THE CONSUMER REVOLT
It is mid-morning in New York, and I meet Virgil Abloh on the second floor of the 11 Howard hotel, in a nightclub called The Blonde. As we speak in the empty lounge, his iPhone lights up constantly. Occasionally, he cannot help but pause and answer a text. Abloh is on a 24-hour layover between Paris and Chicago, surfing what he calls the “physical Internet” of production meetings, DJ gigs, and art fairs. He speaks to me surrounded by a multitude of shopping bags, which at one point are ushered away by an assistant.
This mixture of travel and shopping is key to understanding Abloh’s path from serving as Kanye West’s creative consigliare to creating the cult label Pyrex Vision to founding his ultra-popular brand Off-White. He and his friends were once relegated to the role of superconsumers, until they decided to show up uninvited to Paris Men’s Fashion Week in 2009. That trip was immortalized by a group photo with West in the center holding a Goyard suitcase. Abloh stood at the flank of the clique, wearing a bright blue Moncler puffer vest. South Park later used the photo for a famous spoof, but Abloh is quick to point out that it was also an inception moment for fashion blogging.
Almost a decade later, “influencers” are now more doted upon than fashion editors, and Abloh and his cohort seem to be having the last laugh. The designer himself still relishes in the contradiction of toting around DJ equipment in a monogrammed carry-all. Abloh looks back at the dawn of this “streetwear” era as a consumer revolt, a shift wherein the purchaser is placed at the helm of the machinery that produces culture. The only tools necessary are a smartphone, a screen-printer, and a box of blank t-shirts.
On a footstool beside us, Abloh rests his feet in a pair of sneakers he just designed for Nike, a modified and deconstructed version of the Air Force 1. On the shoelace, the word “shoelace” is written in Helvetica with quotation marks. Helvetica is present in almost everything Abloh does, a nod to the tradition of modernist design that he became fascinated with while studying architecture. Quotation marks are also ubiquitous in the graphic-heavy language of his work. Even as we speak, he asks that terms like “streetwear” and “merchwear” always appear in quotes in our printed interview. Quotation marks are one of the many tools that Abloh uses to operate in a mode of ironic detachment. He describes Marcel Duchamp as his “lawyer,” the art-historical grounds onto which he can absorb pre-existing intellectual property into his reference system. Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations in favor of the copy-paste logic of the Internet and its inhabitants. His new order is protected by a fortress of irony.
Around us, other more ominous revolutions are taking place. The day before our first meeting in New York, a bleach-blonde Kanye West paid a visit to the golden tower of President-elect Donald Trump. What on first glance seemed like a surreal photo-op was in fact a snake swallowing its own tail. While it was an elderly populist rabble who voted for Trump, it was the post-everything cultural avant-garde who set the table for the first reality show president.
Thom Bettridge: Where do you live? Is there any single place where you live?
Virgil Abloh: I remember Taz Arnold, from Sun Ra, once told me, “I want to be a citizen of the globe, not a resident of one place.” Actually, right after Taz told me that, I took this photo of all of us that ended up on South Park. We were in the lobby in Paris just talking about the state of fashion and all of us being Americans rolling up with eager excitement. Like, “Oh, this is an industry thing, but we want to go and see these next collections.” That was before the era when regular people were dressed up in brands. This predated the idea of street style, and the hoopla of bloggers. I think we had the vision to take fashion in that way. But, yes, I live in Chicago. I spent the last 24 hours in Paris. I’m in New York now, but I’ll be leaving in a few hours. What I do involves a lot of traveling, connecting dots. It’s like the physical form of the Internet.
In an early interview—a fake interview, actually—between Richard Prince and the sci-fi writer J.G. Ballard, Prince describes himself as a “citizen of British Airways.” That’s a similar mentality.
I think it’s about a generation of young black kids in America who embrace traveling—who have become interested in things outside the confines of New York or Los Angeles—being like: “We’re just going to go to Paris. That’s where the fashion is. We’re going to go to Tokyo. That’s where street style is.” This is a form of cultural connectivity.
What was it like showing up in Paris that first time? Did you feel like an outsider or a gate-crasher?
We didn’t even wait for an invitation. And we’re still high off the fumes of that experience. You go just to peer into it, but now we’re at a point where we’re contributing to it. The lens has shifted to where street culture is sort of dictating what high fashion is doing.
