Interview: What happens when you put Off-White's Virgil Abloh and Jimmy Choo's Sandra Choi in a design studio together?
Magic, that's what
How did you two meet?
Sandra Choi (SC): We met in September 2016 in New York because Virgil was DJing for our 20th anniversary event. We went for a drink before the event to get to know each other; he had been on my radar for a while and I was interested to meet him. I looked up his background, and I was like, "Okay, let's get together."
Virgil Abloh (VA): It was my idea to collaborate — straight away I was like, "I want to meet whoever is in charge." I want to develop a relationship with her.
VA: When we first met I did a scan cataloguing the brands she was wearing. Well, our brains are so astute. If you have synergy, it's like, "What's your taste? How do you finish a sentence?"
SC: He's a connoisseur in fashion! I was impressed by his fashion intuition — he instantly identified my plain cotton T-shirt as Comme des Garcons. This was when we started to talk about working together on a collaboration. We connected on that design level immediately. We clicked. It's so nice actually to meet someone who's got a different point of view and a completely different perspective. I have so enjoyed Virgil saying, "I want the unexpected." Together we wanted to make something both figurative and luxury.
Why Jimmy Choo?
VA: I'm not an expert in shoes, that's why I went to an expert to make them.
SC: Our collaboration still has the identity of both our brands — that is the key.
I think people are going to view this union as experimental. Is that what excited you about it?
SC: I want to surprise people. Make them ask, "What kind of effusion, ultimate product are we going to come up with?" Historically, Jimmy Choo has had very strong brand values — the glamour, the confidence. Off-White is unpredictable. This collaboration is unpredictable and exciting.
VA: Yeah. My thought is from going to shows, participating in the fashion community, watching those fashion weeks and the consensus was we want something new. Like alright, we've had Drake. You have McQueen doing shows. That era left us with so much richness. But now everyone have their arms crossed at shows, saying, "Okay, we get it. Who's going to be our next Margiela? Who's going to be the next Lagerfeld?" And I was sitting in this chair and said, "Alright, I have to get up and make it." There's a generational need for designers to come up with a premise that's actually valuable and surprising. I feel this collaboration gives us this. I wanted the new It-heel. The major move in my career is to catalogue what's happening on the street and, hopefully, be given a position to do it within a house. Jimmy Choo is THE house of shoes.
What street element do you feel that you've brought to the union?
VA: My contribution is, in a weird way, to be sort of punk but corporate at the same time, because there's a space to experiment that usually needs collaboration. So I specialise in finding this aesthetic that's refined, but it's a refined aesthetic that's sort of avant-garde. It's so important for me to make sure everything is beautiful. You know when your approach lends an alternative sensation to a certain brand, you want it to be beautiful. You don't want it to be weird, and that is a fine line. And I think this is just perfectly executed in the Off-White c/o Jimmy Choo pieces.
SC: We took risks on this collection. Like I said to Virgil, it reminded me of every single thing that is iconic for Jimmy Choo, but with a fresh attitude.
There's so much collaboration and community within fashion, but a lot of it now is about necessity. However, you are two powerhouses.
VA: Yes. We want to make something that doesn't exist. Purely making power more powerful.
"I said to Virgil, it reminded me of every single thing that is iconic for Jimmy Choo, but with a fresh attitude." — Sandra Choi
Let's talk about Princess Diana. How was an inspiration to this collection?
VA: I liked the idea of Diana as a muse. The point to this collection was to tell a story that an impactful figure like her is our living version of Cinderella. Make a shoe that gives that Princess feeling. "The New Glass Slipper".
Why do you both think she's so culturally relevant to the generation that wouldn't even have been born or been children when she was around?
VA: She was and is still a role model and the whole premise of the Off-White is asking the question, "Who's the new woman?" then try to make that into a collection. The fact that in 2017, there was (and still is) a new powerful independent woman that has a style. That she can wear jeans, not have to wear a suit that was made for a man. She is an individual that you can't classify. And I think that Princess Diana is relevant explicitly now because she was ahead of her time. Her being Princess Diana and having this variance of style choice is indicative. Clothing is your outward expression of what's happening. So whatever façade that she lived in, she revealed through her clothing; from the gym, to being on the street, to being on the red carpet, they were all powerful expressions of her intrinsic style. She has this cool mix from red carpet, charity work to the ski slopes where she wore the après ski boot in white. I have this image on my moodboard, in the Alps styled with jeans.
