There are some obvious shared attributes between artist Solange Knowles and designer Virgil Abloh. They are both closely associated with big creative forces — Kanye West for Abloh, Beyoncé for Knowles — but have managed to commandeer their own visions and propel them into the world.
And this past year they’ve both been awarded for their output. Knowles took home the Glamour Woman of the Year Award and Billboard’s Impact Award for her seminal album, “A Seat at the Table.” And earlier this month the British Fashion Council honored Abloh for his design achievements with Off-White, his luxury streetwear brand that he often calls one big art project.
But in a conversation on Tuesday night in New York with Susan Sobbott, president of global corporate payments at American Express, which hosted the event, aptly titled “A Night With Success Makers,” similarities beyond their awards and associations became more apparent.
Here, WWD highlights key themes from the conversation:
“I always bring it back to community because without that I wouldn’t have the courage,” said Knowles when asked how she has gotten where she is now. Knowles, who has made it a priority to build spaces for like-minded people, believes that a group of talented artists is more impactful than one. “They knew that if they came as a force, they would be undeniable,” she said, referring to Swing Mob, a collective helmed by Missy Elliott and Tim “Timbaland” Mosley and the Soulquarians, which consisted of Erykah Badu, Common, Q-Tip, Mos Def and others.
Abloh felt similarly. “I want to give access,” he said. “I want to give back to that community and help my friends out. I’m interested in seeing 10 different artists succeed not just one from an entourage. There is a younger generation that deserves to be a part of this industry.”
On challenges/defying conventions:
Knowles noted that after releasing “A Seat at the Table,” she was faced with having to find venues that could contain her stage designs. “This year I had a lot of fear about performing,” Knowles said. “And if a venue couldn’t accommodate how I wanted my set to look, then it couldn’t happen.” Knowles said the solution was festivals, which typically offer blank spaces that could easily conform to her set, along with museums such as the Guggenheim and more intimate venues.
For Abloh, operating outside of certain traditional categories has been a challenge. “I decided early that I wanted to make a luxury brand. I didn’t want to be where people assumed I would be,” Abloh said. “Traditionally, luxury brands have a glossy ad selling you something, but I decided to be contradictory. I’m not choosing to be picture perfect or relaxed. If they think Off-White should be streetwear, then let’s have a runway show of 30 dresses.”
On saying no:
“People wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve said no to,” Knowles said. “We live in an immediate gratification society, but for me, it’s about thinking about a 10-year plan or five-year plans and if those opportunities are going to enable you to invest back into your art. It’s no longer about getting an opportunity. It’s about what I’m able to do with that opportunity. How does it work for me and against me.”
“I answer every request with a yes, and then if later on I don’t want to do it, I change it to a no,” said Abloh, who believes considering something before one denies it opens the mind up to the possibilities of the opportunity. In his view, by doing this he can better understand what decision to make. “I have to think about if I want to put my brand in this context or if it makes sense.”
“A word at the forefront for me is ownership and I don’t mean needing to fully own the thing,” Knowles said. “I mean ownership of body, your ideas and ownership of your voice, but it’s been a long journey to get here. I put out my first album at 15 when I didn’t have the tools to take ownership over my work. I wish someone would have taken me to the side and said, ‘You can take ownership of these moments.’”
For Abloh, ownership has translated to owning his abilities and using them for his own projects as opposed to working to help realize another person’s dream. “I’m a consumer. I’m a fan. And I’m an intern. I work that hard,” Abloh said. “I would have been fine doing that forever until I realized that I can do it, too. It’s a long way of saying just doing what you want to do.”
“For so long I was doing everything by myself,” said Knowles, who harkened back to her performance at the Guggenheim when she was making sure her background singers, dancers and band members were dressed properly and then prepping herself. “You should be able to enlist a team that can put forward your vision. It’s life changing.”
“Everything comes from collaboration,” said Abloh, who collaborated with Nike this year to rework 10 of its sneaker silhouettes. He released the sneakers via workshops featuring various speakers. “I got frustrated when I scrolled through Instagram and saw new shoes and they were just color changes, like a coloring book. I wanted to change actual design, but I kept the brand goal at the forefront. I thought this isn’t a marketing project. This is an educational project. Kids are learning as they wait in line for the shoes. This is a modern way for corporations to speak to the consumer.”