Was there a particular moment where it went from feeling like you were crashing to actually feeling like you were in the establishment? Because you, Kanye, and your friends, you are the establishment.
No, we’re still crashing. And that’s the contemporary question: Is what we’re doing credible? I’ve only shown in Paris, but in my self-critical mind, I don’t think that it’s been fully accepted. And that’s fine. That’s the motivation to do it. That photo of us in Paris, that was already a mark of us being in the industry—whether the industry liked it or not. And then you look at what came out of that: a million bloggers in the front row, hoopla outside their shows, brands placing clothes on people getting photographed as the new medium to market their brand. But now I’ve put myself in a position to contribute to the art of it—offer new ideas. If you look at me, you look at Demna [Gvasalia], you look at what Alessandro [Michele] is doing, or J.W. Anderson—we’re offering up a new idea of luxury that’s inherently about growing up in the 90s.
Is the luxury part still important anymore?
100 percent, but it has changed. To me, luxury means value system. To a younger group of people, you could replace the word “luxury” with the word “coveted.” I covet these vintage Levi’s jeans, because I couldn’t even find another pair like this. This is luxury to me. It doesn’t mean that it’s glossy or the finest fabrics. That doesn’t matter. There’s a personal luxury that I consider to be the basis of Off-White. It crashes together things that distinctly relate with someone who grew up in the 90s. And that’s what fashion is. It’s a recording system of our time.
There’s also been a type of convergence. In the 90s, when you grew up, luxury wasn’t something a kid was supposed to want. Now, luxury is a youth culture.
Traditional luxury was what led me to fashion. I learned from shopping. And it came with this feeling of like: “You don’t belong here. You shouldn’t walk into the store.” I love Louis Vuitton. I loved it then. I love it now. I love Goyard. I love Hermès. But I can see through a brand and see what value I place in it. One part is irony. It’s ironic for me to carry a luxury handbag for my headphones. Brands are just tools for consumers to describe their personality. If your personality is flat, then you wear obvious things. That’s the rise of merchwear. It’s like “luxury” and “fashion” have eaten themselves to the point where a gilded tee with a screen print on it is way more expressive of someone’s personality. And what makes that fun for me is that that’s streetwear—and I’m a child of streetwear. Rivington Street. Hester Street. Nom de Guerre opening a store under the Swatch store. It’s Alife when it was on Orchard Street. These things made up a genre of merchwear before it even existed—printing on American Apparel t-shirts. My friends—me and Heron Preston—we were part of that culture. That was our fashion school. And for me, merchwear and streetwear are a culmination of luxury seeing that it’s sort of at its end with the generation before it. Expressing wealth isn’t the coolest thing right now. It’s expressing your knowledge.
I remember reading once that Marcel Duchamp’s biggest impact on art was that he was the first “artist as merchant”—an artist who moves things from one place to another as opposed to creating something “original.” And I think streetwear operates under the same logic—readymades, blank t-shirts, deconstructed Air Force 1s like the ones you’re wearing right now. It’s a process of moving things around, as opposed to making a drawing of a dress and then sewing it.
I often tell people that Duchamp is my lawyer. He’s the legal premise to validate what I’m doing. Because streetwear started from the gesture of taking a logo, flipping it upside down, and sewing it back on again. What I’m wearing right now is a streetwear shoe. But to me it’s just as valid as a Tom Sachs reinterpretation of an Hermès bag made out of plywood. This is a readymade. Nike designed the original in Oregon, and then the Duchamp thing was like: “How do I make this shoe different? How do I make you appreciate the shoe?” That’s where the typography comes in. Typography is the realm where you can unlock the reality of what a garment is. It’s Photoshop 3.0. If I take a men’s sweatshirt and write “woman” on its back, that’s art. You can use typography and wording to completely change the perception of a thing without changing anything about it. This is what we learned from Barbara Kruger—you can evoke meaning by crashing two things together. And our result is not a one-off. These shoes are going to be mass-produced so kids can buy them.
Do you worry about kids moving out? Does this way of doing things have staying power?
