Virgil Abloh’s Off-White Magic

In his short life, the visionary revolutionized design; since his untimely death in November, the extent of the his impact on the culture is coming into view
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Kanye West, recently said, “When white people say the word ‘rapper,’ that is saying ‘n**ger.’” Then there’s “Album of the year” and “Rap Album of the Year,” musicians and rappers, music and their music. And yet rap—like so many past art forms by Black Americans—now sits at the heart of the culture. The sound of this decade has been defined, dominated, and lead by hip-hop—by that music.

High fashion shares this bias—a lean towards the mainstream, digestible, expected, and commercial—for it’s run by the recreationally affluent and largest corporations on the planet, who are happy with the people already at their table. As Kanye’s friend the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh once remarked, “To call it ‘streetwear’ is in some ways to say, ‘That’s not fashion design, what you guys do.’”

And yet, by the time Abloh died this past November, streetwear had taken over the high-end. It’s the foundation of the most interesting, new, social-media-driven brands. It’s made by every famous European name. And it’s the most desired, hyped clothing on the planet. And for that, Abloh will go down in history as one of the most famous designers to have lived, alongside Halston, Lagerfeld, Ford, and Chanel, however unexpected that may seem.

The story of Nee and Eunice Abloh is quintessentially American; it’s the dream so many tired, huddled poor still long to realize. They were working-class Ghanaians who fell in love in Accra and moved to America in the 1970s to raise their children in Rockford, Illinois, near Chicago. There, Nee worked at a paint company, Eunice as a seamstress. On September 30, 1980, she gave birth to Virgil.

Abloh’s youth was typical of those creative suburban sons of creative working people. He loved buildings and skating and Michael Jordan and graffiti, which he started creating with at six years old. At 18, he attended the University of Wisconsin in Madison to study engineering—a degree that satisfied his father’s desire to have an engineer son more than it scratched Abloh’s creative itch. By graduation, he found the field of his calling: studying masters architecture at Illinois Institution of Technology. It was here that he found his first creative idols—Duchamp, Rem Koolhaas, and the Bauhaus style, and was told by a mentor to learn software outside of architecture; namely, the Adobe Suite.

Virgil Abloh (2nd R) and Kanye West (2nd L) pose after the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on June 21, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images)

On weekends, he would DJ as “Flat White” and sell custom T-shirts at his shows. So perfectly formatted were his designs that his Chicago print shop, Custom Kings, offered him a job. It was while working there that he met the manager of a rising local musician looking for creatives to hire, and, in 2007, signed on as Kanye West’s fashion fixer and creative director.

It’s hard to think of a period of creative collaboration between young artists that’s more dynamic and influential than Kanye’s and Abloh’s—at least, not since McCartney met Lennon. Some work didn’t come to fruition, like the belated Donda brand Abloh helped oversee, and others caused more infamy than influence—notably, the Confederate Flag Yeezus merchandise. But the hits were hits.

In 2008, Kanye released 808 & Heartbreaks—for which Abloh designed the album art. That album fundamentally sculpted the auto-croon rap that came to dominate charts. In 2009, the two of them became fashion interns for Fendi, bringing coffee and making photocopies. And then, in 2010, came Kanye’s My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy, widely regarded as one of the greatest albums ever, for which Abloh was the creative director (as he was a year later on Watch the Throne). Then, in 2013, came the acclaimed spectacle of the Yeezus tour, also styled by Abloh.

This era is best captured in a single photo, taken at their appearance at the 2009 Paris Fashion Week. Abloh and Kanye weren’t invited—after all, they didn’t have a brand—but they didn’t care. They were “tourist[s] to a purist event,” who loved fashion, had a passion, and knew things needed shaking up. As Abloh said later, “We had a passion to participate because we wanted to change fashion. We knew that high fashion didn’t recognise us, but we didn’t rest in that.”

 

Their picture was widely mocked online, most notably in South Park, but it marks the point where streetwear and hip-hop culture broke into the world of high fashion. No catwalk that week compared in impact to this one JPEG. And, ironically, the arc from initial mockery to major influence has characterised the later work of both Kanye and Abloh.

