“As an architecture student, I had a professor that said I didn’t have the pedigree or ideas or skill set to work in any sort of important context,” Virgil Abloh once told The New York Times in 2017. “Every no is perfect for me. I thrive off of no.”
The supernova designer, jet-setting DJ and all-around renaissance man has quickly become one of the hottest names in fashion and pop culture. Over the last two decades, Abloh has traversed nearly every sector of the fashion world, from designing artistic concepts for his friend Kanye West’s albums, to screen-printing logos onto old Ralph Lauren shirts to, most recently, reaching the pinnacle of his profession as artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear. He may have infiltrated the highest rungs of the world’s most esteemed fashion house by unconventional means, but the versatile Abloh is hardly an overnight sensation.
Well Educated: Abloh’s Early History
Born in 1980 to Ghanian immigrants, Abloh grew up in Rockford, Illinois. Like many teenagers from his generation, he got his first taste of fashion through the worlds of skating and music. As a self-proclaimed “average kid from the suburbs,” he found solace in groups like Nirvana, Beastie Boys and Wu-Tang Clan, all of whom he counts among his earliest influences. “For me, it’s like teenage years is the foundation for everything that I’ve sort of done afterward,” he said. If you’ve followed his ascension, it’s obvious how he’s carried those hip-hop and grunge style influences with him to every stop in his continuously-evolving career. “You say the music, you can think of the look.”
In case you hadn’t noticed, a perfect T-shirt is Abloh’s preferred canvas; it’s an obsession that started back when he was a young student at Boylan Catholic High School. Good graphic tees were always a hallmark of the skate brands he worshipped as a teen. “As I started thinking about clothing,” he said. “I was always drawn to what my initial interest was, and that was T-shirts.” He gravitated towards skater brands like Santa Cruz and Alife, and as a Chicago area native, loved Jordans. He and his friend Chris Eaton would even draw sneaker designs and send them to Nike as kids.
Before Abloh was rewiring Nike classics and annotating hoodies, he was a student at the University of Wisconsin. He graduated in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, a career his father always wanted him to pursue. On the day of his graduation, rumor has it that Abloh skipped his final critique to meet with Kanye West’s then-manager John Monopoly. By 2006, he had graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a Masters degree in Architecture. It was there where he learned the ins and outs of Adobe Suite, 3-D programs and other software–originally intended to help him design architecture–that he would soon be using to conjure up T-shirt designs. Fashion wasn’t a career yet, but the seeds were being planted.
“When I was studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, the student center was just getting finished by OMA, the firm run by [architect] Rem Koolhaas,” he told GQ Style in 2019. “One of the mentors that was giving lectures on campus was a man named Michael Rock. Rem and Michael together made up two-thirds of the think tank surrounding Prada. That’s how I first made the bridge between architecture and fashion.”
While enrolled in IIT, Abloh joined The Brilliance blog alongside Benjamin Edgar and Chuck Anderson. Abloh became a part of the blog by cold emailing Edgar and asking to write for the site, which has always featured guest posts from friends. Edgar originally declined his offer, but they kept in touch and eventually connected over a shopping trip to the Louis Vuitton store (of all places) in New York. The Brilliance isn’t your typical blog, especially in its aesthetics, but it has served as a commentary on just about anything from books to edamame, a spectrum that no doubt appealed to the notoriously diverse creative inspirations of Abloh. The blog’s content is much more sporadic now, with its most recent post dated June 2018, right after Abloh’s first Louis Vuitton show debuted in Paris.
It was during this time period, post-graduation, where Abloh’s personal and professional relationship with West really began to flourish. Don C, West and Abloh’s friend and fellow designer, came to the screen-printing shop called Custom Kings where Abloh was working in Chicago and offered him a job designing some projects for Kanye. He became West’s creative consultant at just 22 years old and eventually became West’s creative director at DONDA–Kanye’s creative think tank–designing everything from tour sets to merchandise to album art. He even received a Grammy nomination for his art direction on Kanye and Jay-Z’s 2011 “Watch the Throne” album. Not only had he become a valuable employee, but he quickly became a trusted advisor for all things creative. “More than any title,” Abloh recalled to GQ Style, looking back on his early days working with Kanye. “I was just his assistant creatively.”