By the end of my career, I want streetwear to be perceived like an art movement. I often say that streetwear in its present state is like disco. It’s such a jazzy thing. It’s so perfectly of its time. You thought disco might have aged well, but it aged poorly, because it didn’t have depth. It was missing something credible—like punk. So part of the reason I show in Paris and sell in 200 of the best stores—and not at a low-tier price point—is that I’m communicating off the back of all the failed brands on Rivington Street and Orchard Street. That’s my culture. And we’re all linked together.
Like Duchamp, it’s a matter of moving things around. You’re taking a local cluster of brands and uploading them into something global. You’re taking an Air Force 1…?
And putting it on the runway! Take it to Paris. I wouldn’t even be a designer if someone else were doing that. I would just be a fan. The urinal in a gallery is the equivalent of a Vlone sweatshirt closing a runway show.
Where do you think this streetwear impulse comes from? The impulse to take something, flip it, and put it back on again.
It’s about participating in a cultural flow that has shifted. It used to be top-down—with brands, which were holier than thou, debuting ideas that would go down into the stream. They would be accepted, then consumed, and then more would come. In the last five years, there’s been a sense of empowerment to reverse that flow and send things back up. It’s a consumer revolt. And at the center of this is the Internet and social media.
And the things you’re sending back up, these are things that were already designed by someone else.
Traditionally, if I were a fashion student, I would take pattern-cutting and learn about fabric. But our tools were readymade. Our blank was American Apparel and Champion. Our atelier was a screen-printer. That’s how I ended up here. And that’s a distinctly American contribution to fashion. I almost don’t even want to design and operate from scratch. I’m into the idea of editing. And I think that’s valuable now, because the cycles have gotten shorter. For me, the ideas of Mies van der Rohe and Bauhaus are things that completely translate to modernism in clothing—the idea that you could design a building that’s so resolved in its principles that it works in Shanghai, it works in Africa, it works in Tokyo. That’s where the diagonal lines of Off-White come from. It’s a universal language.
“A streetwear skyscraper would be horizontal. It would be a city block that’s exactly the same as the one that already existed there. The building wouldn’t get any higher, it would just get wider and develop as a community. When you go wider, there’s more opportunity for crossover.”
Something I found interesting about your monogram, or logo, is that it’s taken from the language of construction signs, a language that’s designed to be seen anywhere from far away. And, in an industry that’s about grabbing people’s attention on tiny screens, a logo that can be seen from 1,000 yards away fits the bill.
To be honest, that was the idea: How do you create a logo that you can see from down the street? My brand was made from Instagram, not the pages of Vogue. There was no magazine that was at the right pace. And that idea started with Pyrex. It was loaded with casting. It was like creating a team with no sport.
Were you ever surprised—in the beginning, with Pyrex—that people were getting it?
Completely. It wasn’t even meant to be what it turned into. I wanted to make a fashion film and I was working on it with the artist Jim Joe, conceptualizing it and shooting it. So the clothes were originally done for that. But it was more about the sphere and the way it was released—listening to Joy Division next to all the A$AP kids, smoking weed at our office on Varick Street. That was enough of a little kick for fashion editors to ironically mix it up with their Balenciaga, or in whatever way. But then I stopped it. Pyrex wasn’t fashion to me. It was like a poem: Pyrex 23, how to make it out of the hood. Either you have to be an amazing basketball player, or you have to be able to sell crack. Then you have the Caravaggio painting on the front of the shirt—the Renaissance and what it meant to the art world, the idea of light and dark. On the one hand, it’s all just a streetwear thing. On the other, it’s like 30 layers of listening to rap music and building a reference system. Pyrex is the DNA off which Off-White exists.
What about price point? Are you worried that the kids who follow you can’t afford your clothes?
No. There’s a number of layers to the price point thing. First of all, Zara and H&M have skewed the price and people’s perception of how much something costs. My favorite shirts are actually from Uniqlo and they cost four dollars. I can’t ship anything from here to Japan for four dollars! There’s an entire major corporation behind that. The quantities I’m making are way less. And the people get paid a normal wage. The second part, when you consider price, is that there’s an entry point into the conversation that makes something credible—so you can sit next to the brands like Margiela, Gucci, Givenchy, Lanvin, etc. You’re not going to see those brands sell a t-shirt for 30 dollars—and I’m communicating to the same demographic that buys those things. And there’s other costs to being a designer brand. Showing in Paris alone is like 200,000 dollars. Just being straight up blunt and talking numbers. And the shows are more important to me than the clothes, because that’s the recorder. That’s the thing that records our existence as being part of fashion. I want people to look back in 50 years and be like, “Man, this streetwear thing, was it even credible?” This is about being part of history.
