Paris’s Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées, where, the previous afternoon, his meteoric rise was capped off with a Wizard of Oz– themed rainbow runway, styled by Vogue Australia’s Christine Centenera. Abloh’s Technicolor, multicultural parade of models and artists donning mohair jumpers and bright leather trench coats, all of them affixed with LV monograms and Abloh-esque flourishes, was a decisive statement: we’re not in Kansas anymore.
Up to this point, Abloh has largely been known to his colleagues in the fashion industry as this century’s consumer-savvy, media-hyper-literate instigator of retooled, re-purposed, photogenic cool. For better and worse. This means high-end sneakers with shoelaces labelled “shoelace”, in quotes, just so. It means constant, buzzy collaborations with the likes of Nike, Takashi Murakami, Jimmy Choo, Moncler, and, most recently, Ikea.
You can largely thank the success of Abloh’s Milan-based luxury-streetwear brand Off-White, founded in 2013, for his name recognition and reputation as an arbiter of cool. But Off-White isn’t Louis Vuitton. The brand has a youthful folly, a crude sense of pop weirdness – detractors claim its fraudulence – unsuitable for a major house. Off-White’s signature diagonal stripes and ironic quotation marks are, for hype beasts and the star-obsessed, as coded and class-aware as interlocking LV monograms are to another generation. The brand has more than four million followers on Instagram, which, in 2018, amounts to something. Beyond even those whose only job is to analyse this new-world currency, Abloh knows that what is attractive about his brand is its meaning.
“I thought that a designer with a capital D never looked like me,” Abloh tells me. “I was like, I’m not a designer.” This despite having been in the business for more than a decade and having more sold-out design collaborations than Alexander Wang. I ask him how he feels today, the show immediately behind him. “Maybe yesterday afternoon I wouldn’t have considered myself a designer,” he says. “Today I would, probably. But 98 per cent.”
The son of Ghanaian immigrants, Abloh, 37, grew up a skater kid; he would say he still dresses like one. He did what his parents wanted, professionally, because it freed him up to DJ on the weekends, which he still does (“I’ve been DJing for 20 years and I haven’t stopped,” he tells me). “My dad was like: ‘I want a son who’s an engineer,’” he says.
“But I was into skateboarding and listening to hip-hop, and hanging out with my friends, consuming Polo.” He met Kanye West at Fendi (they interned there together in 2009, both paid $500 a month), and as they became friends, a succession of jobs followed: creative director of West’s agency, DONDA (named after the rapper’s late mother), and artistic director of Watch the Throne, West’s album-length collaboration with Jay-Z released in 2011.
Not long into his career in fashion, Abloh quickly, cannily secured real estate on the backs and bosoms of the hottest-ticket celebrities to hit our Tumblr and Instagram feeds, people whose style, in today’s pointedly brand- and image-aware economy, seemed to cut through the noise. Rihanna. Bella Hadid. Justin Bieber. And Abloh’s close friend Kanye.
In interviews, West and Abloh, sincere allies, have spoken of their mutual dream to get behind the sanctified doors of the fashion industry. (In a recent interview with radio personality Charlamagne tha God, West claimed the internship wasn’t all that. “We interned at Fendi but we ain’t do shit. We ain’t get to do nothing. I was just happy to have a key card.”) “Making it,” for Abloh and West (whose own Yeezy line favours earth-toned, apocalypse-chic athleisure), was getting a post in a top fashion house. So it was not a shock for anyone familiar with their backstory to see West at Abloh’s Paris show. The surprising thing is what happened when the show ended: Abloh, forgoing the usual bows, walked swiftly past all the well-wishers and directly into his friend’s arms. They embraced – the protégé had arrived. In the video of the moment, which made waves online (and spurred a flood of texts from my friends), you can see up close that Abloh’s arms are covered in goosebumps. Also unexpected was another member of Abloh’s roving crew seated at the show: the 25-yearold model Ian Connor, who was recently accused of rape by more than 20 women (claims which he denies). That’s telling us something – you sense an unwillingness, or an inability, for Abloh to leave behind the people who helped make it happen.
Then there are the people who make it real. Rihanna, whose ascent as a hot rod for fashion trends tracks alongside Abloh’s own rise, was also there, baking in one of the long rows of tightly seated benches with the rest of us. And on the runway, models and musicians like Playboi Carti, Dev Hynes and Kid Cudi delivered life lessons on unteachable cool, while music from West’s new album, ye, boomed all around, and a drone buzzed overhead. Welcome to Oz: these are the fruits of a peek behind the curtain.
