Virgil Abloh is very busy. In fact, “Right now couldn’t be busier,” he says, trying to shift his attention toward the interview and away from his buzzing atelier just upstairs. Our meeting fell just days before he presents his brand Off-White‘s AW16 women’s collection of elevated streetwear in Paris last month. And while “busy” might have stressful or negative connotations to some, it’s a welcome way of life for the rising designer.
“I work nonstop. It’s a lifestyle,” explains Abloh, looking up from the iPhone that’s always in his hand. “Technically, I’m not even working; I’m just being creative. This is all fun for me, not stressful.” It’s true that, despite the obvious frenzy going on just a few feet away—simultaneous model castings, fittings, garment cutting and sewing—the highly focused, kinetic energy does have a distinctly upbeat feel.
The crazy thing is that Off-White—which launched in 2014 and was immediately embraced by the fashion world with Abloh becoming the only American finalist for the prestigious LVMH prize the very next year—is but one facet of his creative portfolio. It also includes DJing, furniture design, and collaborating with longtime friend Kanye West. The common thread in it all is his distinct point of view, which Abloh discusses with articulate enthusiasm. It becomes clear that Abloh’s success lies in the ability to translate his own perception of right now into everything he does—from creating cult-status graphic T-shirts to the line of womenswear that we witness coming together just upstairs.
The Window: How did you learn about fashion?
Virgil Abloh: By buying and being a consumer. Shopping at Barneys. My foundation for fashion is more streetwear. I was into skateboarding in the ‘90s and hanging out with my friends and only wearing skate clothes, or being influenced by hip-hop at the time. We’d go to the mall and make outfits related to what we had access to. That evolved into having an opinion about clothing, and then designing it myself.
How do you define streetwear?
It’s such a catch phrase term. I define it as clothing that people actually wear, vs. “fashion” in quotes, which are the clothes that are photographed but not necessarily seen on the street. I think in current times, streetwear and fashion have a relationship that’s never been seen before in the lineage of fashion. Ready-to-wear—how that term came to be relevant vs. couture. Yves Saint Laurent had the first ready-to-wear show—just that idea that someone was like, “Hey these are the clothes that people actually wear. I’m going to show these instead!” I embrace streetwear because it’s my thing.
Do you think there will be a backlash against the unisex, casual, sneaker-wearing culture that’s happening right now in fashion?
I would say that it’s the opposite. It will be harder and harder to pawn off luxurious high fashion in the future. I would bet that it will be harder to sell people on the fact that you have to dress in luxury. It’s an oxymoron to me. People now dress in clothes that they’re comfortable in. People can express themselves wearing jeans and a T-shirt. Culture-wise, we’ve seen a backlash against what was perceived as luxury, which was only ever just marketing. Luxury and craftsmanship are different, you know? I could sell you something that’s luxurious and charge you 60 times the value, because I said so. I think that people now aren’t buying that trick anymore.
Does that make you aware of your pricing?
Yeah, I’m aware of the cost of goods. This is designer product, which means it’s conceptualized and made in a factory on a crazy timeline that warrants a certain cost. I’m not in the game of making cheap things. I’m not trying to make a high margin and sell quick ideas. This is spirited design. It costs what it costs to make it and deliver it to market and maintain a team—all that puts it at a certain price point.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons T-shirts are so popular? Because they offer an entry level into a brand?
More so, it’s just what people like to wear. Fashion can easily overlook something as easy as a T-shirt, and I base my whole brand on it. It’s a great case study, you know? My friends and I used to say that a high-fashion label can design a couture gown but can’t design a graphic T-shirt to save their life. It’s the opposite for me—we’re upstairs cutting garments just days before the show, but I’ve got thousands of ideas for shirts. That’s what Off-White is—crashing those two concepts together.
What do you think makes a great graphic T-shirt? Why is it so important to you?
It has to be relevant. It’s important to me because it’s easy. It’s how you show your personality in a brand—the nuances of a graphic T-shirt. I have a history with them, so it’s not about one; it’s about showing a thought process. I use it as a blank canvas and then aim to do something valid.
Do you think if you lined up all the ones you’ve made over the years it would tell a story?
Yeah, I’m sure it does—a story of time. I think the messages are individual to each shirt, but when you put them all together, that’s the brand.
What’s your creative process like? Do you design with a theme or mood board?
Yeah, I have an overarching theme, silhouette, and girl in mind. I’m trying to define her with the clothes that I have made and will make in the next coming days.
Who is she?
She hangs out on Prince and Lafayette. She goes to Juice Press and Jack’s Wife Freda. She’s confident in herself and doesn’t really wear fashion. She knows about it, but for her it’s more about personal style. She usually wears vintage mixed with Zara. Maybe she has a Birkin bag of her grandmother’s. Maybe she wears heels with jeans, or maybe she wears sneakers with dresses. That’s what Off-White is, and this women’s collection is super poignant for that girl. Inherently, it’s a juxtaposition—I’m taking her from Prince and Lafayette and putting her in Paris on a runway as my proposition to all the other designers and brands showing this week. The streetwear thing—that’s my thing, and a part of that is showcasing it in this realm. It records it for the history books as something that happened in 2016. My offering presents what I think is valid on the street and puts it on the recording system of Vogue.com runway. When you look back in 10 years, you can see how the luxury market shifted.
What is the takeaway from the collection?
I want people to see something elevated. It’s not just about putting a girl in 501 jeans and a vintage T-shirt with dirty Stan Smiths. I want them to have that feeling that this is a fashion show. It’s an elevated version of that girl from the street.
Do you feel a lot of pressure, with the show a few days away?
Of course, but not in a bad way. It’s less about living up to a standard and more like pressure to get my idea out.
You are so creative with so many ideas—how do you stay focused?
Stay on my phone and keep working. Just work nonstop. Working is a lifestyle. Technically, I’m not even working; I’m being creative. This is all fun for me, not stressful.
What role does social media play in your brand image?
Ironically, it’s not that important. It think it’s just part of our times. I think you wouldn’t stop and think 100 years ago about how important the newspaper is. To me, it’s interesting because my generation has one foot in the internet and one foot before it. It can be a thing where it seems like it’s a tool or a trick, but really it’s just a part of the times. A 14-year old isn’t deciding how to use it—they’re just using it. Social media is media. Everyone is broadcasting their own messaging now, and you don’t even have to pay. It’s a part of my brand because it’s a window into it. Maybe it’s how a website used to be a few years ago. My Instagram is like a media network that I creative direct. There’s a style to it. I was doing it long before there was Instagram, but now I have a place to put it.