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Virgil Abloh: from Pyrex to Paris

Kanye’s creative director has gone from making graphic t-shirts on a laptop to showing at fashion week – he discusses his accidental journey into the industry, and why Raf Simons is ‘the greatest designer of our time’

“I look at my job, or mission, or passion, as defining streetwear,” remarks Virgil Abloh. “It’s a term that I always say could end up like disco if not handled well... I’m trying to see how far I can push it.” He pauses and steps away to snap a picture of a model in a tailored Off-White coat who’s about to be shot for his label’s AW16 lookbook. Rails upon rails of samples surround us, the room packed with stylists, make-up artists, photography equipment and a slew of people with no apparent role. In short, it’s a scene of chaos. “This is my version of working a desk job,” he smiles.

We retire to an office crammed with boxes, which feels utterly serene in comparison to next door. 24 hours earlier, Abloh took his first bow as a designer at Paris Men’s Fashion Week, displaying a collection that merged his unique street sensibility with undulating overcoats and refined elements of tailoring. Set on an industrial orange runway, with a youthful, unisex cast, it was an accomplished display for someone who is still very much regarded as a newcomer by the world of fashion. Entitled “Don’t Cut Me Off,” the collection was undoubtedly a triumph for Abloh and Off-White; although there were elements that referenced past collections, this was a far more ambitious proposal than anything he had previously shown. Spliced, oversized car coats sat alongside exaggerated printed bomber jackets, which were a far cry from the screen-printed t-shirts that many believe define his work.

Those who turned out to support Abloh also reflected the unique position that he occupies within his field. His bow at the end was hijacked by Ian Connor – the stylist and creative director of A$AP Rocky who embodies the brash youthfulness of streetwear. Meanwhile, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing watched on, embracing the designer at the end of the show. It was an unusual coming together of seemingly disparate fashion worlds, but then again, Off-White has always made a point of occupying a hard-to-define middle ground between high and low brow.

Reclining in a black leather office chair, Abloh considers his wayward path into the industry. “I never made the conscious decision to be a designer,” the 35-year-old Chicagoan admits (in fact, he formally trained in Engineering before earning a master’s degree in Architecture). “I just had an exorbitant amount of ideas; fashion design is a place for people like that because there are a lot of decisions to make.”

Off-White’s evolution has been both fast and pronounced, going from an off the cuff t-shirt label to an anticipated name showing at Paris Fashion Week in a matter of years. In 2013, Abloh, creative director of Kanye West, debuted his first label. Named Pyrex Vision, its main premise was screen printing logos onto Champion t-shirts and deadstock Ralph Lauren flannels, and despite the exorbitant price tags (the flannels sold for in excess of $500) it sold out, creating a platform and an audience for Abloh’s next step – Off-White.

Someone more cynical might say it was a calculated assault on fashion via the hype-driven backdoor of streetwear, but Abloh is surprisingly frank about the matter: “Pyrex was super, like super, short-minded. You know, it was like the opposite of what all this is…” He tails off as someone bursts into the office to rummage through a box looking for a specific sample for the photo shoot next door. “This show – being in Paris and showing a collection and everything – is all triggered by that decision to print one t-shirt, you know – instead of leaving it on illustrator on a laptop. It’s like, just go out and do it.”

“I never made the conscious decision to be a designer. I just had an exorbitant amount of ideas; fashion design is a place for people like that” – Virgil Abloh

For all his passion for his craft – one which is becoming more honed with each seasonal offering – Abloh is not without his detractors. His relationship with West, for whom he worked with for twelve years, is usually at the core of this. And it is perhaps true that Pyrex Vision would not have caught the attention of fashion press and sneakerheads alike were it not for his association with the musician. It’s a criticism that doesn’t seem to bother Abloh, who remains close to him. “He’s the greatest cultural figure of our lifetime…” he says. “I spent twelve years, 365 days a year, travelling next to this nuclear energy who is changing the concept of youth culture in an active role. The only thing I’m averse to is the idea of the entourage,” he continues. “My work speaks for itself, and his work speaks for itself. The work that we do together speaks for itself.”

And while it could be argued that Abloh’s earlier Off-White collections caught the attention of some of the world’s premier retailers (Selfridges, Barneys, Matches) for reasons other than the collection’s nuanced design, the brand has developed not because of, but rather in spite of the hype which surrounds it. Of late, Abloh has evolved and improved as a designer – silhouettes have become more intriguing, leading to him eschewing some of the graphic-heavy garments that he perhaps over-relied upon in earlier collections – and, as a result, former critics have become fans.

