Vir­gil re­al­ity

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.

VOGUE Australia - - VOGUE BEAUTY -

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.

Abloh, in his of­fice at Louis Vuit­ton’s head­quar­tersh in Paris’s first ar­rondisse­ment.

Abloh adds fin­ish­ing touches back­stage be­fore the show.

“Peo­ple, when they say ‘streetwear’, they miss the cen­tral com­po­nent, which is that it’s real peo­ple; it’s clothes that are worn on the street” Rap­per Play­boi Carti models a look from Abloh’s first col­lec­tion for Louis Vuit­ton.

VogueAus­tralia’s Chris­tine Cen­ten­era helps style a model with Vir­gil Abloh.

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