How do you solve a problem like Virgil Abloh? Over the past five years, the designer has grown from a peripheral figure in Kanye West’s entourage to arguably one of the most talked-about fashion designers on the scene right now. His product is stocked in the most prestigious stores across the globe, and his brand Off-White, still a relative baby in fashion years, has shown in cities like Paris and Florence, holding its own against some of the most revered labels in the world.
Over the past few months, we’ve been teased with images of a collaboration between Off-White and Nike that, to my memory, started with Abloh nonchalantly waving an Off-White-branded sneaker in the air during his lecture at Columbia University, and culminated with the revelation that the designer had created a collection of 10 reconfigurations of some of Nike’s most beloved footwear silhouettes.
It’s a noteworthy collaboration, by any metric. But there’s a number of factors which, contextually, make Abloh’s feat particularly impressive. Firstly, it’s worth considering that longtime collaborator Kanye West’s sudden split from Nike a few years back was allegedly due to the sportswear giant’s refusal to grant West greater creative control. With this collaboration, Abloh has arguably done something Kanye West couldn’t: applied his own, distinctive identity to an entire range of iconic Nike sneakers, using their design as a foundation for his own creative expression.
Fundamentally, it’s the same process that is applied by creative directors when they take up the helm at historic fashion houses; self-expression within a predefined set of parameters. With this collaboration, Virgil Abloh has demonstrated a firm grasp of this process. Which leads us to the question: Why the hell hasn’t he been picked up by a fashion house yet?
At first, this question might sound like a reach, but it’s bolstered by the fundamental process of the collaboration. This isn’t just a case of slapping some Off-White logos on the tongue and calling it a day. Each shoe features elements that literally disrupt the original design of the silhouette; enlarged swoosh logos; thick foam tongues borrowed from the Blazer; Sock Dart-esque forefoot straps; unique panelling, and even wholesale reconstruction of the shoe.
A brand’s most valuable asset is its logo and identity, and Nike has allowed Abloh to completely distort its archive to his own ends. Compare the original Air Jordan 1 and Abloh’s version. You don’t have to like the Off-White edition to recognize that Abloh has been allowed to disrupt the fundamental fabric of one of Nike’s most coveted silhouettes. It’s comparable to McDonalds letting Anthony Bourdain make his own Big Mac with a different secret sauce (which I definitely would eat, by the way, so get on the case, Anthony).
The reason Abloh is given this kind of freedom is because he’s a master of modern fashion marketing. He emerged at a time when fashion designers were just beginning to be celebrated as rock stars (in the broader mainstream, at least) and, by accident or design, rode that wave. He understands that social media means that consumers increasingly view brand and designer as one, and seemingly invites people behind the curtain, making them co-conspirators in his ongoing creative project.
In 2017, many of fashion’s biggest designers now do the same thing; Kim Jones of Louis Vuitton is a prime example, regularly posting on Instagram in sync with the announcement of his label’s latest collaboration – a casual shot of some Fragment boots, or a mysterious Supreme sticker on a monogrammed bag.
Numerous writers, such as Calum Gordon, have written about how fashion has entered an age of meme-led creation and virality, and how the most successful brands like Gucci and Balenciaga are the ones whose designers know how to use memes and retweetable fashion to create a social media storm. Love him or hate him, nobody does this quite like Virgil.
As demonstrated by Hedi Slimane at Saint Laurent, Alessandro Michele at Gucci, and Demna Gvasalia at Balenciaga, we’re in a golden age of reinvention when it comes to the historic fashion labels. Designing for a fashion house requires a tasteful balance of the established rules of the house, and an injection of contemporary perspectives and your own personal touch.
It doesn’t always work. Alexander Wang’s brief tenure at Balenciaga, for example, was characterized by a constant feeling that the American designer just couldn’t quite make his style fit, and his sudden departure from the brand after just a few seasons didn’t come as much of a surprise. Demna Gvasalia’s controversial disruption of form and shape, on the other hand, works as a modern continuation of Cristóbal Balenciaga’s legendary transformation of the human body, and has created a contemporary understanding of that same philosophy that has allowed the brand to simultaneously explore new territory whilst remaining true to its original ethos.
As this Nike collaboration demonstrates, Abloh clearly knows how to integrate himself into another brand’s universe, and use their established (and often dogmatic) rules in unique and interesting ways. One criticism often leveled against Abloh is that he copies or plagiarizes other designers, particularly Raf Simons. These criticisms are not without foundation.
