In the Studio
By GUY TREBAY
MILAN — In the latest installment of our video series exploring the private working worlds of designers, Virgil Abloh — a designer, D.J. and first-generation American whose parents immigrated to the United States from Ghana — talks about his goal of having his Off-White label bridge the gap between street wear and haute couture, his unlikely path into fashion and the importance of using his platform as a multi-hyphenate Instagram phenomenon to promote messages of tolerance and inclusivity. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Can you tell us where we are right now?
Via Manin is this street off the main area in the center of Milan. It overlooks a big public park. My office has been located here for the last five years but we only moved into this new space, like, this week.
Does that explain why you have no desk?
I literally have no desk in the world. I work on the street, phone in hand. I’ve occasionally been stuck at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets in Manhattan not even realizing I’ve been standing there for 20 minutes responding to messages.
Being as mobile as you are — traveling 320 days a year, visiting eight different cities just this past week — is not exactly conducive to having an office routine and a fixed address.
I don’t like being in offices, and the main reason is that it can interrupt my train of thought. Being in that environment, like, everyone can ask you a question. And I’ve found that I’m best when I’m just sort of roaming around and noninterrupted and thinking these long-winded thoughts. That’s why my office is really my phone. As long as it’s charged I’m good.
When we last spoke, you said being untrained in fashion was an advantage for you.
For me, it’s like my teenage years are the foundation for everything I’ve done. I was just, like, an average sort of suburban kid, born in 1980, into watching Michael Jordan or listening to Guns N’ Roses or NWA, skateboarding and that whole aesthetic. That was my fashion upbringing.
O.K., but then you studied engineering at college and then suddenly, somehow you are designing for Kanye, forming Off-White, a hugely successful independent label, collaborating with Nike and giving lectures at Columbia University on design. How?
As I was starting the current collection, I was drawn back to what my initial interest was, and that was that I saw there was emerging a movement within fashion to sort of make things yourself.
Like the repurposed Ralph Lauren deadstock you silk-screened with graphic motifs to create the Pyrex Vision collection that first put you on the map?
On a practical level, we were literally taking a Ralph Lauren shirt or a Champion sweatshirt and printing a graphic over it for Pyrex Vision. But it was more than that. I wanted to insinuate an emotion around clothing, and that became a metaphor to represent what I thought was happening among young kids who were reinventing fashion — taking clothes and wearing them, maybe, in an ironic way or wearing them in a way that was surprising, transcending what the designer might have intended.
Do you mean making commentary on capital F fashion the way street style has always done?
When I studied engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, it was the humanities classes that I had put to the side that ultimately started me on this path of thinking about creativity in a much more cultural context — not designing for design’s sake, but connecting design to the rhythm of what’s happening in the world.
Like a D.J. Which is another of your résumé items — the designer becomes the connector.
One of the most profound things about fashion is that it is this catchall industry that combines a lot of different creative outputs. By making clothing, you become a sort of recording system documenting what’s happening in the larger world. I was a naïve kid from outside of Chicago that looked up to the fashion industry and thought that, you know, if you’re a designer, everything comes from like a central premise.
You mean an “inspiration”?
But then I decided that Off-White, the name itself, could be a perfect metaphor for understanding that things are not so cut-and-dried, nothing is single source, nothing is black and white. My sensibility lands me in the middle, and I can make commentary from there.
The show you did this summer as a guest designer at Pitti Uomo in Florence, for instance, was as much about social commentary as it was about clothes.
The Florence show was my collaboration with the artist Jenny Holzer. I’d been invited to Pitti to show the collection, and I thought that was an amazing device for highlighting something important, like the plight of immigrants. I want to tell a story and highlight a reality in a way that’s not so politically laden it closes people’s minds upon viewing.
You did this by projecting fragments of poems from poets of the diaspora on the walls of the Renaissance Palazzo Pitti on the summer night of the show.
My driver is not sort of, “Hey, I’m not focusing on commerce for commerce’s sake.” I’m focusing on the messaging that Off-White represents. We were coming off the elections while I was conceptualizing the collection, and the women’s marches were happening. Like every modern person, I’m seeing things on social media, and I was, like, “This all needs to be documented in a serious way within fashion, not just a logo on a T-shirt.” I had a wish list of female voices and Jenny’s was at the top.
Because it’s a nonwavering voice that creates powerful messages that are also easy to understand and accept.
I’m distinctly aware of my responsibility to add something new and valuable to the greats that inspired me. I’d been given the keys to Florence, and I wanted to use that opportunity to communicate something bigger than the clothes.
And one obvious difference in terms of communicating messages through fashion is that Chanel or Balenciaga didn’t have 932,000 followers on Instagram.
That’s my personal account. Off-White has 1.6 million. And it would be small-minded of me to focus on the 200 people who will see a seven-minute catwalk show when I can communicate with millions of people. That, to me, is as integral to Off-White as the label on the clothes or a buyer writing an order.
As I recall it, there were some hiccups with that show. Originally, you wanted to project the text on the dome of the Duomo, which the city wouldn’t agree to, and then you moved to Palazzo Pitti only to bump into an outdoor opera scheduled there that night.
I always say, “I love the first ‘no.’” That first “no” gives me the premise for adjusting and correcting to get to the end goal. We knew we couldn’t just say: “Hey, we’re going to use the front of this building. Can you guys not do that opera that night?” So I came up with this idea that, instead of having a soundtrack, we would feed the opera live for the show.
I don’t think most of us who were there realized that was happening at the time.
We were not about to stop the rhythm of the city. So we came up with this solution. These happenings and moments and collaborations and surprises are pretty much the definition of what Off-White is about.