Sadly, this creative bull run is somewhat overshadowed by the drama that ended it. Kanye loved Louis Vuitton. He paired their backpack with a pink polo shirt during his influential College Dropout era, collaborated with them for the Louis Vuitton Don sneaker series, and proudly took that as a nickname. Becoming their creative director was his dream job, and it looked like he’d get it after a 2017 meeting with Bernard Arnault, the CEO of conglomerate owner LVMH. But only a few months later, this connection fizzled out and management turned to Kanye’s lower-risk acolyte for the role, and Abloh became the first Black creative director of the world’s largest luxury brand, with a current valuation of $47.2 billion.

Across his seven runway shows—the last of which, “Virgil Was Here,” debuted posthumously on November 30—he played with color, layers, and fit, and brought a notable change in attitude to the cream-and-brown brand. It’s easy to caricature Louis Vuitton as more stodgy than it was—they wouldn’t have hired Abloh if that were so, and you only have to turn to Versace, Tom Ford’s arrival at Gucci, and the emergence of Supreme, to see that high fashion was hardly stagnant. Not to mention that Louis Vuitton’s former men’s artistic director, Ken Jones, loved streetwear style just as much as Abloh and Kanye, whom he mentored. But it’s also true that their former excursions beyond suits and bags felt somewhat tacky, whereas Abloh’s branded leather jacket and logo-embossed grey puffer felt authentic and special.

If that were all, Abloh would have been remembered by the fashion press, but not widely celebrated and mourned, as he has been. It was with his own brands that he made his name. There was RSVP Gallery, a blend of museum and high-end retail; his art exhibition at MCA, “Figures of Speech”; the fashion design collective #BEENTRILL#; and Pyrex Vision, a single-season fashion-brand art project that screen-printed a blend of graffiti, classical art, and the number 23—in homage to Michael Jordan—onto Ralph Lauren deadstock. But it was its successor, launched in 2013, where Abloh truly defined his style, his vision, and his fingerprint, and elevated other brands with his collaborations.

When the press ignored all this, he turned to Instagram to share his vision, and within a few years, his was one of the greatest fashion brands in the world. Its name, Off-White, is both a color and a metaphor of going just outside the lines, just beyond the normal. It eschews the fashion world’s expectations of cleanliness and the white world.

He was the first Black creative director for Louis Vuitton, but he is Virgil Abloh of Off-White.

Junkers Blues was a hit. Performed by the legendary Champion Jack Dupree, it’s an easy, cruisy listen, with a jaunty set of piano chords and an accenting, snapping drumbeat leading you into that all too memorable opening line: Some people call me a junker ’cause I’m loaded all the time.

But when dive-bar pianist Fats Domino sat down to play his version, changing groove to a rollick, the piano to triplets, the drums to a pure backbeat, and renaming it “The Fat Man,” it wasn’t blues anymore. They’re such small tweaks, but they make your heart beat faster and your body move differently. Within those few opening chords, you can feel a whole culture—of smashed guitars, drugs, sex, and rebellion—burst into being. Rock was a transgressive new medium that frightened parents and excited the youth, but it began—is felt most keenly—in a Black man making a small modification to the tempo of piano keys.

This idea is at the heart of Abloh’s brilliance—that minor changes can create radical novelty and originality. His beloved graffiti is but a small change to the surface of a wall; hip-hop is based on loops and samples of existing music; and when you elongate the Nike swoosh, or change the transparency of fabric, or add a red block to an IKEA chair, you take something mundane and make it special—make it feel electric.

On the surface, Off-White’s defining visual motifs are quite obvious: the use of industrial packaging, diagonal lines, quotes in capitalised Helvetica, and orange zip-tie tags. But these are only results of its underlying philosophy. As detailed in a speech at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, entitled Insert Complicated Title Here, the Off-White aesthetic is built around the idea that works-in-progress—with rips and tears and signs of being made—show a person made it, worked on it, and had a vision for what it could be. Also, design has to maintain a fine balance between the expected and the new; too much familiarity is boring, too much novelty is alienating. But if you leave most of an object intact—retain its “soul”—and twist, turn, and morph 3 percent of it in a radical, original way, then you’ll have something special.