And things move down into the mainstream from there. I remember when I saw the first Yeezy show, I thought to myself, “Wow, if this were cheaper, it could be a global uniform.” Then I saw the Zara knock-offs for like 20 dollars, and it’s almost like they completed the circle.
Yeah, that’s Kanye’s genius. It’s like, he sees things in a limitless capacity. We’re all still operating at a compromise level. His ideas from the inception are about furthering humanity. With your free-thinking, you get to that resolution. That was his old premise.
You mentioned how being an editor gives you an advantage in a fashion industry that is almost out-pacing itself. How do you keep moving so fast?
It’s important to note that my design style is reactionary. I think of things based on the market. It’s similar to architecture. Tell me which way the sun is rising. Tell me which climate the building is in. Tell me which city. And then I’ll propose an idea. I think it’s a discredit to call this “fashion” – in quotes – and put it in the same genre as Alexander McQueen, Martin Margiela, Azzedine Alaïa, Phoebe Philo. One part is about being ashamed of that, but my gut feeling is like, “No, let’s switch the definition.” Art moves this way, too. It’s like postmodernism. Because if you distill down everything that’s happening, it’s an ironic take. You have someone like Demna doing the DHL shirt, and that’s a streetwear idea. I have a million ideas like that and I’ll have a million more. It’s like meme culture. The same thing. We’ve seen the end of fashion. We’ve seen the end of “Buy this total look.” Now it’s about styling oneself, about expressing where you are on a spectrum of high to low. And that’s irony.
Freud once said that humor is a priest who marries bad couples.
And that’s the name of Off-White. The name itself is a contradiction. It’s about the surface. Heritage brands will say that they are 300 years old, but they’re only as old as their creative director, who has been there maybe three or four years.
I have one last question for you today: What do you think a streetwear skyscraper would look like?
A streetwear skyscraper would be horizontal. It would be a city block that’s exactly the same as the one that already existed there. The building wouldn’t get any higher, it would just get wider and develop as a community. When you go wider, there’s more opportunity for crossover.
You’d make a horizontal skyscraper.
Period. I just invented that on the spot.
LOOKING UP AT THE MOUNTAIN
Two months later, I meet Abloh on the roof of the Soho House in Berlin. He is in the middle of a brief respite between his menswear presentation in Paris and his upcoming womenswear show in the same city. This time, the text messages blowing up his phone are from his production team in Milan. We order a club sandwich, macaroni and cheese, and a Caesar salad. Everything to share. I wonder whether some of Abloh’s text messages are about a recent GQ interview with Raf Simons, in which the newly appointed Calvin Klein creative director singled out the “Off-White guy” for not being original.
When we speak, Abloh seems eager to lay out the thing everyone calls “streetwear” as a concrete system that can be open-sourced by an entire generation. As he has described, the base unit of this movement is the act of taking a logo, flipping it upside down, and printing it again. Abloh sees this activity as central to a paradigm shift, and a proliferation of cultural evidence seems to be supporting his claim. Ten days before our conversation, Paris Men’s Fashion Week was an explosion of remixed logos, highlighted in bold letters by Louis Vuitton’s collection with Supreme. It marked the full infiltration of streetwear into the luxury market, and amidst it all, Off-White was invited to present at Pitti Uomo alongside J.W. Anderson this June. A rumor even began circulating that Abloh would become the next artistic director of Givenchy, a position that was instead given to Clare Waight Keller.
In spite of all these apparent victories, Abloh looks most fondly at how his designs have already been hijacked by mass-market clothiers like Zara and Mango. This adds a sense of irony to Raf Simons’s jab. In this postmodern order, being “original” seems to be the thing that matters least.
“[Being open source] means that what I do has the instructions embedded into it, so that kids can look at the garment and think, “Hey, I can do that too.” I think the best analogy for this is skateboarding. Some kid can do a trick that no one has ever seen before, but the second he films it and puts it on YouTube, ten other kids around the world can do the exact same thing. That’s open source, and I embrace that.”
