When Virgil Abloh arrived on the Rhode Island School of Design campus last week for his guest talk titled “Theoretically Speaking,” he couldn’t help but feel chuffed at finally being on the art school’s campus. That evening, he told the auditorium full of students, “The ironic thing about me standing here talking to you guys, is that you guys have me beat on one important principle: you got accepted to RISD, and I did not. I really did want to come here. I knew that I wanted to create, and I knew I needed a place to learn how to do that.”

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Virgil Abloh and RISD President Rosanne Somerson

Luckily for Abloh, he still found a way to create, and he’s basically been artistically multi-tasking ever since he received his undergraduate in Civil Engineering at University of Madison-Wisconsin and Masters of Architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology. His latest feat has been elevating streetwear to the runways of Paris via Off-White, while simultaneously branching out into furniture design, collaborating with the music industry, and working on a book. It’s that sense of cross-genre creativity that spoke to RISD president Rosanne Somerson, who met Abloh a few months ago when they shared a panel at Art Basel Miami.

“In my opinion, Virgil represents such a positive model in the fact that he’s someone that had really formal, rigorous training in engineering and architecture and used that training as a launching pad to get into so many different areas of design practices,” Somerson told us in her office a few hours before Abloh’s RISD talk. “Because of the rigor of his education, he was able to enter those fields with a lot of creditability.” She went on to explain that the RISD education emphasizes transferable bodies of knowledge—preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist. “It’s about taking an application in one setting and being able to apply it to something else by using your creativity, rigor, and expertise. To me, Virgil is a great example of that.”

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Virgil Abloh visits the Furniture Design department.
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“Pick your mentors and understand what makes their work tick,” said Abloh.

For Abloh, every opportunity is a chance to push himself and his creativity, and his trip to RISD proved to be no exception. His first stop on campus was the bookstore, where he stocked up on merch. “I love the RISD logo,” he told the students. “It’s one of the top five logos—better than any streetwear brand.” He decided to deconstruct and rework two of the sweatshirts and present his work during the talk, but found himself short on time with just 45 minutes before he was scheduled to take the stage. Unable to give up on his idea, he simply employed the help of some students in the Apparel Design building and got it done—while recording the whole thing on Instagram live, naturally. “You’ll probably see these in the next Off-White collection,” he laughed earnestly.

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Virgil reveals one of his custom hoodies created with the help of the apparel students. It has “RISD Design ‘May 2nd 2017’” stitched down the spine.
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“Through your many accomplishments awards and associations, you are a stellar example of something we talk lot about at RISD—the importance of transcending categories. In fact, we like to think that boundaries are meant to be guidelines rather than walls,” said Somerson.

Abloh used the spur-of-the-moment project to tell the students that working yourself to your maximum is how you get good ideas and achieve success. “Perfectionism doesn’t advance anything, ironically. As a creative and as a designer, there’s no wrong way to go about the future of your career. The only failure is not to try.” Shouting out the students that helped him with the merch, he emphasized the importance of collaboration. “It’s the essence from which good work comes out. Maybe you only see one person’s name on the credit, but it’s the interconnectedness among yourselves that will actually bring about the new work that will propel your careers.”

While he spoke of his interest in furniture design and post-modernism, the conversation often came back to Off-White with Abloh referring to the brand as a “playground” for his ideas. “I needed a bucket, and I urge you guys to think about your work in a larger context—about what it means. I was super-inspired by designers like Margiela—it’s a whole thought process that equaled into clothing.”

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“What I love about higher education and the importance of it to this generation is that it’s a safe haven to foster and learn skills that’ll be with you for the rest of your life,” said Abloh.

Building on the idea that his brand is part of a larger concept, he shared one favorite Rem Koolhaas quotes with the group: “It is not possible to live in this age if you don’t have a sense of many contradictory forces.” With the Dutch architect’s words illuminated on the screen behind him, Abloh stressed how it all came down to this idea. “Off-White is neither black nor white, and it’s not grey either. It’s my medium in between those extremes—my own aesthetic. As a creative person, I try to work in a genre-less space. There are no boundaries in the real world—if you work hard. Creativity is highly valued.”

There’s no doubt that mentor fits right in with Abloh’s long list of accolades. When we chatted with Virgil before the talk, he stressed the importance of that role in what he does. “These kids are looking for mentors and there aren’t many people who look at them past their outfit. These talks are more to inspire the youth and share ideas—tricks of the trade that I learned that most people don’t tell other people.”

To watch the entire “Theoretically Speaking” lecture, click here.

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