Virgil Abloh used the term zigzag often during his appearance at WWD’s Apparel and Retail CEO Summit. It describes how he’s climbed the ladder in fashion to launch his own line, Off-White, and land the artistic director position at Louis Vuitton men’s. Streetwear was how he got his foot in the door — the zig — but once he got inside he’s pushed himself past the confines of “streetwear designer” — the zag.
So far, the element of surprise, along with balancing his many other creative jobs, is working and he’s not looking to disrupt the industry as much as he wants to evolve it. In a conversation with WWD’s editor in chief Miles Socha, Abloh spoke about the sustainability of streetwear, how he avoids clichés, and what younger customers are looking for that most luxury brands don’t offer.
WWD: You trained as an architect, so you are an outsider of sorts to fashion design. Has this helped you to break rules and what principles do you bring from architecture?
Virgil Abloh: I first studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and then architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But I would say my sort of education started well before that. It started with being passionate about culture. So I was very involved in how pop culture manifests itself because that dictates what the world will shape into the next five, 10, 15 years. So more of my approach was to combine these sort of higher education things that I was learning in a very practical field like engineering and a figurative field like architecture, but giving those two-thirds of a component. And one-third is my upbringing and what I could understand from the existing pop culture world. Those three things made a petri dish to do anything and I chose fashion because I believed that it was an industry that connected all of the disciplines and many more.
WWD: Do you see streetwear as a passing trend or an enduring movement?
V.A.: The world evolves and I think an industry was, in my mind, caught blind by thinking that these existing trends and existing metrics had no variable of return and just stayed the same. So my interest in fashion was how can I evolve this system. Disrupt is a word that often gets used when associated with something new. I always akin it to an earthquake. Tectonic plates need to move in order to have an event, and I have just focused on what’s a way to create an event that pays respect to the history of fashion and even the years before I could partake. And the buzzword now is called streetwear. I think it’s a little bit of a term that’s a trap. It’s sort of seen as an ingredient that you just sprinkle on anything, but more what it means in the practical sense is clothing that people wear on the street. Fashion started as a thing in a Parisian fashion house like Cristobal Balenciaga or Yves Saint Laurent. They make a silhouette and they make couture clothing. That’s just the order of a 50-year-old idea. Then Yves Saint Laurent and others start this thing called ready-to-wear that’s not for a select few but for a select moment. They were clothes that were linked to couture but more widespread. So when I was starting about 10 years ago, it was apparent that there was this upswell of interest in fashion that wasn’t trickling down from top tiers and using the already occurring trends and already occurring clothes. After the collections distill down into what people are buying from the stores, there is a new ready-to-wear and that’s how I think about streetwear, even though the term takes a little bit of a left from what it is.
The way I see it, it’s no longer a top-down strategy. It’s not brands saying this is what the trend is. The customer, especially in my field, can thumbs up and thumb down your brand in two seconds. I think the key word is relevancy. If something is relevant it’s already occurring on the street, you see it. You see a passion for it. For example, Supreme right now probably has a line that’s four blocks long around it versus a luxury store just a few blocks away might not have anyone in it. When the brand is sort of communicating relevant things you are going to see a major sort of engagement. But it’s not a figurative thing that can be designed into products or designed into campaigns.
WWD: You mentioned you’re shooting your first campaign for Louis Vuitton. Who is the photographer?
V.A.: Just your question in itself is a traditional notion. You are already making an assumption that someone either unknown or notable is the crux of the campaign, and I decided to think about the most relevant way to communicate the message. And the success of it comes through a zigzag. So my campaign will have a dialogue against the whole industry that has traditionally used campaigns as a way to message what the campaigns are about. The practical answer is I have four different photographers shooting four different concepts. Some digital. Some traditional. It’s reanalyzing the idea of what a whole campaign is and I would link that to streetwear.
WWD: Your last Off-White show had a lot of ballgowns and Vuitton had a lot of suits and coats. Are you ready for fashion to move in a more formal question?
V.A.: When I was starting, I was very much to the left. Formality was at the root of what high fashion was, and I said to make a name for myself, I’m not going to wave a magic wand and speak from that perspective. I’m going to speak from the perspective of what I was as a 17-year-old kid and what I saw from these brands that I could relate to. So largely here in New York in SoHo or the Lower East Side it was the epicenter of streetwear, which was like graphic T-shirts. It was sort of ready-made like in art principles. We were making fashion based on what we could get a hold of. And there is a whole dialogue that could be a separate panel on how young people could make clothes. You could find a screen printer. You could find a blank garment and you could make your own brand. It’s very different if you are in Italy. You can go to a factory and get garments cut and sewn.
When I started, I was showing in Paris and I was perplexed because me and my colleagues like Alessandro [Michele] from Gucci or Demna [Gvasalia] from Balenciaga, we come from the same perspective from different parts of the globe. Italian, Eastern European and for me American. So for us, jeans and a hooded sweatshirt is what we see on the streets so we would put it on the runway. It was organic. But then over time, the whole zigzag mentality is, once it became more normal for high-fashion brands to show a graphic T-shirt on the runway, then I’m interested in exploring how fashion could be formal again because I have this air that I’m the streetwear guy. To me it’s more interesting to make formalwear in a new spirit. What’s the new tailored jacket? What’s the new suit? I’d love to wear a suit if it related to this new lifestyle that exists in 2018 and 2019.
WWD: You also curate art exhibits, design furniture and DJ. Why do you do all of these extra things? How does your DJ career feed your fashion and vice versa?