Virgil Abloh: What’s funny is that I came to an epiphany the other day that I’m not going to do any more interviews.
Thom Bettridge: To be honest, I don’t blame you.
So this is the interview where I want to ask you questions. What do you want to talk about?
I’m curious about this thing you said last time we talked, about how what you call “streetwear” is an American invention. What did you mean by that?
When I was growing up in the 90s, before the Internet, “fashion” was a thing that happened in Europe. It was on another planet. As an American kid, the things I had around me were skateboarding brands, hip hop, graffiti, 30-dollar t-shirts. These are “streetwear” things. And all of it—all the things we do—is self-taught. It’s a language of making things.
Well, the difference between the 90s and now—even though everything now is so influenced by the 90s—is that there used to be this fierce sense of authenticity. It wasn’t cool to wear skateboarding stuff unless you skateboarded. It wasn’t cool to wear a band shirt if you didn’t go to the concert. You had movies making fun of rich white kids dressing like rappers. Now, none of these direct links to subculture seem to matter. All of these images have floated away from the things they were once connected to.
And therein lies my entry point. That’s the grey area that I’ve used to define my project. What does it mean to be a brand that is influenced by these independent things, but isn’t directly that? Because in high fashion, you have a lot of unauthentic streetwear references. Meanwhile, I’m trying to move in the reverse direction and build something up from streetwear. If you zoom out and look at fashion historically, first you had couture, then you had Yves Saint Laurent inventing the idea of ready-to-wear, and now we’re at the beginning of what I believe is the “streetwear” era of fashion—which is about doing it yourself, and logos, and irony, and satire. But it can also be chic, and refined, and elevated. That’s Off-White.
I think it’s safe to say that this paradigm shift has definitely happened already. You see, for example, old houses like Gucci and Balenciaga operating totally within the logic of streetwear.
I love it. And I want to see how Rodeo Drive is going to be updated the same way Balenciaga and Gucci have been. I know it sounds corny as hell, but these brands have shown us how a historical brand can be in the modern age. And I think 2017 is the year where we’re seeing the tension break between the classic way of doing things and this new way.
You could definitely see it in the men’s shows at Paris. Brand collaboration everything. Supreme and Louis Vuitton. Balenciaga making a Kering hoodie.
That’s literally the best garment that’s been made in the modern context. That one hoodie.
It was trolling hard.
To the max! And I asked Peter Saville about this. I went to him six months ago, as an OG person who I respect, and I asked him, “Is our level of irony, our level of trolling, our level of AKA everything, is it wrong?” And he told me: “This is your era. This is your way to communicate how intellectual you are. It’s not through seriousness. It’s through humor.”
This is the designer as meme-maker.
And it’s not a coincidence that things have gravitated towards this invented language of humor. But then I often wonder: Is streetwear hollow? For people like myself, and Demna, and Alessandro, I think we’re still digesting the strength of the current language.
With the comment that Raf Simons made about you, do you think this was an attack on your legitimacy, or the legitimacy of this new language?
See, this is where I want to become the interviewer. What are your thoughts on that?
I think it’s a question of eras changing. You’ve been talking about this idea of the couture era becoming the ready-to-wear era, and how the ready-to-wear era is now becoming a “streetwear” era. If you’re saying that our time is dominated by irony, then I’m not surprised that you’re catching heat from Raf Simons, the least ironic person in the world.
But what you have to understand is that Raf is our God. His brand is something that me and my friends put on a pedestal. And I’ve done nothing but pay him homage. I’m very open to critique—we’re a generation where everyone is a fashion critic.
It seems that questioning your credibility isn’t the problem, because you do that to yourself all the time.
It’s part of my process. Critique fuels every decision I make.
Given the historical rubric of fashion we discussed, could you say that Raf Simons is the last great ready-to-wear designer?
Raf’s body of work is a gift to culture. He articulated futurism in a way that is dead on now, which is why he is so relevant. It’s like how Tinker Hatfield designed Jordans so that they would look ten years ahead of their time.
DOES BEING FIRST MATTER ANY MORE?
Put that question in bold.
I think that whole idea is the culture shock that our generation is putting forth onto the world. And I’m keen on watching the reactions. I’m 36 years old, but I’m a faux-millennial.