Collaborating with Kanye West
By 2009, West had ascended to the top of pop music and had begun to venture further into the world of fashion, with Abloh right by his side. They both interned for Fendi in Rome that year, picking up coffee and running errands like any other intern. They would earn $500 a month for their work, but they were able to absorb so much information and first-hand experience, which would become critical as their design careers would take off over the ensuing decade.
“I was really impressed with how they brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way,” said Michael Burke, who was with Fendi in 2009, but is now chief executive of Louis Vuitton. The fashion evolution continued, as their friend Don C opened RSVP Gallery in Chicago with Abloh. The retail space, which carries everything from Raf Simons to, of course, Abloh’s Off-White brand, is a reflection of his own aesthetic, the grey matter between the worlds of high fashion and streetwear.
That year, Abloh, West and their crew set out to conquer Paris Fashion Week for the first time. Abloh and West were both passionate about fashion, so they felt it imperative to be where the moves were being made. Nowadays, rappers flood front rows of every fashion show around the globe, but a decade ago, it wasn’t common and their group was met with some initial pushback.
“We got into about 60 percent of the shows,” Abloh told W in 2017. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
Outside a Comme des Garçons show that year, Abloh, Don C, West, Chris Julian, Fonzworth Bentley and Taz Arnold were photographed outside by Tommy Ton for STYLE in what is now one of the most infamous photos in internet history. The entire crew is decked in a menagerie of bold patterns, from leopard pants to plaid pea coats to yellow sneakers and an assortment of briefcases. The picture quickly became an instant joke–South Park famously poked fun at both the picture and West specifically in an episode. The picture may be funny in terms of its outlandishness (especially in 2009 terms), but if it wasn’t for them knocking down those doors and crashing fashion week the way they did, a lot of these rappers wouldn’t be sitting front row at fashion shows the way they are now. “That was us saying, hey, we want to participate in this arena,” said Abloh.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted how much this group of men would manifest in the next ten years,” said Tommy Ton, reflecting on his iconic photograph on his Instagram. “These guys are a true testament that sticking to your guns and fighting for what you believe in will lead to greatness.”
Virgil Abloh (left) DJing with Justin Saunders (back, center) and Matthew Williams (front, center) as the #BEENTRILL# collective
From Pyrex Vision to #BEENTRILL#
In 2012, Abloh stepped out on his own and officially launched Pyrex Vision, his first crack at a clothing brand. Pyrex Vision consisted (at least in the early days) primarily of old Ralph Lauren and Champion product with Pyrex branding screen printed on and sold for an insane markup. Ralph flannels with PYREX and the number 23 on the back were being sold for $550. The move was initially exposed in a contemporaneous Complex article. Abloh printed a key quote from 2013 article on a floor rug; the piece could be seen as Abloh poking fun at himself when the quote appeared among various other artifacts during his recent Figures of Speech exhibition at MCA. “I realized that Pyrex Vision was an art piece” Abloh said to Teen Vogue in 2018. “It was a one-time thing. And that I wanted to do something lasting. I also wanted to think of a concept that didn’t tie me down to my original concept.”
That same year, Abloh, [along with Matthew Williams](grailed.com/drycleanonly/matthew-williams-35-1), Heron Preston, Justin Saunders and Florencia Galarza, created #BEENTRILL#. Originally formed as a DJ crew, they started selling expensive streetwear with wild typefaces on graphic tees. They sold $100 shoelaces and created capsule collections with KTZ, Hood By Air and Stussy before the brand was sold to Pac-Sun in 2013, which led to the most important move of Abloh’s career to that point.
