PARIS — Trying to pin down Virgil Abloh is about as difficult as copping one of his coveted Nike sneakers.
“Miami -> Paris -> London all in this current 24 hrs,” read a post on his Instagram Stories on Monday, summing up a day in the life of the Off-White founder and creative director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton, who is WWD’s Newsmaker of the Year.
Abloh was on the Eurostar train en route to the Fashion Awards in London, where he beat Supreme, Balenciaga, Marine Serre and Alyx to win the Urban Luxe award for the second year in a row. “I still think it’s an astonishing achievement to have me in the class of designers that were nominated,” he said in his acceptance speech.
At Art Basel Miami last week, he may not have been as ubiquitous as the year before, but Abloh still found time to support his friend Luka Sabbat; take part in a panel talk titled “Back to the Body: Human-Oriented Forms in Art, Design and Architecture,” organized by Therme Group; and deejay at the Rakastella festival on Virginia Beach.
Also in the last seven days, Abloh was named as the first creative adviser for sustainable innovation design at mineral water brand Evian, and unveiled the latest in a stream of collaborations, this time with trendy tea shop Cha Cha Matcha, on new packaging and a limited-edition collection of shirts and hoodies.
If it sounds like his life has been spinning into overdrive since he took up the Vuitton post this year, Abloh begs to disagree.
“In a way, nothing has changed more than scale of reach. I have always been just about this busy at this level of multitasking in one way or another,” he said in a WhatsApp exchange from the Eurostar, after patchy cellphone reception scuppered plans for a phone conversation.
Surely, there have been some changes? For instance, his newfound access to Vuitton’s world-class production facilities? (Previewing his debut collection in June, Abloh marveled at the rapid turnaround time for the sole units on his first sneakers.) Juggling two design teams? Getting an apartment in Paris?
“It’s been great having access to the ways of work/craftsmanship and quality Louis Vuitton has access to. As well, I love the infrastructure of Off-White just the same. My mind works in parallel tracks so I don’t have much [trouble,] if [any] at all, staying inspired in both realms,” he countered.
It’s worth recalling that in just six years, the 38-year-old — who rose to fame as Kanye West’s creative director — has gone from selling screen-printed Rugby Ralph Lauren flannel shirts, under his short-lived first label Pyrex Vision, to heading the men’s wear division of one of the world’s largest luxury brand.
Off-White was launched online in late 2013, holding its first showroom presentation in Paris the following January with designs that merged influences ranging from Bauhaus to sports apparel and Caravaggio. It established the visual signature of the brand: thick diagonal stripes that have become a byword for insider cool.
The label belongs to New Guards Group, the Milan-based company that produces and distributes brands including Marcelo Burlon County of Milan, Palm Angels, Heron Preston and Unravel.
Abloh’s rise to prominence coincided with peers such as Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, Shayne Oliver and Gosha Rubchinskiy — a group that has disrupted and energized fashion with their integration of web culture, art, streetwear and luxury codes.
The tipping point came in June, with his debut show for Vuitton, held on a 650-foot-long, rainbow-colored catwalk in the Palais-Royal Garden in Paris. The sentiment in the audience was that some sort of dam had broken, and as Abloh embraced West at the end of the show, both men wept tears of joy.
“There was an overwhelming feeling that that moment wasn’t promised, but was happening,” Abloh said.
The moment may not have been promised, but it was one he pursued with singular intent, ever since hitting Paris Fashion Week in 2009 with a crew that included West; Don Crawley, with whom Abloh cofounded Chicago concept store RSVP Gallery; designer and retailer Chris Julian, and musicians Taz Arnold and Fonzworth Bentley.
“We were obviously fans of fashion. That’s how we arrived at the industry,” he recalled during the preview at the Vuitton studio in June. “We couldn’t even have gone into a Louis Vuitton show at the time.”
Abloh built Off-White at warp speed, expanding into women’s wear within 18 months of its launch. The brand made it onto the shortlist of the 2015 edition of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, crystallizing the advent of streetwear as a credible challenger to the luxury status quo, and cementing close ties to the French luxury group.
Almost frenetic with his design collaborations, Abloh has teamed with a broad spectrum of brands, from Ikea and Byredo to Jimmy Choo, Warby Parker, Moncler, Umbro and Sunglass Hut.
In 2017, he joined forces with Nike to reissue 10 emblematic shoe styles, including the Air Jordan I and Blazer. “The Ten” was hailed as the biggest sneaker release event of the year, and the partnership has since been extended to a capsule line for tennis player Serena Williams and a collaboration on women’s ready-to-wear for spring 2019.
This October, Off-White officially became the world’s hottest brand, hitting the number-one spot on global fashion search platform Lyst’s quarterly index of fashion’s most desirable brands and products for the first time — ahead of industry behemoths Gucci, Balenciaga, Nike and Prada.
“This quarter Virgil Abloh dropped sell-out sneakers, dressed Serena Williams for the U.S. Open, released the second ‘For All’ capsule, a Mykonos-inspired swim line, an Ikea rug pop-up, plus projects with retailers Ssense, Selfridges and TheDoubleF, ahead of a thrilling athletics-inspired SS19 show in Paris,” the report noted.
From the start, Abloh — who trained as a civil engineer and architect — made no secret of his ultimate ambition to take the creative reins of a luxury house.
