Anyone following fashion, even if only in the slightest, will have done well to not hear about Virgil Abloh, the multi-hyphenate is probably the most famous person in the fashion industry at this moment due to the amount of projects, collaborations and exhibitions he is involved with. Almost each week a new “thing” is released or revealed from collaborations with Nike, Vitra or Ikea alongside announcements of solo and collective exhibitions or a DJ set at an international festival; it’s fair to say that Abloh is a very busy man.
Born in Illinois, Abloh later graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2001 with a BA degree in civil engineering, later in 2006 he received his masters in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). At the IIT he was introduced to a curriculum, originally established by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which was formed from the notions of Bauhaus, that enabled Abloh to learn how to converge the fields of arts, craft, and design. He said that when he was studying at IIT, there was a building under construction by the architect Rem Koolhaas which sparked his early interests in fashion, designing t-shirts and writing about fashion on The Brilliance fashion blog. Abloh’s early fashion interests also stemmed from his love of skateboarding and the fashion and style surrounding the subculture.
Abloh on Rem Koolhaas:
“When I was studying architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, the student center was just getting finished by OMA, the firm run by Rem Koolhaas. One of the mentors that was giving lectures on campus was a man named Michael Rock. Rem and Michael together made up two-thirds of the think tank surrounding Prada. That’s how I first made the bridge between architecture and fashion.”
Abloh on Ludwig Mies van der Rohe:
“He has singularly has been the most impactful designer in regards to my personal aesthetic and way of thinking about modernism and rationalism.”
Abloh on skateboarding fashion:
“All the skateboarding brands that I was into had graphic T-shirts. In the ’90s, there were different styles that went along with the different influences in skateboarding, whether that be hip-hop or rock and roll and grunge. And that’s what I was into, so I was following all that.”
In the timeline of Abloh’s career there is an important part where he first met producer and rapper Kanye West who invited him to be part of his creative team as his ‘creative consultant’; Kanye clearly saw the potential of Abloh and described him as “one of the smartest, fastest, most innovative people I’ve created with.” He later became creative director of Kanye’s DONDA, an agency /’creative think tank’ which became Kanye’s incubator for everything from music videos to stage design and all types of creative output including album artwork, stage and set design, books, tour merchandise, music videos, film trailers and U.S. Patent 20130181901 A1.
Of the work produced here by DONDA’s team, steered by Abloh, perhaps the most iconic is the art direction and album artwork for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s 2011 Watch the Throne album, featuring religous iconography from Riccardo Tisci. The work earned DONDA and in turn Abloh’s Grammy nomination for Best Recording Packaging; the project is an example of Abloh’s ideology and method of repurposing other people’s work into new spaces and means.
Skipping some important moments in Abloh’s career¹ and jumping to 2012 saw Abloh launch his Off-White brand; a streetwear-meets-couture fashion brand known for its use of quotes, zip ties, capital letters, graphic shapes and patterns and oversized logos. You could argue that Off-White’s introduction of streetwear to high fashion was a pivotal moment in fashion as luxury fashon houses have also pivoted to the streetwear aesthetic since; this has definitely been pushed forward by hip-hop artists.
Abloh on Off-White
“Off-White is two things. It’s the consumer product, but then it’s also a theory, it’s a modern proposition… The obligation isn’t to buy Off-White, it’s to just look at it. It’s just to be conscious of the concept. That’s what I’m doing, making a concept around streetwear, which feels very modern to me. And my goal is for people to absorb the fashion show images or understand the layers of the fashion show that I’m putting together.”
One of Abloh and Off-White’s biggest projects to date so far is an ongoing collaboration with Nike which was originally a ten piece collection with Abloh re-inventing classic Nike shoe silhouettes in his own way: The Ten. Deconstructing and reconstructing the shoes to “uncover the emotional details of each icon” adding and removing details, using translucent materials, printing directly onto the shop and the now trade mark Off-White quotations in Helvetica and coloured zip-ties. The project creates something new yet familiar, showing something which typically goes unseen.
Abloh on The Ten (Off-White x Nike collaboration)
“You can’t set out to make an icon. Culture returns it to you.The important thing about The Ten for me is that it’s Nike recognizing its icons from the past, but showing them for the design integrity of the future. A post-modern idea about design, culture, innovation, and athletic performance all intertwined into one. Here you have a company — it’s obviously massive and focused on innovation and athletic performance — and then you have a kid like me who’s like staring at every poster, going to school wearing Nike basketball, wanting to play like Jordan.
I believe that culture moves on this sort of wave-length. That a young generation possesses ideas that an older generation can now learn from in any genre, whether it’s art, fashion, architecture, music. I see it as a renaissance instead of an Armageddon. I wanted to give people the actual information, allow them to see what year these shoes are from, and how they place in the overall history of the brand. So, I looked at this whole project as like passing the baton and doing right by all that innovation, but adding a lifestyle layer to it, to say that these shoes are icons, they transcended into another space, highlighting what emotional attachment these objects [have]… or how we can now look at them in 2017 and understand how important they were in the past.
This project to me was especially important, not just for the sneaker itself, but to make a platform that a generation can see themselves in, that we obsess about, but also see a larger story.”
In 2018, Abloh was announced as the new artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton (LV), the first person of African descent to lead the brand’s menswear line, as well as one of the few black designers at the helm of a major fashion house: Olivier Rousteing is the creative director of Balmain, and Ozwald Boateng was the designer for Givenchy men’s wear from 2003 to 2007. Abloh’s hiring at LV marks an important moment in fashion; here you have the biggest fashion house choosing to change direction towards a streetwear aesthetic, however this foundation was laid before Abloh with LV’s previous director, Kim Jones, instigating the now iconic LV x Supreme collaboration in 2017.
