Virgil Abloh really doesn’t like talking about Kanye West. It’s something I’d read in previous interviews with the elusive entrepreneur, and something I’d resolved not to do ahead of our own sit down at the Toronto-based all-purpose creative house, Free, where he was on hand to give a talk as part of “On Fashion and Images,” a multi-disciplinary project inspired by the intersection between fashion and photography. Abloh’s reluctance to disclose too much about the intimate inner workings of his relationship with West, which is often described using words like “creative director,” “right-hand man,” and “close collaborator,” makes perfect sense. West has the kind of outsize, ostentatious persona that can command a room, and more importantly a narrative.
From the time they were unknown Chicago upstarts with a mutual taste in fashion and the arts, Abloh and West’s narratives have been irrevocably linked. Abloh lent West his keen eye and immaculate taste—consulting on everything from West’s audacious stage designs to his iconic album covers—and in return, Abloh gained access to the kind of rarified social circles the rest of only get glimpses of through Instagram. As West became more and more famous, Abloh embraced his place in the shadows.
But that was then.
Though Abloh still works closely with West—he heads the rapper’s clandestine creative agency DONDA—the 35 year-old Wisconsin native has developed a gravitational pull that rivals that of his close friend’s. His Milan-based streetwear line Off-White, has gatecrashed an industry that once deemed his brand of loud, graphic-heavy collections as unfit to show alongside ultra-luxe brands like Dior and Hermes. But, when the line between streetwear and high fashion started to collapse, Abloh saw an opening. Today, the LVMH prize-nominated Abloh’s designs can be seen all over Europe’s most sacred runways.
My conversation with the newly-minted cultural guru began ahead of the panel discussion he did with the Paris-based fashion photographer and frequent collaborator Fabien Montique, who directed the short film below in partnership with The Creator Class and Canon Canada, and who joined us in our discussion about the rise of streetwear, the future of fashion, and yes, even Kanye West.
How did you two first hook up?
Fabien Montique: So, I had a website, and it was kind of a curated site. Virgil and Kanye and his group had seen it. They contacted me through that, and that’s how we met.
Virgil, what do you look for in a potential collaborator?
Virgil Abloh: Usually, it’s some resonance in their work. Whether it’s a person or a brand, it’s got to be something that I see in it that has a pure quality, and that inspires the idea of what to do.
A lot of people have this notion that fashion is a superficial pursuit. Do you agree?
VA: I’ve been doing a lot of theorizing about fashion. I think fashion is supposed to be superficial. That’s what it is. Fashion designers, the term is like artists, but we’re taking everyday objects and representing them with an imaginative quality. Fashion is, in a large part, made to show people how to dress. If there wasn’t fashion, we would just wear whatever.
How much do you think what we wear defines whom we are?
VA: As soon as you put on one garment, it speaks to your personality. People’s innate idea of curation, which is just putting things next to each other, if it was money or pennies or whatever’s in your pocket, that would say something about you. The inherent idea that clothes are what represents you gives us a palette to either be superficial or very curatorial with taste. It’s an art form. I think my personal work is to make [sure] the everyday things have a design or an opinion attached to it or done with a specific point of view. My entry point is streetwear. Streetwear is a realistic thing.
Why do you guys think there’s been a blurring of the line between high fashion and hip-hop culture and how big of a part do you think you played in it?
VA: Literally I was the kid that was more apt to play in the background. That’s why I made this creative direction. I wasn’t confident to have my own ideas. I’d sit back and work with Shane (Gonzales, and (A$AP) Rocky on his tour and Kanye for over 12 years. It’s like, “Hey, I don’t want to put my face out there.” It’s not what I’m about; it’s not like, “Hey, look at me”; it was like, “Hey, I have an idea, and I’m not confident enough to do it on my own, let me suggest it and if it doesn’t come out then whatever.” But then, obviously, we’ve seen a culture shift. We’ve seen skateboarding go from an illegal thing to socially acceptable. We’ve seen hip-hop go from dangerous to alluring and I saw an empty seat. No one younger is going to grip it and rip it. I’m going to do the work. It’s like disco, that’s what I call streetwear. It seemed cool at the time but didn’t age well at all. It’s a joke. Streetwear, what happened to it? I feel like these kids from the ’90s who worked a real job knew how to translate it into their culture. If we didn’t do that, it would be going down. So I was like, “Shit, I am giving a unique perspective from a kid from even further outside that American streetwear world.” I needed to step up to the plate and contribute something to culture.