“I have a litany of ideas that bring modern relevance, but also a financial vision, on how these brands can be more successful in the space of luxury,” he told WWD in 2016. “Off-White is sort of my résumé and it’s my laboratory to experiment with these ideas to see which ones are valid.”
But although he now operates at the industry’s highest level, Abloh is reluctant to claim credit for shifting the luxury paradigm. “I’m still working, so there isn’t a sense of accomplishment that feels valid in any way. Overall, I’m most interested in the impact that all young people can have on any existing paradigm,” he said.
Indeed, emerging talents like Sabbat, a 21-year-old influencer and budding artist, have always formed part of his inner circle. “You know my style of clothing is basically a discourse between me and the kids. That’s what the premise of the brand is,” Abloh once said. “We’re talking straight to the market.”
Vuitton has shown its willingness to court that Millennial audience by hiring Abloh to succeed Kim Jones, ushering in a totally new style of working at parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, the owner of brands including Christian Dior, Celine, Fendi and Guerlain.
Abloh communicates with the Vuitton studio team via WhatsApp, and recently had his office remodeled to knock down some walls. In the run-up to his June show, he launched a Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music called “Televised Radio,” broadcasting tunes from his office.
In parallel, he has launched collaborations with other LVMH houses, designing a limited-edition transparent suitcase for German luggage maker Rimowa, and a collectible bottle for Champagne house Moët & Chandon.
Michael Burke, chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton, was an early proponent of bringing streetwear into the luxury sphere, having instigated Vuitton’s wildly successful collaboration last year with New York skateboard brand Supreme, which was said to have drummed up 100 million euros in business.
He has known Abloh since the designer interned at Fendi in 2006 alongside West, in a bid to learn more about the luxury industry.
“Every generation has to rediscover what their parents already know, and generational transmission does not occur as it used to. Each generation has their own mediums, their own content,” Burke told WWD in May. “Today, what’s truly different is the inclusiveness.”
Displaying the innate communication skills that have propelled him into the group’s good graces, Abloh sidestepped questions about breaking the LVMH mold. Asked what he has learned in his first six months on the job, he deferred credit to his team.
“I think and work at an extremely layered and fast pace, and am proud to say my team at LV are right in sync. We’re all working the findings from the first show,” he demurred.
He was equally complimentary regarding Nicolas Ghesquière, who has designed the Vuitton women’s collections since 2013. The two have yet to be pictured together, though Abloh is friendly with Jones, his predecessor, and a host of other designers.
Ghesquière raised eyebrows by showing gender-fluid designs on transgender male and androgynous female models in his spring 2019 show. One of the campaign images, shot by Collier Schorr and published on Ghesquière’s Instagram page this weekend, includes Canadian model Krow in a broad-shouldered trouser suit.
“I think the women’s campaign is amazing and is a great show of design and creativity,” said Abloh, who has yet to unveil his inaugural men’s campaign. At WWD’s Apparel and Retail CEO Summit last month, he revealed it will have four photographers shooting four different concepts — some digital, some traditional.
Abloh also held out the prospect of greater synergies between the Vuitton men’s and women’s collections in future. “For me, there is always a potential to collaborate,” he reasoned. Burke acknowledged the two designers have different approaches, but suggested this was a plus for the brand.
“They’re coming at it from different vantage points. I think that is interesting per se. A house like Vuitton is too rich, has too long of a history, to be only interpreted from one direction,” he argued. “How will they evolve over time? Will there be convergence and if yes, how? That’s what’s going to be interesting to follow — but time will tell.”
Abloh has leaked the inspiration for his next Vuitton collection, to be shown in January: Michael Jackson. “When I have Michael singing in the background, it’s a different type of shirt, it’s a different kind of boot, it’s a different fit of pants. Music is key,” he said in a conversation with rapper Young Thug published by Interview magazine on Monday.
He also shows no inclination to cut down on the side gigs.
In addition to his multiple collaborations and deejay appearances, Abloh has also been making a push into art with his recent collaborative works with Japan’s Takashi Murakami. And in 2019, he will have a major exhibition of past and current work at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago called “Figures of Speech.”
Asked whether he ever worries he’s doing too much, Abloh swerved the question. But his thoughts on his new Evian gig provided some insight into his insatiable appetite for new projects.
“For me, the only thing I truly am is a creative person. I have ideas across all categories, so in a way it’s a matter of understanding and offering a suggestion to what the future could hold. Fashion is just one field of many that design can be applied to,” he said.
“As the world changes, there are new opportunities to adjust ideas about design. Sustainability related to material choice is one of them,” he added.
He is well aware that some critics don’t consider him a bona fide designer, addressing the issue in the notes for his debut Vuitton show. “I don’t call myself a designer, nor do I call myself an image-maker. I don’t reject the label of either. I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal, nor am I trying to be more, now. I would like to define the title of artistic director for a new and different era,” he posited.
Indeed, Abloh has enough self-awareness to understand the danger of surfing on hype. “I have people’s attention — now I have to do the work,” he said in June. “I have to be extra sharp to bring something notable. The brands that came before, like Ralph Lauren or Chanel — that’s the apex.”
He finally got to meet Lauren, whom he’s frequently cited as a role model, when he presented him with a WSJ. Magazine Innovator Award last month. What did the two talk about?
“Meeting Ralph was a joy. We both shared admiration for one another’s work. I was completely honored and can only have a glimmer of [the] impact on the world that he has [had] with his [brand.] He proclaimed I was on my way,” Abloh reported. Trust Lauren to recognize a man going places.