How is time going to age these things you’re doing?
You know, I’m an architect. My reference system has always been the International Style, Modernism, and Bauhaus. And that idea, of inventing a point of reference that can exist forever, is what I want to do with the term “streetwear.” First, I started by trying to define something that didn’t exist. And now that it’s on its way up, it’s being challenged. The challenge is letting me know that it’s on the right path. If there’s no resistance, you know you’re going in the wrong direction.
Do you see Off-White as ever being the kind of fashion house that is bought by LVMH or Kering?
As you can imagine, my goal in my career is to design for a fashion house. I’m more of a creative director than a designer. And you can see it in my work too. The diagonal lines help me solve a huge issue, how to take a bunch of random things and let them be one. That’s the mindset of Helvetica. That’s the mindset of architecture. And designing for a fashion house is how I take this thing all the way to the max—because I’m specializing in a specific style of creative direction. Like, why does a Life of Pablo pop-up shop have lines around the block? Why does a particular shoe sell out in one day? That is something that can be embedded into a design. And there’s something about this new style of designing products that never existed before. Right now, we’re seeing a clash between generations. Why can’t something super commercial be artful? Why can’t something popular be artful? And why do garments that don’t have words on them deserve higher esteem? This is the new clash between commerce and art. And it’s happening in fashion, because fashion is the industrial arm of the art world. And all the kids who studied art are working in fashion now. That’s the era of 2017.
You’ve described your brand as being “open source.” What does that mean?
It means that what I do has the instructions embedded into it, so that kids can look at the garment and think, “Hey, I can do that too.” And that’s true of anything from a screen-printed Ralph Lauren shirt to showing 35 looks in the UNESCO building in Paris with leaves falling. I think the best analogy for this is skateboarding. Some kid can do a trick that no one has ever seen before, but the second he films it and puts it on YouTube, ten other kids around the world can do the exact same thing. That’s open source, and I embrace that.
And that’s not about stealing—those kids aren’t “biting” that other kid.
It’s additive. You create art so that people can build on top of it. My friend just sent me Zara’s new collection, and they have my jeans. Mango has two things on their line sheet that I showed in Paris one week ago. And when I see this, I think of it as my validation.
What feeds your reference system?
Snobs. Haters. It’s a system enlarged by call and response. Making something successful is not just doing whatever you want. It’s knowing what works, then also knowing the opposite of what works and syncing those two things up with the moment. My friends and I, we’re not sheep. We’re all independent thinkers. A lot of my closest friends will say to me, “Hey, I would never wear an Off-White shirt.” People love saying that they’re not into fashion, but then you look at what they’re wearing, and it’s totally normcore. So that is the tension where I find my new ideas. Because every sweatshirt that goes out into the world affects every other one. That’s the feed, that’s Instagram, and it creates loops because everyone is watching each other.
Was it the same in the early days—when you were smoking weed on Varick Street with A$AP Mob, still coming up with Pyrex? What influences and experiences did you guys share?
You know what it was? We were all looking up at the mountain together. We were black kids that were consumers. And we were left to be influencers. We were supposed to just buy it. And then we started feeling expressive. When A$AP and all those kids started coming downtown, wearing Rick Owens, and Supreme, and Palace, that was something no one had ever seen before. Music careers were budding. We were inventing new styles of DJing. Parties were happening. I think in a large part that whole moment sparked the generation of merchwear. Because now we’re at a point where influencers are just as big as media outlets. If you have that many followers, and you’re selling a 30-dollar hoodie, you can sell way more without magazines ever writing about it.
Something I’ve noticed about streetwear designers is that they always refer to their customers as “kids.” But when these kids are older, and they’re buying wine glasses for their house instead of sweatshirts, are they going to be buying wine glasses with upside-down Yankees logos on them? How is this whole idea going to evolve?
I think about that a lot. And my idea is to build a vocabulary and a lineage. Because brands are only as old as the people who direct them. That’s why you’re now seeing a deterioration of people following brands, as opposed to designers and stylists.
So it’s going to be about celebrity?
It’s going to be about visionaries.
But what is going to be the Hermès of this generation?
It’s going to be Off-White.
- InterviewThom Bettridge
- PhotographyPIOTR NIEPSUJ