Do you take credit for that paradigm shift?
VA: Credit doesn’t do anything to me. It literally has no feedback. I don’t get any gratification. I don’t read any reviews. It doesn’t matter.
So you don’t take any pride in your effect on the culture?
VA: It’s not pride. I create from a point of view of resonance. I made this, I don’t even know if anyone bought it, but I know as soon as it left my idea that it resonates. The Chateau Marmont hoodie is an example. It might be the weirdest thing that I have. I don’t see people I know wear it, and it sells, but it’s purely not the reason why I’m doing it. It’s basically to Instagram images of it. Things I get gratification from are Fabien sending me photos and me posting them knowing that people who don’t even own Off-White are being like, “Damn, I just thought this was a hoodie and a T-shirt brand.” That image is like a fashion image, but it’s real people in real clothes. That’s literally the gratification.
Whether we like to admit it or not, everybody looks in the mirror before they go out.
VA: You’re either playing into fashion it or you’re reverting to it. Both are fashionable. Like, only a kid without internet, you know, in a non-media environment is probably not, but even then they’re wearing their local thing to express something. I think what we’re trying to do is make art out of that or make a point of view.
At Off-White, you guys cast models that don’t fit the typical Cindy Crawford or Naomi Campbell mold, and fashion, in general, has evolved when it comes to notions of beauty. What do you guys look for when you’re casting models for your shoots?
FM: We start with people that actually wear the clothing. People that we look at and inspire us. I think that’s where it starts and just wanting to translate [that], so people can see themselves when they look at a runway show. So they can be like, “Yeah, I can wear that, that feels like me because I can identify with how that person looks.”
VA: It’s a theory, plus there’s an actualization of it. Ten years ago you said “model,” and you thought of Cindy Crawford, but that was perfect for the time. The time now is not so based on celebrity icon. You’re looking to things that you can see yourself in. So, what we’re doing, it’s just being a novice. We’re new to it. We’re not holding onto conventions. We’re trying to say that it’s a quality and a personality that can translate to clothing. We’re putting it on generic faces. Obviously, it’s an aesthetic.
Are you actively looking for people who you deem generic-looking?
VA: The main parameter honestly is like Stevie Dance, this stylist that we worked with; [it] was like, “Would you hang out with them or not?” Which is another device to be superficial. We’re making an opinion. We can’t hide it. I don’t want to make fashion just in this vibe, I’m not trying to make fashion seem nice, democratic. Because I think when it gets democratic people are like, “Oh, the lust is gone.” Or they can look at what we’re doing and be like, “Oh, it’s just by accident.” It’s very deliberate. We’re more responsible to humankind and fashion. So, we’re saying, “Hey, are you someone we’d hang out with?” The people that we hang out with are diverse. They’re from Chicago or Nebraska the same way they can be from Paris. They grew up in fashion or they didn’t at all.
How do you feel about people like Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber wearing your clothes, and the masses seeing your clothes through that spectrum. Are they proper messengers for the idea that you’re trying to communicate?
VA: 100 percent. I was at Kendall’s birthday yesterday. I still have tequila in me from her birthday, and I think that’s the thing. I’ve always invested in the youth, not as a marketing ploy; I really believe in that being fixated in our way of thinking. So, my thing is like, “Wait, Kendall is as cool as any other 14- to 20-something-year-old.” I’m not judging. She’s not cooler or worse than any random kid that’s got style.
Do you worry that it makes your clothes feel inaccessible?
VA: No. It’s not even about accessible or inaccessible. I often say, “Off-White is not about buying the clothes.” That’s the trick, we’re not fixated. My team doesn’t wear Off-White. I randomly have two things, I usually don’t even have it on myself. It’s more about a tribe. You see tribes of people, but actually, that’s the opposite of what I want. I would never put clothes on somebody. It’s something that you have to see and want and then it’s yours. I focus on brand because there’s always going to be 30 times more people that know about Off-White than physically put it on. We’re in an age where it’s about “How many hoodies can you own? How many jackets?”
Is making Off-White affordable something you’re interested in doing?
VA: No, not at all. It’s the lowest priority. The highest is making a brand. Like, Fabien grew up and saw Calvin Klein and it changed his life. What I’m seeing now is designers say, “Hey, make it accessible. Hey, make it super simple.”
