Virgil Abloh on blurred lines, post-Pyrex and the difference between fashion design and creative directing
"Travis Scott is neither hip hop nor rock 'n' roll. Do I behave black, or do I behave white?", says Virgil Abloh. "It's like those things are from a generation before, where everything had to be boxed and put into categories for marketing — for people to understand and for a certain level of respect," he emphasizes. Just 10 minutes with the creative director slash DJ, and you get the sense that he's got it all laid out. From the way in which he plans on keeping the label relevant to whom he tips as the future of streetwear (Heron Preston and A$AP Bari of Vlone), and how he believes that not all creative directors are fashion designers. "Our generation is more in the middle, and that's okay."
And perhaps, that's how Abloh became the Sid Vicious to the cool kids of today. An unabashed articulation of our generation's culture — music and arts — unified in a clothing label known as Off-White. "I'm changing the vibe of the collection each season to match the vibe of the time. I think it's important. My philosophy is based on culture, and not based on being irreverent."
It works, judging by the queue that's formed outside the new Off-White store in Singapore —the first standalone in Southeast Asia — eight hours ahead of the time it's slated to open its doors. At the front of the line, teens decked in tees distinguished by the label's signature logo. On the tail end, working men who've somehow managed to escape the confines of their desks for the day. Being able to connect with the youth on a level that only music legends speak of, is a phenomenon that not just Abloh is a part of. Most recently, Demna Gvasalia of Vetements (coincidentally, also his friend) and of course, the longtime ringleader of skate-inspired clothing, Supreme. So, how did Abloh get to where he's at today? Here, the straight talker tells us how one creative directs Kanye, who he'd love to see in Off-White clothing, and ultimately, what goes on behind those coveted diagonal stripes.
Let's start from the very beginning. Tell us how you started designing. You know in New York right now, there's a scene of young designers. This new wave of streetwear largely started from us kids in the city, maybe three or four years ago. A$AP Rocky and Bari coming downtown wearing different brands in a different way. We were a little bit older, and doing parties and screen printing on T-shirts so I started with Pyrex Vision — a one-time art project that evolved into this version. A fashion brand called Off-White. What's your design process like? How and where do you start with each collection? I start with my friends, conversation and travelling. The line is referenced by culture and time. It's not one of those brands that are irreverent to all that. If these things are of the culture, be it Levi's jeans or graphic T-shirts or certain styles of women's dress, I'm changing the vibe of the collection each season to match the vibe of the time. I think it's important. My philosophy is based on culture. It's not based on being irreverent. There've been hype around streetwear brands that fizzle out in awhile. How do you plan on keeping Off-White in the game? Of being aware and awake; participating in the culture and not just peering at or studying it. You have to participate. You have to also respect the nuances around the culture that influences fashion. That's music, art, architecture, and the people. It's the lifestyle, the restaurants, the travel, clubs, the art scene... that's all very tied into how I approach the design element and what the brand represents.
Being a DJ yourself, who are the musicians you can't get enough of right now? Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, James Blake, and always Radiohead. Kanye West, A$AP Rocky, Drake, and 21 Savage. They're making music and culture that I relate to. Could you also tell me about what you do for Kanye. If you disagree over ideas, how do you work it out? I respect him, you know, he's my boss. I've worked with him for 14 years. The title is creative director, but I would word it more as an assistant. Someone who's that creative and important to culture... it's almost in a way impossible to creative direct an artist of that magnitude. I'm honoured to be friends with him for this amount of time and in a large part, he's the warrior for kids like us all over the world — the ones who believe in their ability to be creative and launch things that are independent. Things that aren't driven top down from a big corporation. What we do goes from the trend all the way up. Building a store here is part of that story. We went from going to fashion shows to being invited, and to now launching stores in Singapore. All off the energy that's happening in music and art. Is there a story behind the brand logo — the stripes? Yeah, it comes from Pyrex. It was at a time where I was doing the word and the number on the back and I'd seen that it was sort of being adopted by other brands and at a certain point, I was over it. In order to cancel it out — but still keep a memory of what was there — the first Off-White collection had the year 13 on them, with diagonals to say that it's the last time I'd use the name and number. The leftover part was the lines, and so they're the beginning of Off-White. You know, from my background in construction and architecture — I have a degree in engineering and a masters in architecture — it's a visual language that's international, and I think that it relates to how styles are adopted in this era. Diagonal lines on the street that are the same in Singapore, in Chicago, and in Paris, and you can sort of read that and respect the language you speak. That's what Off-White is: Multi-cultural fashion. What would you say is the most rewarding moment of your career? This. Opening a store here in Singapore.
And whom would you love to see in your stuff? A 50-year-old fashionable woman. There are many other fashion designers who attend your runway shows, but whose show do you personally like to watch? Demna of Vetements, Chitose of Sacai, Jun Takahashi of Undercover, Riccardo at Givenchy, Olivier at Balmain, Kim Jones at Louis Vuitton. And Raf. Is there a designer that you think the world should be paying attention to right now? Heron Preston. He's one of my closest friends and I call him the Azzedine Alaïa of streetwear. He's a thinker and a designer — so him or Bari of Vlone. He to me, is the future of streetwear. Mainly those two. With social media, there's so much information out there today and things move at breakneck speed. Do you think it's easier or tougher to be a designer these days? I think it's way easier. To me, it's because I have social media to communicate and you can build a following very fast. But I think I wouldn't use the word fashion designer loosely. Fashion designing is not the same as how it was 10 years ago. I still think that there's the art of fashion design. This is different. These are like creative directors of brands, and not to be confused with fashion. Like you know, Alexander McQueen is doing something very different. I wouldn't even say McQueen, but maybe more like Hussein Chalayan or Valentino himself. That's like a different genre of design. This is a new genre and it's different. I think it's important to respectfully understand the history of design, and not just participate in the new version and claim it as fashion. And what do you see yourself as? Creative director is my thing, you know. I'm participating in fashion design to a degree, and that's the beauty of having a brand. I have an understanding of both. The women's side of Off-White is more fashion design. The men's side of the brand is the core, and it's new, and more of creative directing. When you put the two together, you have Off-White, and that's what it means — between black and white.There are no more rules — a brand doesn't do just streetwear or high fashion. It's a grey area and in our generation, things have merged. Travis Scott is neither hip hop nor rock 'n' roll. Do I behave black, or do I behave white? It's like those things are from a generation before, where everything had to be boxed and put into categories for marketing — for people to understand and for a certain level of respect. Now, our generation is more in the middle, and that's okay. And that's what Off-White is. It's built off that feeling that it's okay not to be in a box.