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Nike x Off-White SS19 Abloh SS19 PFW Paris Fashion Week
BTS at Off-White SS19Photography Christina Fragkou

Virgil Abloh on Serena Williams & casting athletes for his new Nike collab

For Off-White’s SS19 show, the designer merged the worlds of fashion and function for a Track and Field-themed collection

It’s no understatement to say that Virgil Abloh’s work with Nike has been impossible to miss. His red-plastic-tagged reconfigurations of the sportswear giant’s most iconic styles – from the Air Jordan to the Vapormax – launched with a campus, caused a tech meltdown, and have been the most talked about fashion sneaker collaboration probably ever. The extreme success of the mostly-male focussed footwear line might make one thing surprising, then: when Abloh first approached Nike to pitch a project a couple of years back, he didn’t have shoes on his mind at all. He was thinking about women running errands in leggings.

“I made this PDF that was basically women’s sportswear and my idea of what athleisure was, but of course it was ‘athleisure’ in quotes,” the designer explained earlier this week, taking a break in a Paris studio that, from model fittings to last-minute sewing adjustments and a full-scale photoshoot, was alive with activity. “It was like, ripped jeans but they’d be Nike jeans, or a leather jacket and it’d be a Nike jacket.” The idea (which he admits bordered on “ludicrous” – or maybe it was just ahead of its time) was shelved. “I did the shoes instead and those have gone on to have an identity of their own. But ironically when Serena Williams asked me to design her look for the US Open, the first thing we made was a leather jacket.”

While prepping looks for Williams, Abloh was also working on his SS19 womenswear collection, which hit the runway last night. Themed Track and Field, the show saw Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid co-open with a lap around the running track runway, followed by a line-up which included no less than eight athletic superstars selected by Abloh – including two champion Brits. Sprinter Dina Asher Smith got the email about the show right before a race – and originally bypassed it. “I didn’t read what it was because you get loads of requests to do stuff,” she explained from the studio where she was being fitted in a neon leotard. “I told my agent that I was on holiday and that I couldn’t do it. Then he was like, ‘No, read it again’! I was like, Oh my God, yes, yes, yes, yes yes!”

Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson also walked, dressed in a unitard with an Off-White race bib on the front. “It was insane because I’ve been a big fan and follow everything he does on Instagram,” she said – before admitting she was more than a little nervous. “I’m trained and prepare for competitions, even if it’s in front of millions of people. This is out of my comfort zone!”

But despite the high fashion context, the collection married Nike’s performance capabilities with Abloh’s street-ready designs, resulting in pieces which transcended both categories. “These are garments and footwear that actually let people perform at their best capability, you know?” he surmised. “It’s equipment, in a way, rather than fashion.”

Below, Abloh discusses the collection and collaboration in his own words.

ON USING FASHION TO TALK ABOUT THE WORLD

“The Serena Williams moment, right before this fashion show… gave me the more powerful message about women and sports and using sport as a metaphor for describing the larger social context. I’m only interested in clothing as a narrative device. To me, collections are like mini time capsules I can look back (on) – whether it’s Brexit happening or terrorist attacks in Paris, I do collections based on what I see and I think women’s rights (are) so important. (My collections are) like a documentary with a slight opinion.”

ON THE ICONIC SERENA WILLIAMS

“She’s a muse of a generation. By existing she breaks down stereotypes – she has a strong character and it relates to her ability to win and be one of the best tennis players ever living, not just specifically male or female; her achievements are major. Obviously she had a non-typical year from being ranked number one, then (deciding) in her personal life to have a kid and because of that her rating goes to zero. It’s the same as if she would have been convicted of doping or cheating in the sport, so then in one year sort of having a kid has to go back through the length and rebuild, to get back to where she was… and she asked me to sort of design to that. So that I think is a source of a tonne of inspiration.”

ON CASTING A LINE UP OF REAL ATHLETES

“(My work is) depicting what’s happening in the real world; my whole aim in all the arts is to make whatever it is in the four walls – the sacred four walls – (reflect) what’s happening in the real world so that way we’re not alienating people by existing, you know, the establishment versus the common person on the street, streetwear. If my conception is to mimic what I see, the best thing I can do is make it as real as possible. So why use purely models to depict these women that perform in sport. If some of the fastest women in the world are available to walk in a runway show, it would be obvious to call some of them. (The collection is) that merger between what women want to wear – fashion – and performance, so let’s showcase it on real women that are real sprinters that train. Only this conversation makes me think that fashion actually has an impact on the world, not that it’s just for special people that can afford special things.”

“(The collection is) that merger between what women want to wear – fashion – and performance, so let’s showcase it on real women that are real sprinters” – Virgil Abloh 

ON MERGING NIKE’S WORLD WITH HIS 

“There’s three different (sneaker) models but the main running shoe was originally developed, not for commercial use, but for (long distance runner and world record holder Eliud) Kipchoge to break a sub-two-hour marathon. (That’s) never been done, so it was made for his foot and his foot only to run. But through those findings they commercialised it into smaller iteration – those have made their way into the show via my collection. Also, there’s apparel – stuff that I’ve taken from the store and made my own. That’s how I started the brand and I still do it today, buying what I can and remixing it.”