SC: I think she's relatable. Diana was a royal grounded in reality. She was real, not a fairytale.
Why do you think she's gained popularity amongst millennials?
VA: This is a tribute to Diana. It's like 9/11 in New York. The only sentiment is "never forget". If you go around with 9/11 and you forget about how it impacts, that's actually the worst thing. It's like she should be celebrated. But in the same collection, I'm doing the storytelling to a modern generation that doesn't know and wasn't there. I'm reminding them of Red Cross. Her charity work is also involved in the show. So my thing is to present it to a 22-year-old girl that likes the modern versions of that. There was a woman who was strong, powerful. I want people to remember who she was; not through the documentaries that are out or those sorts of things. Here's fashion paying tribute to someone. I wanted to show that fairy tales can exist, that's my role, and so that's how Diana became our muse. We wanted to make a shoe that inspires feeling. So the plastic represents a modern day Cinderella pump, because that's what it looks like in a realistic way.
"There's a generational need for designers to come up with a premise that's actually valuable and surprising. I feel this collaboration gives us this. I wanted the new It-heel." — Virgil Abloh
Royals tend to think high and wear low!
SC: Diana was naturally tall and she was really careful on how much height she wanted to wear for each occasion. In the early days, I remember her heels would be lower. As time went on she went a bit higher and higher to three and a half inches so in some sense, she was using the way that she dressed to actually communicate with the outside world.
How will the footwear fit into the greater picture of the runway looks?
VA: The collection, is basically everything from iconic outfits that Diana would wear hanging out with her kids in the countryside, going to the gym, all the way to her wedding dress. It is an interpretation of what we saw and who she was.
SC: But it's a little bit harder and higher.
Could you sum up this collection?
VA: It's A to Z. It's a live picture. Well, the most in vogue thing used to be day to night. That was the older generation as I was coming into fashion. For me, it's for real people. It's like, "Hey what can you wear from the gym to going to a fancy dinner?" There are no boundaries.
"This is a tribute to Diana. There was a woman who was strong, powerful. I want people to remember who she was; not through the documentaries that are out or those sorts of things. Here's fashion paying tribute to someone. I wanted to show that fairy tales can exist." — Virgil Abloh
What was the reaction at Jimmy Choo when you said: "We want to do all these crazy things"? Was there resistance?
VA: My thing was make the bow hit the floor, like the luxurious Celine pant that drags on the floor — that's luxury; that is the new outer edge of luxury to me. The fact that there is a tailored pair that's made in Italy that's not irreverent to being dragging on the floor. It's ripped jeans. Being a millionaire and wearing holes in your jeans. This, you could only make with Jimmy Choo and you could only do the exaggeration with them. Fashion is what's on the runway as opposed to being the commercial version that is a little bit like the runway version. I like to think that a girl could live the runway version.
SC: We've only agreed on how big that bow should be at the very last moment. It was very back and forth. And then obviously with Jimmy Choo we have definitive principles but sometimes you just have to break those barriers down. That was the fun part about this collaboration. We didn't have boundaries.
Did you go to the Jimmy Choo factories together?
SC: I went to Virgil's studio in Milan and he came to ours in London. But the majority of the design process was all done through WhatsApp.
VA: Yeah, we're all digital. Across the globe.
SC: Exactly. Now it's WhatsApp, and it's in different time zones, and it's whatever time that we're both around with our mutual travel schedules.
VA: I do it with every project. What I do is I make a group chat for everything. We collaborated using WhatsApp. This tool (the iPhone) is 24/7, and every inspiration, every idea is in the group chat. It changed the length of the work day. So now whatever time zone I'm on, whenever I check it, I add to the shoe design. And then, I can go on about the 30 other projects I have. But it chronicles everything from the very first inspiration and your editing of every idea. So they'll send a photo at my time 3 am, I wake up at 7 am. I'm like, "Hey. Change that." So, I think what it's done is figured out a way so that you are virtually in a design studio. You can speak to the factory, the design team, the PR team. All as if we're in the same room.
"There's something old and new. There were nuances to a generation that we've uncovered." — Sandra Choi
Is it mainly words or images?