So you’re not interested in partnerships with fast-fashion brands?
VA: No. The goal is Dior. A lot of people ask to make something affordable, and I think what H&M and Zara have done has skewed people’s brains on what something costs to make. Like a Ferrari’s cost, you’re like, “Dude it’s so expensive.” But the way that it’s made, if someone cares about cars they’re making, it’s better than a mass-produced product. So it’s like people think a T-shirt should cost $9. Imagine shipping an envelope from here to China for under $9. So, what we’re doing is we’re making things in places where the best are made. We’re just making them with a different spirit. So, I don’t simply want to make something cheaper so somebody can afford it. I’d rather it be more expensive and coveted than something cheap, worn one time, and then it ends up in Salvation Army.
How has Instagram and social media influenced the way you look at fashion photography. Do you think the democratization of picture-taking is a good thing?
VA: I think it’s a good thing. For me, the internet is why I’m at where I’m at.
Do you guys even remember a world pre-internet?
VA: Yeah, that’s our biggest gift. We had one foot in before and one foot after. The kids now, they don’t know.
How do you use Instagram?
FB: Just to stay connected and to stay informed. Just to know what’s happening.
VA: I’m addicted to it, it’s my tool.
I checked your Instagram, and you haven’t posted in five weeks.
VA: Yeah. It’s funny, it’s come up a lot this week. I’m probably not going to post on it again.
VA: Only because I used it as a tool to sort of get to where I am. My brand is made from Instagram for starters. The idea, the clothing, came from it and I needed it because there was no way for me to have a voice to communicate. So, when those followers got up to a certain point, I felt like I finally had a platform and a voice where people can come back in, to view that content, not look at me on a regular basis. Like, you don’t need to know where I’m at.
Did your LVMH award nomination feel like the establishment had finally invited you into their exclusive club?
VA: Yeah, the brand wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for the LVMH thing. I don’t do anything for the success of it, but as soon as I made it to that level I was like, “Oh, I can make it a luxury brand.” Off-White is luxury in quotes, not real luxury. It’s the modern idea of luxury, so basically it allowed me to be as long-winded as I am. I can’t sit here and claim that there’s some subversive messaging happening, that high fashion imagery on a hoodie and jeans is new.
So have you broken through those barriers that Kanye is always talking about?
VA: Nah, I don’t know. The barriers are crazy. Once you get into that level of trying to understand it, that’s when I tap out. I just want to make something. We love that we’ve sort of thrown the curtains wide open. We don’t even deserve that. I wouldn’t even give myself that much credit. It’s like the kids, the fanbase, the people that are here, look at their outfits. We’re just in tune.
You were being called a creative director back when a lot of people didn’t really know what that meant. Now it’s become ubiquitous and maybe a bit diluted. What does that term mean to you?
VA: I’ve had some good answers that I can’t remember now. Being a creative director is being selfless. You’re almost basically like a housekeeper. What I focus on is like, you’re sort of not there. Or you’re the housekeeper, so when someone leaves their keys and wallet somewhere, instead of leaving them on the counter you put them on the door where you know that person will grab them.
Do you resent the proliferation of that term?
VA: I don’t care. I care about other things. But, what I care about is that people know the craft because I think if people knew the craft of creative direction, it’s like there’s a client and then there’s an end goal that’s a question mark. So, what I do is I focus on suggestions, putting things on the table. I provide no finite answer so then the client can choose.
You’re basically an ideas man.
VA: Yeah. Incepting an idea, but you have to think about what the client wants and what the end goal is. It’s not what I want. That’s what I mean, it’s not my house. That’s proper creative direction. I made Off-White so I’m no longer a creative director, I’m a client. So the idea, I can think of 30 ideas a second that go from A to Z. That’s what the pro side of creative direction would be.
You’ve said that you come up with 30 ideas a minute. And while a lot of people need to be in a specific place or frame of mind to do that, you live your life on planes. What do you need in order to be creative?
VA: A charged iPhone. It’s in my hand. You can do anything. Our generation is like, “Let’s sit at the bar and talk about it.” The best advice is to just do it. What I’ve done is I don’t chill. I’m a sponge for it. I’m weird. I’m probably not normal. I didn’t want to work a 9-to-5. I wanted to have a fun job.
Do you think your lifestyle will catch up with you?
VA: Of course it will. I don’t think it’s forever, but who cares.