But Abloh is a notoriously ambitious designer, and an argument could be made that what he’s actually trying to do is demonstrate that he knows how to ingratiate himself with fashion brands by showing he can color in between the lines. Much of Demna Gvasalia’s work with Vetements, for example – such as the brand’s reconstructed denim jeans and incorporation of mundane items into pieces like their cigarette lighter heels – is just a continuation, or direct imitation, of techniques pioneered years ago by Maison Margiela (where Gvasalia previously worked).
I wonder if some of the resistance to Abloh, both in the industry and the audience, is rooted in his status as a relative outsider. There’s an established pathway in the fashion world for people looking to climb the ladder; the resumé of any Creative Director is usually peppered with positions at multiple labels, or at least a long tenure working their way up at the label they eventually helm.
With his sudden rise to fame, Abloh has completely circumvented that system, and perhaps there are doubts he would be up to the task of directing a fashion house, even though he’s already clearly proven otherwise. In fact, there was talk, back in 2017, that his name was being floated as a successor to Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy. Personally, I can see the lines connecting Abloh and Tisci, a designer whose work at Givenchy has been characterized by modern design and incorporation of streetwear principles into a historic fashion brand’s chemistry.
In the end, however, those rumors were quashed, and the position went to Claire Waight Keller, former Creative Director of Chloé whose employment history includes Gucci and Ralph Lauren – a safe bet, in other words. In an industry increasingly defined by designers who dare to buck the rules and stir up conversation, Abloh was arguably the perfect choice, but fashion brands continue to be wary of him, for whatever reason.
It’s unlikely Abloh is surprised; it’s an attitude that pervades every corner of his world. For every hyped item he designs that becomes a must-have of the season, there’s a comment section filled with people trying to tear him down. For every piece that sells out, there’s people ready to attribute his success to nothing more than hype-kids and fashion victims. For honestly admitting that he admires Raf Simons, he’s ripped to shreds as a plagiarist hack. And for Simons’ subsequent harsh, but diplomatic response to Abloh’s own work, he’s declared finished by an audience that seems increasingly desperate to treat dialogues between fashion designers as some sort of rap beef. And it’s unsettling that Abloh should be the one who’s thrust into that sort of dynamic, for obvious reasons.
But it’s fine. Virgil Abloh has already been carving his own path for a decade now, and seems quite comfortable continuing to demonstrate his competency on his own terms. Not only that, he’s been candid about the process behind the brand; during the aforementioned Columbia lecture, he reveals how the brand’s now-iconic signature diagonal stripe motif was created after his multiple attempts (and failure) to create a monogram. In an interview with Barney’s, he described his t-shirt graphics as “about showing a thought process”, and at other times he’s described Off-White as a work in progress, or even a marketing project – but perhaps we took for granted that he might be marketing himself, as well as his brand.
Lastly, it’s possible that Abloh intimidates the old guard because his unfettered, democratic vision of fashion directly threatens the clandestine structure they’ve built over the years. He’s been called out for charging high prices for street fashion, and every time held his guard with counter-arguments about the need to charge high-end prices to be taken seriously.
And he does appear to counter these necessarily-exclusive price points with an open and inclusive attitude to the process; remember that his Columbia lecture was streamed around the world for free, while tickets to Vogue’s Forces of Fashion conference sold for an eye-watering $3000 per ticket, and you can see there’s genuine sincerity in Abloh’s proclaimed desire to make fashion less closed off. I even read, recently, that he’s not entirely adverse to the appearance of counterfeit Off-White belts on websites like Taobao. After all, whether the belts dominating every street style article are real or fake, they demonstrate the immense influence Abloh is having on fashion right now – and that’s what’s most important to him.
The fashion world is notoriously Kafka-esque in its hierarchy, and for outsiders, getting to the top can seem impossible. But we’re starting to see changes, and the old guard appear to be softening to the idea that sometimes it’s the mavericks and un-anointed who can do the most interesting things with your brand – consider how fashion has become less and less informed by the catwalk, and evermore dictated by what kids are wearing on the street. Abloh has seen the writing on the wall for a long time, and though he might have high aspirations, he also knows how to play the long game. To borrow a line from the British comedian Simon Munnery, it’s not a sprint. It’s a dance.