V.A.: Well one thing I believe, and this is sort of like a message to bring to this community that we have, is that Millennials is like a buzzword, but the different silos are mini prisons. Culture exists because it’s a merger. It’s an ecosystem that one thing changes the other. So I prefer to exist and contribute to the larger ecosystem. Fashion is just one small silo that dictates the pop culture that exists. So for me I don’t think of it as a novelty. I’m a creative. So the way I see it I can have a suggestion on a painting to use in an exhibit, or on runway set design and the soundtrack, or on the campaign. It’s more of an old architecture principle. Maybe from the Bauhaus era. It’s about total design. So I approach this new time knowing how much freedom there is to exist across multiple categories. DJing is probably the best other job to have. It attributes the success that I have with releasing clothing. On a micro level, my DJing schedule creates different events in each market. The designer and the brand interact with local consumers and I’ve been doing it since I was 17. So 20 years of DJing means that I’ve had this following that’s my base. And a lot of the success I’ve had, I would say, is because I remove the boundary of designer and consumer and I’m more often in conversation with them. I’m in dialogue and I think what’s great is that the role with Louis Vuitton is it gives me an opportunity to bring some of those ideals to what I believe is the best brand in the luxury sector.
WWD: You dialogue with other brands including Nike. Why do you think collaborations are so popular and powerful? And do you see any end to them?
V.A.: No. I think it’s natural evolution. Anytime you catch yourself not making a decision because that’s the way it was done in the past is the first step to not realizing a bigger potential. To me, collaboration is more rooted in my art practice than even my fashion practice. We are human beings. Collaboration happens literally all of the time. In your office. On your day to day. But usually it’s messaged as the credit line. So and so made that so I decided to bring that all the way to the forefront. My customers know that I like to collaborate and I only collaborate with the best in every category. So if it’s Ikea, if there is a Nike idea and I put that toward the forefront so that the public can understand these recognizable parts. But then we are sharing an ecosystem. Nike’s ecosystem is big in a certain sector. My product is big in a certain sector. So we are creating new product just by willingness to collaborate.
WWD: You will have a retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago called “Figures of Speech.” Can you talk about your use of language on clothes and the reasons behind it.
V.A.: It links back to American fashion, which is streetwear, and that in order to make a garment that’s distinct, there has to be a brand applied to it. So that’s where I built a dialogue. Then what came of that is sort of a language. The ready-made art principle by [Marcel] Duchamp is something I thought was a contemporary art movement that I thought would change the world. Take a ready-made object and put it in a different context and all of a sudden it can speak a different language. That was my overintellectualization of streetwear. I started using a language that was on everyone’s keyboard. A huge amount of my ideas come from this premise of a tourist and purist methodology. A purist is someone who knows everything about anything in a category. They are a gatekeeper. They say this is valid and this is not. The tourist is the everyday public. They will meet you halfway. They are intrigued by what the Eiffel Tower looks like. They are there, but they don’t know how it’s made or what it’s made from. The early trap for me as a designer was to focus on the purists. The fashion elite, the media, and I would take certain steps. But I come as a tourist. This Louis Vuitton jacket is from the collection and the pockets are made up of the pieces that I could afford. The little cardholder. And so instead of pandering to one or the other, I focused on the middle and trying to join those two worlds together.
WWD: How do you account for Off-White’s rapid success? And where do you think it can go?
V.A.: The success in what I mentioned, I would distill it to the dialogue between me and my customer base is very short. There’s not much between it. I post every image on the Instagram account. I touch the kids’ hands. I hang out with them. I get the feedback. I stay close to the scene that I relate to and then it’s sort of like I’m a workaholic so I design everything. But it’s a self-expression tool.
WWD: How do you balance everything?
V.A.: For me it was about having a strong sense of self and being appreciative of the new opportunities. I noticed that being a fashion designer comes with an entitlement wave. I was a fan and I’m still a fan of many designers who came before me. When I was 17 years old I didn’t believe I would be sitting on a stage like this. So instead of making my career about myself or the industry, it’s permanently focused on the 17-year-old that will be in my seat next. Because if they look at my career and see one interview that gave them a piece of advice, then now I’m linked to that and a generation will save the world. The business metrics aren’t the guiding force.
WWD: What do you see as the next cultural wave?
V.A.: Millennial is a key word, but it’s shaping the way that people are loyal to brands, things or people. So my approach is in a safe way is to reflect an opinion. With Nike and the Colin Kaepernick campaign, it was deciding what side of the opinion you are on. To me the glimmer of importance was that a brand makes a stance or leans toward an opinion. And there is an opportunity to create a loyal connection and loyal dialogue by simply making a point to stand for something. My advice would be to stay big but keep an opinion.
WWD: How do you maintain authenticity and how do you avoid going into what could become cliché?
V.A.: It’s a little bit how I use these working models. That’s how I equate it to it’s the zigzag. People are coming to me because they think it’s streetwear, but you will find a tulle gown that’s 150 meters of tulle and all of a sudden Sigourney Weaver wears it to a film festival. From what I’ve known, you need to categorize, but that isn’t a foundation. That little bit of misunderstanding gives an edge. The thing to know about my career is that Off-White started with a marketing budget of zero. I have a screen-printed shirt. Instagram is free. But being misunderstood or categorized is what I have used as a sort of gateway to create a compelling narrative that’s not obvious. The element of surprise is super important especially in fashion. If your next wave is predictable, that’s when you get the thumbs down.