Later that same year, Abloh would launch his Off-White brand with the New Guards Group (the company behind Heron Preston, Palm Angels and others). “My goal was to tell a dialogue between high fashion and streetwear,” said Abloh. “So, the name Off-White, in my mind, is between black and white. So, that middle ground is a mixture of both genres of fashion. The A$AP Mob kids were coming downtown to the Lower East Side [in New York], or they were coming to SoHo, and me and my friends were there. We were all mixing high fashion and streetwear. And so the brand, Pyrex Vision, sort of led to Off-White.”
Virgil Abloh with Naomi Campbell during the finale of Off-White’s Spring/Summer 2018 womenswear show
Off-White’s Renaissance Man: Fashion, Music and Art
Based in Milan, Abloh opened Off-White stores in Hong Kong, Tokyo and New York and began hosting small shows in Paris. The Off-White brand was a full scale evolution from what Pyrex Vision originally was. The brand was built on Abloh’s signature air quotes, zip ties, capital letters, diagonal lines and obvious branding on T-shirts and hoodies. The brand became a huge hit with everyone from Beyonce and Rihanna to Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. Hypebeasts around the world began clamoring for anything in quotes. “I feel like Off-White is kind of the first luxury brand that’s been built from social media,” Abloh noted to The New York Times.
In no time at all, Abloh and his unique brand of design became ubiquitous. By 2015 he was nominated for the LVMH prize for Young Fashion Designers for Off-White (the only American nominated) by a panel of some of the most respected names in the industry, including Marc Jacobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Phoebe Philo and others. By Spring/Summer 2016, Off-White was officially on the runway at Paris Fashion Week for the first time and he was named to Business of Fashion’s list of people shaping the industry. Abloh was disrupting the status quo in the world of fashion; everything he touched turned to metaphorical gold.
At the peak of his stardom, Abloh began to spread himself thinner than ever. In addition to running his burgeoning brand, Abloh had become a world-renowned DJ. He had a residency in Las Vegas and opened for Travis Scott during the NYC leg of his “Birds Eye View” tour. He even played Lollapalooza and other festivals. As if that wasn’t enough, he also directed Lil Uzi Vert’s 2017 music video for “XO Tour Lif3”. It’s easy to assume that Abloh was simply using music to cash in on his celebrity, but he had been DJing parties since he was in high school and it was just another genuine passion of his that took off. “DJing is my only piece of mind,” Abloh told The Guardian in 2016. “I’ll be DJing after I’m done designing or doing anything else.” As he was becoming a modern-day renaissance man, Abloh’s celebrity was skyrocketing. Even if he wasn’t the most popular man in the cross-section of fashion and music yet, he was well on his way.
Determined to never be tied down to one discipline, Abloh presented exhibits at both Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Figures of Speech, his debut exhibit at the MCA in Chicago was extended by overwhelming demand and is running from June 10-September 29, 2019. The exhibition offers, “an in-depth look at defining highlights of Abloh’s career including a program of cross-disciplinary offerings that will mirror the artist’s range of interests across music, fashion, architecture, and design.” A Carolina blue Off-White Air Force 1 was released in conjunction with the exhibit in limited quantities, which as expected, sold out immediately.
Abloh also designed an all-black Off-White Air Force 1 to be sold at the MoMa Design Store in New York in conjunction with the Items: Is Fashion Modern? exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, which celebrated the 35th anniversary of the Nike Air Force 1. The shoes were sold exclusively in-store for $175 and included a pair of custom socks and tickets to the exhibit. In addition to the exhibits, he has popped back up on campus quite a few times in recent years, performing lectures at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design and Columbia University.
At the Top of His Game: Nike’s “The Ten” Collaboration and Louis Vuitton Appointment
2017 marked another giant leap forward in the career of Virgil Abloh, starting with his collaboration with Swedish furniture giant IKEA. The collection included everything from area rugs with “KEEP OFF” printed on them to chairs and mirrors. The collection was designed for a “millenial” looking to decorate their first place in a tasteful yet (debatably) affordable way. He would also go on to collaborate with luggage brand Rimowa the following year.