It shows that LV are wanting to move with the times in an attempt to engage a new generation of consumer; and it’s working; what Jones started, Abloh is sure to continue. Abloh also sees his hiring at LV as a step in the right direction of black representation in the fashion industry as it is clear that there are only a handful of black fashion designers in an industry renowned for white-washing.
Abloh on Louis Vuitton
“It is an honour for me to accept the position of Men’s Artistic Director for Louis Vuitton. I find the heritage and creative integrity of the House are key inspirations and will look to reference them both while drawing parallels to modern times.”
With his Nike collaboration being a large scale example, it is not the only collaboration Abloh has been involved with over recent years. Collaborations with Timberland, Levi’s, Champion, Evian, Rimowa, Vitra, Moncler, Pioneer, Ikea, SSENSE, Sunglass Hut and Jimmy Choo have only cemented the idea that Abloh is the biggest and most important designer right now. In this current world of hype driven sales Abloh has proven that he has the ability to make people want to buy things.
Abloh on collaborations:
“I enjoy doing collaborations because I’m an optimist. Collaborations provide the opportunity to explore ideas and create things that haven’t been done before–or even perhaps, give way to change the scope of fashion altogether.
At the time of writing this, there is currently a large-scale solo, mid-career retrospective of Abloh taking place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago: “Figures of Speech”; the first museum exhibition dedicated to the artist/designer. It is poignant to have the exhibition in a museum of such stature in Chicago, in the state of Illinois where Abloh grew up and studied.
The immersive exhibition covers Abloh’s career so far including his work with Kanye at DONDA, his Pyrex Vision brand and early fashion collaborations, through to his work with IKEA, Nike, Louis Vuitton and his own artistic output. The exhibition space and layout was designed by Samir Bantal of AMO, the research studio of OMA and has been organised by Michael Darling. Split into sections it includes 20 years worth of work across “Early Work,” “Fashion,” “Music,” “Intermezzo,” “Black Gaze,” “Design,” and “The End.”
A corresponding book has been published by Prestel which features the work in the exhibition, including around 2000 images and a number of essays which discuss race, contemporary art history, streetwear and more spread across almost 500 pages.
Abloh on “Figures of Speech” MCA exhibition:
“For me, ‘Figures of Speech’ is an art exhibition rooted in advertising and ‘the projected image.’ Any time an idea takes shape on a particular surface — a photo print, a screen, a billboard, or canvas — it becomes real. This exhibition demonstrates how I wrestle with this concept freed from any one medium, looking for personal and specific solutions.”
I titled this article ‘The Abloh Effect’ because there is a specific example of how Abloh’s high work drive and passion for design and fashion can and has inspired others. Samuel Ross, the specific example, is a British, multi-disciplinary designer, artist and fellow hyphenate who founded A-COLD-WALL* fashion brand in 2015 following a period of interning at Off-White and DONDA under the guidance of Abloh as a mentor (Abloh saw Ross’ work on Instagram). He graduated with a degree in graphic design and illustration from De Montfort University in 2012.
It is clear that Abloh’s mentoring has rubbed off on Ross who in his short career has already seen numerous collaborations with Nike, Oakley, Converse, Diesel, Suicoke and PLACES + FACES as well as working with artists and designers such as Daniel Arsham, Takashi Murakami, Hiroshi Fujiwara and Kanye West. In 2018 he was a finalist for the LVMH award and was awarded as British Emerging Talent in menswear; high accolades for someone early on in their career.
Ross’ streetwear/high-fashion brand A-COLD-WALL* and his subsequent other projects, Concrete Objects² and POLYTHENE* OPTICS³ have a distinctly industrial, brutalist and dystopian feeling, inspired by the British class system; reflecting on his own personal story of growing up in a working-class neighbourhood and studying design. His work presents democratic design, focusing on the youth and urban intensity, reactionarism and hypergrahpism; he calls his practice a “continuous study of fashion design, installation art, sculpture & living space”.
Abloh on Samuel Ross:
“I came across your account on Instagram — I use Instagram as tool, like a phone book or LinkedIn — and I recognised your genius just by scrolling through six images. I remember vividly seeing something you were working on… something with a yellow background and black text. I must have direct messaged you. I do that to this day, too. If someone has the right personality, I direct message them and ask them to work on projects for me.”
2. Concrete Objects is an ongoing collaborative conversation between designers Samuel Ross & Jobe Burns. Conversations take place in the form of objects designed around a mutual appreciation for brutalist forms combined with a fixation on experimentation. In turn creating a shared objective of crafting simple impactful objects for daily use.
3. The emergence of POLYTHENE* OPTICS marks a divergence in content output. At this juncture, co-founders Samuel Ross and Andrew Harper utilise their new label to project more accessible looks, fabrics and silhouettes. The sister label of A-COLD-WALL*, the new brand is about re-aligning with company’s original mission statement and building a creative movement with roots in “democratic design.” The heavy use of graphics and more accessible use of fabrics and silhouettes contrast the Ross’ existing projects with the hyper graphic brash reactionary nature of POLYTHENE* OPTICS.
If theres something that we can take from Abloh, it is the idea of working cross-subject; being open to work in graphic design, art, archtitecture, music, fashion etc. Not being afraid to try something outside of your immediate practice and going into something new; questioning everything and everything in the pursuit of knowledge to gain experience and to learn.
You can keep up to date and browse Abloh’s past projects through his archive website.