Neither idea is uncontroversial. The former has led to complaints of Abloh’s work being ugly and unfinished—that he’s not creating something new so much as ripping it up and adding little but the price. The latter lead to endless accusations of plagiarism and laziness, even by notable designers. But it’s the influence of these two ideas, this guiding philosophy, that makes his work so interesting for those of us that love it.

Whether he was making furniture with IKEA and Vitra, off-roaders with Mercedes-Benz, water bottles with Evian, or kitchenware with Ginori 1735, he made you think about how the original object looked, and why that was the default. Why is that G-Class dropped? Why should a mirror flatly reflect you?

He was, as he confessed, not a sneakerhead, and initially nervous about interfering with that world. Sneaker culture can often resemble the worst of fan mentality; it can be infantile, precious, and gatekeeping, with corny commercial collaborations and an emphasis on owning the exclusive and expensive over the genuinely loved. But Abloh’s distance from this world allowed him to make gold. He ransacked his childhood for inspiration and said, “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.” But this look backward was for familiarity and authenticity—to represent and reflect a culture he loved and return to the playfulness and wonder so often lost in adulthood. There’s nothing immature about his work, nothing frivolous.

Unlike Kanye or Pharell, Abloh’s shoes don’t have a new silhouette; he made his mark through reinvention. There was his Chuck Taylor “Stripes”; the Air Force 1 museum collaborations; the spike-festooned Waffle Racers; and, recently, his 50 different colorways of Nike Dunk Lows and re-creations of classic Jordan Twos. But nothing compares to his initial series, The 10.

Released in 2017, they were to sneakers what Christo—a favourite artist of his—did to architectural monuments: taking classics across the Nike, Jordan, and Converse range and recladding them to play with the public’s imagination. Every lover of fashion design and sneakers has their favorites. Mine are his Nike Blazers with dropped swooshes, and transparent Chuck Taylors. His most famous, though, are his first—heritage Jordan Ones. I personally prefer the white version (which was initially intended to be the first), but the legacy color spoke to the fans—to those kids from Chicago who, like the 17-year-old Abloh, watched Michael Jordan and saw that Black men could fly. They currently resell for over $10,000.

In 2019, Virgil was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of heart cancer, but his final two years were not defined by finality, but his characteristic spontaneity. He was a creative in the best way: fearless in his originality and vision, willing to confront expectations and challenge norms, but without being a diva, without becoming a narcissist, and being deeply humble. He constantly praised his team, promoted new young creatives, and even incorporated sharing into his workflow, often saying that WhatsApp was his most important tool. He is the first notable designer to embrace the internet and social media in his work, and once remarked: “I literally have no desk in the world. I work on the street, phone in hand. I’ve occasionally been stuck at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets in Manhattan not even realizing I’ve been standing there for 20 minutes responding to messages.”

Streetwear existed before Abloh, as did sneaker customisation and sneaker culture, Black designers and hype culture, and male youth interested in fashion design. But it’s hard to think of a single figure who has amplified it more, and whose voice can be heard in the work of so many other designers. Abloh introduced Jerry Lorenzo of Fear of God to Barneys. He helped Kanye explore his creativity and develop his style—a style that may and him as Abloh’s replacement at Louis Vuitton. And, most notably, he inspired—and continues to inspire—endless nameless designers, artists, creatives, and innovators who scribble in schoolbooks and sketch on waiters’ notepads and know that a humble background and lack of art-school education didn’t stop Abloh. Posthumously, he even passed them the tools to help them on their journey with his Free Game website, adapted from his course on how to make a brand.

He once said, “I did not think that I could be a ‘Designer’ with a capital D, ’cause no-one looked like me.”

No Black child with a dream of fashion stardom will think that now.

Abloh loved quotes, and in his too-short time, he embodied that most famous by his Roman namesake who said, “Fortune favors the bold.”

Rest in peace. Virgil Abloh “FOREVER.”