Designer Profile: Virgil Abloh
The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) a few weeks ago released it’s nominations and honorees for 2019. There are familiar names in this group, Marc Jacobs, Thom Browne and Rick Owens to name but a few but leading the nominees is Virgil Abloh. With two potential awards- one for menswear and one for accessories - the fashion industry is giving it’s blessing to one of the most interesting characters shaping how fashion is perceived and how we buy clothes.
Virgil Abloh attained the position of artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton in 2018. The brand, valued at £20.3bn in 2017, is synonymous with monogrammed luggage and that logo. The interlocking LV is instantly recognisable around the world. But where does Abloh fit into this world leading brand, and why is his hiring a representation of where the fashion industry is heading?
Born and raised just outside Chicago, Abloh attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison to gain his undergraduate degree in civil engineering before going onto the Illinois Institute of Technology and obtaining his degree in architecture. For some, this would have been enough. For Abloh it was just the beginning of a creative career, focused around fashion, culture, music and art.
Having worked in an architecture firm for two years, he interned at Fendi with Kanye West (Yes, that Kanye West) to learn the fashion trade. A bizarre mix of personality, disruption and the heritage of a brand obviously inspired the pair. Abloh opened up concept store, RSVP Gallery, an art gallery and menswear boutique in Chicago. RSVP was and is one of the most exciting retail platforms. As conventional retailers battle the woes of the current financial climate, stores with more to say than pretty clothing are on the rise. Infused with music and art, carefully curated clothing pieces and collaboration, RSVP became a melting pot of creativity. Unsurprisingly, the opening of the gallery-come-boutique happened simultaneously with his appointment as Creative Director of Kanye West’s agency Donda. A job that would have him oversee stage shows and concert merchandise. Abloh’s ability to cross between different audiences, combining the qualities of music culture with fashion, architecture and retail, streetwear and high fashion offers a palette cleanser for this often over-serious industry.
These transitions between different creative positions seems to epitomise Abloh’s working life. Only three years later, in 2012, he began yet another metamorphosis, from stage designer and collaboration facilitator into a fashion designer. He launched the first of his fashion brands, Pyrex Vision. Looking back on Abloh’s creative history, this evolution into fashion while being his inevitable longterm intention, was also a perfect culmination of his multi-disciplinary design style.
There is a blemish however. Pyrex Vision, was a brand that encapsulates the ‘want’ culture that has lead to consumers buying with little to no knowledge of what craft is, and the true worth of a garment. But that is what Abloh has been able to capitalise on, again and again, this perception of worth. The driving force behind his businesses has been the concept of exclusivity and uniqueness. For Pyrex Vision, Abloh used Champion t-shirts and deadstock from Ralph Lauren and simply screen printed his logo onto it.
And charged $550.
While, the consumer is the decider on what is successful, this exacerbates the view of the fashion industry as being Emperor’s New Clothing and belied Abloh’s true creativity.
After a year Aboh closed down Pyrex Vision and created one of the most talked about labels in recent years, OFF-WHITE. Based in Milan and backed by New Guards Group, a group of Italian clothing backers, OFF-WHITE took the streetwear aesthetic that Abloh had started with Pyrex Vision and made it high end. Worn by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Rihanna and A$AP Rocky the brand has exploded and is now available at every high-end retailer around the world. OFF-WHITE uses all the same selling techniques of ‘hype’ that Pyrex Vision did but underpins with original design and craftmanship.
Abloh’s been named the ‘King of Hype’ noting his ability to create ‘a moment’ as expressed by Michael Burke the CEO of Louis Vuitton. With advertising in print taking second place to social media, the way that brands are able to communicate with customers and engage them has changed exponentially. Abloh’s ability to hold the attention among so much competing imagery and capitalise on it to the point where he is able to drive a frenzy towards his brands is remarkable.
Part of his story telling ability is through collaboration. These temporary partnerships underpin Abloh’s success with his brand and now Louis Vuitton. The luggage brand RIMOWA joined with OFF-WHITE to create pieces personalised with the buyer’s names, as seen on model Bella Hadid. The brand also crosses over between streetwear and sportswear with the NIKExOFF-WHITE shoe collaboration, worn by top sport stars such as Serena Williams. Scarcity of product, placed on the right people all at the right time has lead to Virgil Abloh’s meteoric rise as possibly the most influential designer around at the moment.
Finally, Abloh has made a successful transition into designing for a classic high end brand, Louis Vuitton menswear. Being named as one of the nominees by the CFDA takes Abloh full circle in transformation from architect to gallery owner to stage designer to streetwear designer to full fledged fashion elite. The movement through different phases of his career has actually formed the basis for his first collection for LV inspired by The Wizard of OZ as he used the metaphor of the yellow brick road to describe his own ascent.
Most importantly, he transcends the fashion industry and is a solid part of popular culture. He is able to pull the strings in a way that forms how social media is used not just by big brands but permeates the visual language used by everyone. His move to a historic fashion house where his ability to cross the lines between streetwear and high end will continue his legacy of challenging the industries boundaries. If this is good or bad it is irrelevant, it’s already happened.