In many ways, this gradual acceptance of Off-White into the high fashion fold mimics a wider shift in attitudes. No longer is streetwear considered something to be looked down upon due to its often unashamedly brash nature and a perceived lack of innovative design beyond its striking graphic elements. That reductive attitude is something it has been actively rallying against in recent seasons, describing streetwear as more of a lifestyle than a sub-section of fashion: “It’s a thought, it’s also a construct,” he says. “Like, I could make a cup of coffee in a streetwear way: I would take a Folger’s cup (one of the largest coffee brands in America) and put Starbucks in it, do you know what I mean? Tom Saks to me is like streetwear, it’s an art version of a kid who’s making a bootleg Chanel t-shirt. It’s the same thing, but one has a reference point.” To some, this might seem trivial – but it’s this hyper-conceptual attitude towards streetwear which has informed Abloh’s output at Off-White, where he is constantly seeking to juxtapose opposing worlds and thus create something unexpected.

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Backstage at Off-White AW16, photography Virginie KhateebPhotography Virginie Khateeb

“Off-White is two things,” he muses. “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.” 

Throughout our conversation, Abloh makes reference to several artists and designers who he looks up to, from Saks to Lucio Fontana whose slashed canvases inspired the previous day’s collection, and NYC skate polymath A-ron Bondaroff. He is someone whose discourse is punctuated by a diverse array of reference points, something which is inherently “streetwear” in itself – it is a culture that borrows heavily from other subcultures to define itself, be it 90s skaters, 60s Situationists or 70s post-punk design. It was the latter which served as the opening gambit for the Off-White men’s show, playing an excerpt from Lou Stoppard’s SHOWStudio interview with Peter Saville, graphic designer and artist, whose seminal work for Factory Records defined the aesthetic of the post-punk era.

“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” – Virgil Abloh

“Peter Saville is so profound,” reflects Abloh, as he explains the reason for his inclusion of the excerpt – where Saville is reflecting on the moment he first brought a stack of books home from art school and realised how little he really knew about visual culture. “You come to the realisation that…what you’re doing isn’t shit,” Abloh says. “There are people that have surpassed you and have it really nailed down – that’s the moment where you really start on your journey to get better.”

The inclusion of Saville in the show seemed fitting as someone whose work has been referenced by everyone from Raf Simons to Supreme. That cross-section is seemingly where Abloh’s work sits – elevated beyond Supreme's exacting streetwear vision, but not quite scaling the heights of Simons’ vast and impressive oeuvre – and Saville’s practices of borrowing from various existing elements to create something new is not dissimilar to Abloh’s.

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Backstage at Off-White AW16, photography Virginie Khateeb
Backstage at Off-White AW16, photography Virginie KhateebPhotography Virginie Khateeb

Indeed, the influence of Raf Simons – who, like Abloh, studied a different type of design discipline before entering into fashion – can also be seen throughout his work, both visually and conceptually. The long flowing coats and oversized polo shirt zippers, as well as the Nebraska elements which appeared both this season and last, felt distinctly, if not directly, Raf-esque. Yet, as Abloh reminds me, he is first and foremost a creative director, not a designer – his work tends to present existing ideas in new contexts. He does this with great deference generally. “To me the greatest designer of our time is Raf,” he says. “Raf put the top layer to streetwear. And I don’t mean streetwear as in like a graphic t-shirt with a logo on it, I mean like the concept of youth-driven, forward-thinking silhouettes… So that’s the genre of fashion that I’m in – that’s the one I’m interested in and of course, he’s the leader of that, and it’s in the DNA of how I think – so I look at myself as like a student of the genre that I believe is the best, the most relevant of the time.”

You feel with Abloh there is still room for refinement and more originality in his creations, but his proposition of elevated streetwear is undoubtedly an interesting one. It echoes the current zeitgeist within fashion, where Gosha Rubchinskiy and Vetements are as big a draw as Gucci or Céline for many. But perhaps any refinement would detract from what makes Off-White a truly interesting addition to Paris’s menswear line-up – its charm is its unpredictability, something which Abloh prides himself on. “That’s what I look at the benefit of what I’m doing with this particular concept of a brand, it’s like the next season could be… it could just be like Pyrex, you know? Four items, no presentation. It’s like ‘Hey, we did a 200 piece collection, but the next one is like eight.’ If that’s what I’m inspired to do – I can go left or right.”

Near the end of our conversation, Abloh excuses himself to check on the styling of his lookbook next door. His exit prompts me to look through any questions I am still to ask him. The only one left is the most clichéd end question of all interviews: “What next?” Some thirty minutes pass and I have to make a quiet exit for another meeting. What next for Off-White? I genuinely could not say – but somehow, that unpredictability in itself feels refreshing.  

“Raf put the top layer to streetwear...the concept of youth-driven, forward-thinking silhouettes. That’s the genre of fashion that I’m in and of course he’s the leader of that, and it’s in the DNA of how I think” – Virgil Abloh