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Portrait of Virgil Abloh at the Copenhagen International Fashion FairPhotography by Louise Damgaard

Virgil Abloh on 'intellectualising mundane shit'

From Dogtown to Dior: Kanye's creative director and HBA collaborator on his ten year mission to define streetwear

If you’re going to be in a joint exhibition, it really doesn’t suck to have your work juxtaposed with that of someone like Malcolm McLaren. “I feel like I won a Grammy or an Oscar or something,” Virgil Abloh says when we meet up at the Copenhagen International Fashion Fair where he’s been invited to showcase the concepts behind his SS15 OFF-WHITE c/o Virgil Abloh collection alongside an exhibition on McLaren’s influential body of work.

Like McLaren, Abloh operates across a pretty diverse section of creative genres. Formally trained as a civil engineer and an architect, he is also a Hood by Air collaborator, Kanye West’s creative director and right-hand man, and part of the #BEENTRILL# crew. After testing the waters with his streetwear project Pyrex Vision, OFF-WHITE is now his lab for exploring fashion and streetwear crossovers. “I want to make clothing that’s relevant to the street, loaded with concept and ideas,” he says.

Set inside the fair’s directional Crystal Hall space, the Industrial by Nature installation is Abloh’s SS15 moodboard brought to life, transporting viewers to a vaguely apocalyptic man-made beach landscape shrouded in seaside mist and hidden behind banners of shark imagery shouting WET DREAM and LAST DANCE. Streetwear at the beach? Well, skateboarding did evolve from surfing, so it makes sense.

But where much of streetwear is often about easily recognisable iconography, Abloh’s collection plays around with this notion. T-shirts that look like they once had the aforementioned shark graphics displayed across the chest are instead printed with only a few corner scraps of the images, and there are no pristine trainers in sight but jackets and shorts with a worn-in, faded feel. Before Abloh got behind the decks at the Crystal Hall launch party, blasting tracks like Migos’ "Hannah Montana" and Kanye’s "Mercy", we sat down with him to talk streetwear philosophies and “intellectualising mundane shit”. 

What does streetwear mean to you?

Virgil Abloh: Streetwear is kind of like a catchphrase for who I am. I have a background in architecture but I’m a kid that grew up obsessed with skateboarding. Skating every day after school, reading the magazines, buying the t-shirts, living through that culture. Which is to me classic streetwear. You know, Dogtown, Z-Boys and skating in the nineties – I’m 33. And then the era when it became New York with Alis, Supreme, Nom de Guerre, that’s the streetwear culture I was part of again by supporting it and consuming it. That’s where I come from. Those are the niche things that I like. 

How did SS15 evolve?

Virgil Abloh: I’m trying to offer up the best that streetwear has to offer – all the stories and the heritage – with a fashion intellect, if you will, and with emotion. So for me the moodboard was about clashing classic urban tricks of street with Baja surf culture. The notion that waves are always moving. There’s something poetic about it. If you sit and stare at waves forever, it’s almost like a trance. And then how do you translate that into an M-65 jacket? Or into streetwear? I love it because it doesn’t make sense. That’s why you work on a collection. I tried to work it into the patches on the jackets and other pieces. There’s a certain way you can almost toss patches on it as if a wave is moving but capture that energy of movement in a static state, which is also why the collection is called Moving Still. Or Still Moving. It’s a juxtaposition of words. The clothes represent that. And then they’re washed in sand and distressed. 

“How I live my life and the end expression is the sort of amalgamation of what happens between the Firehouse, Chateau Marmont, The Mercer and some weirdo bar in Japan.” – Virgil Abloh

Branding and easily recognisable emblems and logos are such big parts of streetwear but for SS15, you’ve done t-shirts where you’ve basically torn off that part.

Virgil Abloh: Yeah, I love intellectualising mundane shit like that. I love streetwear. I can’t deny it. All my friends whose taste I idolise don’t even wear graphics at all. I love that too. My favourite fashion item is a four dollar Uniqlo tee, but I love graphics and I’ll design them until I’m dead. It’s all a commentary on now – the first generation of fashion that intersected the internet. That’s the reality that changed the way people buy things, the way people dress, the way people idolise style icons. Something new is happening and that’s the benefit of being a young designer. We are in it. And it’s up to us to take the helm and dictate whether or not streetwear is sort of like the word disco. It’s still to be decided. 

Streetwear seems to be a word that’s used about so many things now.

Virgil Abloh: Yeah, there are different veins of streetwear. When words get commercialised, it’s whatever. I feel like the genre of streetwear hasn’t been defined. What is a streetwear designer? That word is still weird to use in that way. I’m on a ten-year path to defining this and I’m betting that streetwear is not like disco. 

Do you still think streetwear represents a subculture?

Virgil Abloh: Oh, for sure. I think someone like Shayne [Oliver, of Hood by Air] is the highest form of that. That just shows you the differences in streetwear. We both represent what our subcultures are. The best nights in New York have been hanging out with him and just being fully into a community that he brings to the clothing. Me; it’s my sensibility, my taste, my view, how I live my life and the end expression is the sort of amalgamation of what happens between the Firehouse, Chateau Marmont, The Mercer and some weirdo bar in Japan. I like nice things and I like juxtaposing them with things that are well made and awesome and thirty dollar t-shirts. My brand – the men’s and the women’s side – is something I create from this vantage and that exact premise. 

How do you feel about the fact that fashion is looking so much to the skate scene and streetwear now?

I’m happy that streetwear is even a topic of conversation. Because if it hadn’t been recognised or even been on the radar, it would just be something I’d be into. I probably wouldn’t even be doing the line had I not felt there was an opening for it to be credible. My goal is to do it at a high level season after season and hopefully be able to do it at a higher level at a house or something. But what’s cool now is juxtaposition, irony. A fashion editor wearing a streetwear piece is cool now. Before it was a different scenario. So that’s where I think OFF-WHITE is a brand uniquely of that because I’m making it for an editor that can wear it to a Dior show but also for a kid in Ohio that listens to Migos and just wants to go to the club and drink lean and get high.