The morning of our conversation is understandably busy. You don’t get a day off after your big debut at a major fashion house: you get a roster full of meetings and the prod to start (read: to continue) planning your next show – while selling the press on your last one. You also, being the man of the hour, get followers, lots of them, a sardinecan pile-up of bouquets stashed under a white neon sign that reads Louis Vuitton Forever.
If, like Abloh, you were a radical choice for the job in the first place – an outsider from the ground up, who studied engineering and architecture instead of fashion and got his start selling printed T-shirt markups and working for West rather than earning his path assisting on the floor of a major house – you’re treated to a little something extra. A twinge of something in the air, a low-frequency hum emitted by everyone else in the building: a sense of relief.
It’s immediately clear when we meet that Abloh hasn’t gotten a break all week. He’s friendly, alert and talkative, but, with a white hoodie pulled up over his head, he’s also winded, and no wonder. Putting together a show for fashion week is a Herculean team effort, by which standard you could say that Abloh – who’s still the creative director of Off-White, which also had a show at Paris Fashion Week this year – has spent the past week etching his name into Mount Olympus.
This is his life now – rather, these are his lives. I ask the father of two – who moved from Chicago to Paris with his son and daughter, Lowe and Grey, and his wife of nearly 10 years, Shannon ( his high- school sweetheart), after taking the Louis Vuitton gig – how he pulls it off. “I’m super-organised,” he says, unrevealingly. “And passion – that’s it.”
He sounds, at times, like a graduate student tackling the Q&A portion of his thesis defence: brainy, heady, but careful to explain his thoroughly conceived conclusions. At other times, more assured, he comes off like a tech CEO, telling me more than once of his dream to collaborate with Apple on a new iPhone, appropriating the psychologist jargon of the “halo effect” and harping on his intentions to share the “cheat codes” of his intimidatingly efficient process – which, by the way, entails being able to design something in 10 minutes.
“A project like Ikea or something,” he says, “I’m trying to design it while we’re in the intro meeting. Because if you can do that, you’ve already shaved three months. So every project I have I try to initiate very quickly.” He tells me he conceived of his entire Louis Vuitton show on the flight back from their first meeting: a single-sitting brainstorming session.
People who believe that Abloh’s entire career is predicated on repackaging the ideas of others – and there are many of those detractors – claim he’s more keyed into social media and celebrity than he is into ‘fashion’ per se; more adept at performing genius absorption and cool self-promotion than at proffering an original silhouette. But it seems he may owe these critiques a debt. Abloh tells me he feeds off them and they inspired his new collection.
Abloh’s hiring, though longrumoured, was a funny pivot for Louis Vuitton. The company’s chief executive, Michael Burke, credited the new artistic director’s “innate creativity and disruptive approach” at the time. For some, Abloh’s appointment has the whiff of a company drastically conflating artistic direction with brand management. Angelo Flaccavento, a critic at Business of Fashion, put it this way to Highsnobiety: “I think hiring creative directors on the basis of their social media following is very short-sighted. Success will ensue on the short term, but I think overlooking design for hype might be destructive on the long run. “Then again,” he added, “I might be wrong.”
Abloh’s value isn’t in the ideas he has about fashion but rather in the ideas he has about its consumers. To him, the premise of streetwear is not only design but consumption. “People, when they say ‘streetwear’, they miss the central component,” he tells me, “which is that it’s real people; it’s clothes that are worn on the street. The street,” he says, is “where you get the relevant ideas to real people.” This explains his resistance to ‘fashion’, as such, which he sums up with a quote from West: “I make Christmas presents.”
I mentioned to Abloh that West’s new songs made more sense to me at his show than they did listening to them at home. The beat, the ego, the bespoke lyrical echo chamber: ye was fashion-show music, a powerful complement to the runway’s mandated feats of self-display. “My job for Kanye was just that,” Abloh told me. “Organising, art-directing the moment at which people heard the music for the first time.” Communicating the attitude and intent of the music to its first audience through design was very much an Abloh vocation.
And very much an Abloh way of thinking. Architecture wasn’t efficient enough at communicating its ideas to the public, so he left; fashion is a matter of helping consumers communicate their self-esteem to themselves. “We’re consumers,” says Abloh. “We’re raised off the understanding of what makes things valuable.” In other words: make what people will want.