While a collaboration with a worldwide retail giant might be the biggest part of many people’s lives, it wasn’t even the highlight of Abloh’s 2017. Later that year, Abloh collaborated with Nike on its now iconic “The Ten” collection. Abloh took ten classic Nike silhouettes and reimagined them in his own unique vision.
Abloh took the Air Jordan I, Air Presto, Air Max 90, Air Force 1, Zoom Fly, Blazer, Converse Chuck 70 Hi, Vapormax, Air Max 97 and Hyperdunk 2017 models and crafted them in a deconstructed design with his signature air quote branding and he made sneaker history in the process. In addition to selling out each model instantly, these sneakers all continue to dominate the resale market, now almost two years removed from their original releases. With this collection, Virgil expanded his reach to the masses in ways he never could before and simultaneously became a god in the sneaker world. This proved to only be the beginning, as he would go on to collaborate with Nike again and again for a variety of colorways of these same silhouettes, even designing product for tennis great Serena Williams. Abloh is arguably Nike’s biggest asset these days and he’s become a direct competitor to his mentor and friend Kanye West, whose adidas Yeezy brand was the hottest name in sneakers until Abloh dipped his toe boxes in the water.
Ultimately, all of Abloh’s maniacal hard work and relentless pursuit of perfection led to his biggest opportunity of all, being named the artistic director for menswear at Louis Vuitton in 2018.
“I dreamt about it. I willed it into fruition, thinking that it can happen and doing everything in my power” he said to Naomi Campbell in an interview with British Vogue.
Abloh debuted his first collection at Paris Fashion Week in June 2018 to a packed house in what would be one of the most memorable fashion shows in recent memory. A Wizard of Oz-themed runway featuring all the colors of the rainbow was the backdrop for Abloh’s unleashing on the high fashion landscape. He mixed traditional Louis Vuitton luggage with beautifully bold suits, quirky bibs and shirts with pencil case pockets with a mini Petit-Malle trunk, with a dash of his trademark jeans and basketball-inspired sneakers.
During his celebratory walk down the runway, Abloh saw a familiar face in the crowd: Kanye West. He immediately sought out his friend and hugged him in an emotional embrace. “That show was us,” Abloh said. Abloh had come so far. From designing T-shirts in Chicago to climbing to the top of fashion’s metaphorical mountains to land at Louis Vuitton. One of Abloh’s dreams had been fulfilled and it was appropriate that West was there to share the moment with him.
“Kanye was the guy when it was completely unpopular that said I am not to be typecast into a box,” Abloh said. “He willed it for us. That dream is his just as much as it’s mine.”
For someone to ascend to the top of the world’s most esteemed fashion house is no easy feat. For someone like Abloh, it is impossible. High-fashion purists, those entrenched in the old establishment, traditionally would rebuff someone like Abloh, someone with no conventional fashion background, someone who closely identified with streetwear and hip-hop culture.
But his drive proved undeniable. Abloh became one of the first black designers to become head of a French fashion house (Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Ozwald Boateng for Givenchy Menswear being the others) and the gravitas of the moment is not lost on him. “I never thought I could be a designer with a capital D,” he said. “Because no one looked like me.”
His muse now is the next generation of designers who come from places like him who have a voice that needs to be heard. He wants to inspire them to create something big and to push forward when they think a lofty goal is out of reach. “If you find a creative that’s passionate, they will carry the baton,” he said. While this has been a hectic and exciting few years, he knows the real work is on the horizon. He approaches the future as if he’s just graduated from a new Master’s degree program, and he’s ready to put all of his new knowledge and acumen to good use.
“Now is the beginning,” he said. “Now the body of work starts. Now, we’re the establishment.”