Virgil Abloh is the embodiment of a new generation of interdisciplinary designers occupying the throne of social media. He gives voice to his vision through his successful luxury streetwear brand, Off-White™, building his reputation on dada and pop-inspired irony and witticism. Since the rise of his brand, he has collaborated with graphic and fashion designers, architects, musicians and visual artists, reinventing the term “designer” with his media-mixing practice. He has been called the coolest man in fashion by The Times, the Andy Warhol of our times by The Guardian, and most controversially, the millennial Karl Lagerfeld. His name is Virgil Abloh. He is no doubt one to watch, and the story to follow is his claim to fame.
Virgil Abloh was born in 1980 in Rockford, Illinois. The son of Ghanaian immigrants, his path was determined from the onset. Following his parent’s wishes, Abloh studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin. But the Chicago-bred youth channelled his creativity in his free time by skateboarding, listening to hip-hop and D.J.-ing. In the end, an art history class in the last year of college made him realize his affinities lay with the creative rather than the practical. Once he’d made his mind up in studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, his path had taken a sharp turn towards the world of design, from which he would never look back.
The Illinois Institute of Technology defined Virgil’s career in more ways than one. During his time there, the completion of a Rem Koolhaas building on campus “piqued his interest and opened his gateway into fashion”. Another influence he claims defined his view of design was Mies van der Rohe, the architect whose buildings make up a large part of the IIT campus, and whose design philosophy remains central to the school’s identity. Abloh talks of “an international style of architecture where one aesthetic can exist in different cultures. That’s how I think of fashion and the branding.”
However, a more immediate presence in his life and career at the time took the form of Kanye West. Virgil Abloh was working in a Chicago print shop and designing t-shirts when he caught the attention of Kanye’s creative team. The two have been working together since the early 2000s. Following his inauguration into Kanye’s inner circle was an internship at Fendi, further collaboration with the prominent rapper leading to his role as creative director at West’s agency and, most recently, his appointment as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear.
During his whirlwind rise to fame, Virgil Abloh launched his own fashion house, Off-White™, in 2013. While its main focus is high-end streetwear, he simply defines the brand as “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.” He conceived the brand with the idea of the freedom of ‘the gray area’ to express himself across multiple platforms. Off-White™’s hallmark comes in the form of diagonal stripes and ironic quotation marks emblazoned on many of his designs.
Abloh also has a thing for repurposing and referencing, listing the pioneers of dada and pop-art as inspirations for his own practice. He says: “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp. It’s this idea of the readymade. (…) I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song. I’m taking Ikea and I’m presenting it in my own way. It’s streetwear 10.0—the logic that you can reference an object or reference a brand or reference something. It’s Warhol—Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup cans.”
Abloh’s championship of taking something which already exists and putting a new spin on it comes not without its detractors. There is much backlash regarding his “three percent approach” – the theory that a new design can be created by changing an original by that percentage. It is the short-cutting of the design process that Abloh’s brand is built upon – an approach he readily talks about and explains – which pulls in the majority of critics. But his success indicates that originality is not the only pathway to recognition.
Abloh’s ability to connect to consumers is where his value lies. His triumph is a major reflection of the state of the industry and where it is headed. For better or worse, Virgil Abloh is the designer consumers have voted for. His bold and audacious approach resonates with the younger generations across the various channels of social media. It was this perception of design and designers that Abloh envisaged years before founding his brand on his blog ‘The Brilliance’. “I am all about championing this new era of designers becoming the new rock stars,” he wrote.
In 2016, the multi-platform brand Off-White™ branched out into the realm of furniture with Grey Area. Abloh presented his first furniture collection at Art Basel. Iron grids were dominant throughout, making up the framework for chairs, benches and tables. One statement-piece table featured an iron-grid tabletop held up on one end by a pile of gravel – not exactly functional. Instead, his aim with this collection was to “blur the line between furniture and a piece of art”.
Since his debut collection, Abloh has also worked with furniture mogul IKEA on a collection of affordable pieces aimed at the younger generation with a taste for high fashion. Most of the designs are simple modifications of traditional pieces of furniture. Abloh’s aim, he states, is “to invest an artistic quality in things that you already have”, through a series of ‘interruptions’ in his signature ironic pop approach. The collection, called Markerad, features a minimalist version of the recognizable Swedish ‘pinnstol’ chair with an unexpected twist: a bright red doorstop planted on one of its legs. Aptly titled, ‘Door Stop Interruption’, it encapsulates Abloh’s idea of making statement pieces out of traditional objects, bringing them into the twenty-first century.
Another item in the collection is a glass cabinet with a wooden frame, not unlike many already sold by IKEA. The twist with this one comes in the form of a red handle shaped like a nail, referencing the tools required to assemble IKEA furniture. The piece is also a critical statement about the high consumption levels of today’s society. The cabinet is a means of showcasing objects like sneakers. The act of curating a collection to put on display, the designer hopes, will reduce unnecessary purchases.
Figures of Speech
Virgil Abloh was also part of a group of contemporary artists invited to design a rug for the fifth series of the IKEA Art Event. The fashion designer recreated a traditional oriental rug, but with the words “KEEP OFF” plastered over it in bold, sans-serif lettering. It is his ironic take on the traditional parental attitude of “don’t ruin the furniture”. His latest furniture venture was a collection titled ‘Efflorescence’ for Paris studio Galerie Kreo at the beginning of 2020. Inspired by Brutalism and street culture, the pieces are made of concrete and are covered in graffiti made by the designer himself. Virgil Abloh’s career rocketed from the suburbs of Chicago, through Louis Vuitton and the MCA, all the way to Paris’s Musée du Louvre and Palais-Royale in under two decades.
The audacity with which he takes beloved designs and modifies them just enough to revive their significance in the frenzied era of fast-fashion-obsessed minds is what made him. It may not be completely original – a pair of Air Jordans with shoelaces that have the words “shoelaces” written on them just falls short of mockery – but it makes a bold statement about the new role of designers in contemporary society. Virgil’s rise to prominence tells of the growing need for designers literate in the social-media-oriented, consumerist mindset of the iGeneration. The credo is questionable, but it seems to be what the market wants. And nobody knows this better than Virgil Abloh.