Meet the coolest man in fash­ion

Get to know Vir­gil Abloh, Louis Vuit­ton’s new­est menswear artis­tic di­rec­tor

Glamour (South Africa) - - Contents -

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.

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