SC: Images. And drawings. It's brilliant.
VA: Redrawing over images and videos that shows how it should flow. It's not like the glory days of fashion, when you're sitting in a room with an espresso and you have infinite time. My main motivation is that you use the phone as your new studio. It's your camera, your network, your emails, your contact, your everything. Steve Jobs was like, "Hey I have a vision," and their ethos for making product was humanity. It's like every idea should sort of empower someone to be more creative.
Going into specifics, what is the idea about Claire?
VA: The idea was if you had this you would be so fragile, but now it's actually a function thing. I thought if a woman wore these into the Chiltern Firehouse, it automatically lifts everyone's day. And if your day is different because you've seen something that you didn't know had ever been existing — that's what I love about fashion. It changes the aura of a room. And it has to be provocative enough. This is extremely provocative. It's not something you'd see every day, but it's made with taste.
SC: Its work in progress name was Tiara.
VA: Yeah because the whole thing is in the show. There's not going to be any obvious references to tiaras but I'm going to do that in other ways — just move that line lower. Because there's never enough events to wear a real tiara to these days. *Laughter* They're slowly disappearing. I think you've got maybe a wedding, and that's your one shot. I am thinking about a tiara in another form.
What about Anne?
SC: It's interesting because that's almost one that I would have actually forgotten about, even though it's one of the most famous. There's something that is quite powerful about this pump. There's something old and new. There were nuances to a generation that we've uncovered. That to me is so simple. We're telling the story through the height. We're telling beauty. The heel shape alone speaks to a certain moment in time. They can also be conservative at the same time. There's so much to it.
So you think conversative's not a bad word anymore?
VA: No. That's the thing, that's the modern irony.
SC: Because I think we've kind of all slightly moved on to a different kind of ideal.
How do we feel about Sara?
VA: Look at those — you could walk on the Moon in those boots.
SC: It was very specific to have the padding properly finished because it needs to resemble ski styles and warmth. And the height was carefully considered. I mean, the cone here was something that we were thinking of that's a bit more casual, but still sexy. Because I see young women today wanting to have confidence. They want to be the right kind of sexy.
That bow on Mary deserves a shoutout.
VA: When I think of Jimmy Choo, I think of a very ladylike silhouette. My divine ethos of Off-White is to do something 3%. Leave everything and only focus on the essence. When you do crazy things, it's so much happening at once, you can sometimes loose the original focus. So this style is about celebrating the beautiful Choo-and only the shoe. It's a bow, that normally in store would be straight and neat and instead I just wanted it to be exaggerated and touching the floor. I was seeing the movement, the extremity of seeing something that is regarded as preppy but with an extreme scale that makes it extraordinary.
And the bow will be grosgrain?
SC: Moiré. It's a special moiré. It's a wood grain, which reminds me of Diana. That's the fabric I think when I imagine what she was wearing in the '80s, as well as Tulle obviously.
And then there's Elisabeth.
VA: Tulle is in the show on the red carpet dresses so we felt that we had to incorporate as full looks. It was layers and layers in young shapes. It's about textures.
Jane is unique.
SC: The fastenings are clearly amazing and are something that is part of the Off-White DNA — this whole industrial mechanism.
VA: Yeah, like the zip tie. I like the industrial and the utilitarian aspects of design. The straps are plastic molded 3D but lined with leather. The zip is like something ready-made off a piece of clothing that you would have lying around but it's the most heightened version of it.
"Fashion is what's on the runway as opposed to being the commercial version that is a little bit like the runway version. I like to think that a girl could live the runway version." — Virgil Abloh
My last question is for Sandra. Has the collaboration made you rethink elements of Jimmy Choo? Has it made you want to embrace the street more?
SC: Well, the street is there. You can't ignore it for sure. But I'd like to think that I'm a much more open-minded person. You know what Jimmy Choo is, the glamour, the confidence, that high heel. But the story has evolved with the Jimmy Choo woman wanting and needing more choices but founded on the same principles of quality, design and confidence. I like to give her choices. This project has allowed us to play with our core DNA in ways that are authentic yet surprising, that provokes people to think, "Oh, they're doing something different. That's really interesting." And I believe in experimenting when it is built on authenticity, it brings freshness and energy to the collections.
Off-White c/o Jimmy Choo will be in stores and online from end-February 2018.
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