Meet the coolest man in fashion
Get to know Virgil Abloh, Louis Vuitton’s newest menswear artistic director
virgil Abloh is an exceptionally busy man. On the day we meet, he has flown into London directly from an event in New York with contemporary artist Jeff Koons, his luggage in tow. Before he leaves, less than 20 hours later, he will be mobbed by fans at a magazine signing, receive a Fashion Award and host a stickle-floored after party. He is leaving town at 7am and heading straight to Art Basel, Miami’s celeb-filled art fair, where his itinerary includes launching a T-shirt collaboration with artist Jenny Holzer, playing a rugby game with rapper Skepta and performing on stage with Drake. He is nothing if not prolific.
It is this tireless drive that marked Virgil’s ascent as a fashion designer. In 2014 he founded Off-white, a label that bridges the gap between streetwear and luxury, and it quickly earnt a cult following. Last year, he released a 10-piece collab with Nike, and he has an exhibition, Virgil Abloh, showing at the Museum of Contemporary Art until September. Meanwhile, women from Beyoncé to Gigi Hadid are proud ambassadresses for his designs. “Who is Virgil Abloh?” asked a recent headline. “GOAT” replied Rihanna on Instagram. Translated: Greatest Of All Time.
Unusually, considering the scale of his success, Virgil has no formal fashion training: he studied civil engineering (“My dad is a Ghanaian immigrant, and he wanted a son who was an engineer.”) then architecture, before graduating to work at a small architecture firm. It was during this period that he orchestrated an introduction to Kanye West and promptly started consulting on his creative projects. “I was like a young intern turned art director,” he says. “Travelling around the world but always coming back to my day job.” Virgil’s brand may be a calculated success, but he is remarkably cool when he speaks about how he got here.
It is that sense of cool that Virgil will now channel into Louis Vuitton, a sort of disaffected insouciance, heavy-laden with irony, which speaks directly to the Instagram generation. Quotation marks surround every statement he makes or prints on clothes, the trademark symbol appears after his brand name in any official communication, everything comes written in Helvetica. “Illustrating branding in Helvetica, in quotes, is a statement in itself. This is dry humour, dry irony.” He pauses for a moment to note down the phrase “dry irony” on his phone before concluding, “Ironic things are interesting.”
He’s an expert multitasker and a fervid Instagrammer; in the back of a car together, we talk about fine artist Marcel Duchamp (one of his personal heroes, beloved for his manipulation of context) as he scrolls through his feed. That ability to simultaneously straddle high and low culture rests at the very core of Virgil. He uses the same academic phrasing to discuss memes as he does postmodernism.
He’s remarkably attuned to the impact of Instagram. After all, he says, “Nowadays, everyone has a voice, everyone can be a critic. You don’t have to get past someone with a clipboard at a fashion show anymore to be part of the conversation.”
The democracy of the digital age is directly reflected in Virgil’s own trajectory: in 2009, he started attending Paris Fashion Week with Kanye, the two of them got into just over half of the shows they tried to attend – two young black men embedded in streetwear culture simply weren’t the people brands wanted at their shows. Then, when he launched RSVP Gallery, a Chicago gallery-retail space curated to reflect the high-low mix of brands that his friends were wearing at the time, he couldn’t get accounts with all of the labels that he wanted to stock. Such refusals only galvanised his resolve – at a free panel discussion he hosted with Nike, he explained to a rapt audience of teenagers, “My motivation is, in part, a bit of angst that comes from feeling like I don’t belong. I made a conscious decision that I wasn’t just going to be a consumer, that at least one of us would appear at the end of a Parisian runway.”
Accordingly, RSVP Gallery became an outlet for his own creations: in 2013 he launched his first brand, Pyrex Vision, with a video lookbook that proclaimed ‘ Youth Always Wins’. It exploded online, people started paying attention, and his logo-printed deadstock rugby shirts sold for more than R6 000 apiece. A year later, the brand closed. But, rather than dismantling it altogether, he simply changed its name and relocated the base to Italy. “I got those factories to produce what people perceived as streetwear, and eventually evolved into Off-white.” Smartly-seeded products, drip-fed to famous friends who posted them on their own social media, quickly made Off-white the brand to be seen in.
What has happened since has been an out-and-out phenomenon. The sales of his clothing are nothing short of incredible, but even more pronounced is his enormous cultural impact. Only a few years ago, the term ‘streetwear’ was used with derision, but now, even the most refined brands are leveraging its low-fi aesthetic, looking to Virgil for inspiration. “I’m incredibly proud of Virgil,” explains Naomi Campbell, a self-proclaimed fan. “We don’t have many black designers, and he’s opened the fashion industry to a generation who aren’t couture trained but who have their own way of combining streetwear with ready-to-wear. He’s shown them that his way of doing things can work – and I think this is only the beginning.”
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that what Virgil has achieved over the past few years has shifted the fashion conversation: now, more than ever, established houses are aware of the power of the youth, that its not enough to spend on their luxury heritage for cultural prestige. He has abolished the industry’s traditional barriers to entry, paved the way for a new generation of young designers and – on Instagram at least – made it look almost easy. “It’s a new era and the future looks different,” he surmises. “I used to not even be able to get into fashion shows!”
He takes a breath, picks up a plastic cup of champagne and asks me how it looked. He hardly gets the words out before he stops himself, “I guess I’ll find out on Instagram.” He is certainly a testament to the times.
“My motivation is, in part, a bit of angst that comes from feeling like I don’t belong.”
2018 Virgil with Anna Wintour at the OffWhite runway show. 2017 With Bella Hadid at the CFDA Fashion Awards. 2018 With Kaia Gerber at the OffWhite fashion show. 2017 Attending the Fashion Awards.
2017 With Naomi Campbell at the OffWhite fashion show.