Virgil Abloh: ‘I’ve Been Tapped With a Magic Wand’

The designer discusses his historic rise to the top of the industry, opening the door for a new generation of fashion and the cherished ideas and objects he’s collected along the way.

From his early years as “a skater kid who loved graphic tees,” as he puts it, to becoming the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton in 2018, Virgil Abloh has arrived at a place in the fashion world no Black man has ever been. Born to Ghanaian immigrants outside of Chicago, Abloh, 40, never entered the industry expecting to fit in. The name of his multifaceted, Milan-based label, Off-White, launched in 2013, implies as much: It’s not black or white; it’s both. It’s casual sweatshirts with a $1,000 price tag. It’s an homage to hip-hop within an institution that had long undervalued the genre’s cultural relevance. Now that he’s sold a majority stake in his brand to Louis Vuitton’s parent company, LVMH Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton, subsequently taking on greater responsibilities across the French conglomerate, Abloh has cemented his status as one of the most powerful people in fashion—and is well-positioned to continue reimagining luxury from the inside out.

“I often refer to my career as a bit of a Trojan horse: It exists to traverse two spaces and allows other people to partake in it,” Abloh says over the phone from Chicago. He has recently returned from Paris, where he was opening the city’s sprawling new Off-White flagship store—extending over three floors in a 19th-century building near the ritzy Place Vendôme—and presenting the brand’s fall/winter 2021 collection. The show began with model Bella Hadid in a cobalt blue minidress and ended with a performance by the rapper M.I.A. Days later, Abloh dropped a short film featuring members of the band BTS in his latest Louis Vuitton designs.

<p>Photo by Richard Anderson for WSJ. Magazine</p>\n

Photo by Richard Anderson for WSJ. Magazine

This eye for high-profile creative collaborators is one of Abloh’s hallmarks; he got his own start in part due to early support for Off-White from stars like Kanye West and A$AP Rocky. But Abloh says he wants to work beyond the sphere of celebrity. Lately he’s been sending Louis Vuitton grip tape that’s not available for purchase to skaters he finds while “cruising Instagram.” By inviting young people that remind him of himself into a realm that once seemed off-limits growing up, he hopes to use his tenure at Louis Vuitton to stay “true to the culture that made me,” he says. He’s been mentoring emerging Black designers as well through his “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, launched in partnership with the Fashion Scholarship Fund, for which he’s raised $1 million. Through “Imaginary TV,” Off-White’s public and virtual content platform, Abloh also aims to democratize access to his fashion shows while spotlighting rising talent and experimental forms of digital art.

His influences over the past 20 years, he says, vary from Caravaggio to Marcel Duchamp to Master P, whose Ghetto D vinyl encased in an orange jacket is something that Abloh—also a DJ—has treasured since he was a teenager. This spectrum of material interests perhaps helps to explain some of his recent, seemingly disparate projects: a Louis Vuitton show inspired by James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village” (about his experience of being an outsider in Europe) and Icons, a book dedicated to sneakers, published by Taschen.

“The major epiphany that I had in my life is that I could be a producer. [I have] this unhinged belief that I can produce things,” Abloh says. “A friend of mine once said, ‘You’re in the business of making Christmas presents,’ and that’s the school of thought that I’m in: objects that glow.”

I often refer to my career as a bit of a Trojan horse: It exists to traverse two spaces and allows other people to partake in it.

Is there any kind of art you can’t or won’t do?

Imagine this young Black kid, African parents come to America, soon realizes that you can’t do everything, [but] then I just turn all the dials—turn some up, turn some down— and figure out a super-wide scope to exist in. Because I figured that out, I’m whispering to everyone: Hey, this is possible…. So what I’ve learned is how wide that spectrum is, and I know, at 40 years old now, what’s inside of it and what’s outside of it. Being an advocate or being a spokesperson, politician, that’s a different can of worms than being an artist, being creative, producing things, shifting pop culture. That’s a way more tactical way to move humanity. That is not me…. It’s not something that I couldn’t evolve into or do—and my work takes it on in the way I take it on—but [knowing that scope] is a very key understanding…. In general, I don’t know what limits are. I think they’re like Casper the Ghost under your bed: They can terrify you but they’re actually not there, and that’s how I pretty much operate.

You’ve said in the past that you don’t like being called an activist. What other labels have you been given that you feel are inaccurate?

Oftentimes people say, “Oh, Virgil is a disruptor,” yada yada, which is just a catchphrase for something. It sounds better to call me a disruptor. But more than anything I’m trying to bridge two generations. I’m dusting off of the previous generation what I think is valuable, all this heritage—Louis Vuitton has such rich history, Nike has this important history—so that a young generation can carry those things and value those things, because not everything needs to be exploded, and when I’m termed as a disruptor it’s totally inaccurate.

I’ve been tapped with the magic wand of whatever I’m referred to as, and so within fashion I take that as a great responsibility. Yves Saint Laurent in his time debuted the idea of ready-to-wear instead of couture-based creation, and I firmly believe that [with] me at the helm of the next generation and how they think about fashion, it’s my job and it’s also my higher calling…. [It’s] a self-appointed job to lead that way of thinking and come up with new formats for this creative industry…. “Imaginary TV” was spawned from that thinking.

Tell me about “Imaginary TV.” It’s a virtual platform for presenting your work and the work of others. What’s your goal with it?

It’s to set an example. It’s not a surprise that my work is in prototype to develop a new standard. I’m not just provoking ideas that are provocative for the sake of myself, it’s so that the industry looks like the industry that we want; 2020 was that lens [through which] we can see the inadequacies in what the existing world has versus what it could be, so I take pride in pushing those boundaries for that…. A lot of times our industry is based on what’s next, what’s luxury going to be. Is the future e-commerce or is TikTok the new Instagram?…. I’ve found in my practice that at the forefront of the industry is actually just mentorship, an open door. When I started in fashion, the door was closed…. The forefront of fashion is not a trend, it’s not a fabric, it’s not a self-serving prophecy, it’s empowerment. It works every time. It works every generation, this idea of enlightenment.

The forefront of fashion is not a trend, it’s not a fabric, it’s not a self-serving prophecy, it’s empowerment. It works every time. It works every generation, this idea of enlightenment.

Is that where your commitment to inclusivity through mentorship comes from?

It’s just logic. It’s basic, basic logic. And I think it’s because my trajectory came from an untraditional path, and I come from an untraditional descent in these types of spaces. I see and I operate in the ways that I was looking for someone to sort of be my guiding light. It’s literally that simple. A lot of the things that I had to figure out on my own, I leave those breadcrumbs within “Post-Modern” [Scholarship Fund], within my Instagram, within the show notes. And that’s the only way I can truly see to give back to being allowed to be in these spaces.

In what ways does Off-White stand to change now that it’s part of the LVMH family?

Today nothing changes, but the future life of the initial idea of Off-White will be tuned to exist for forever.

In the past, you’ve cited architect Rem Koolhaas’s 2004 book Content as having an important impact on you early in your career. Why?

As a student, I was in architecture school [at the Illinois Institute of Technology], and I picked up this book…. It looked perverse, it looked provocative, and it was basically Rem Koolhaas using the language of today to distribute very cutting-edge architecture [and] patents for concepts within architecture that he used at the Prada Epicenter, which was like the head-explosion emoji for me…. The idea of patenting an architectural gesture is the equivalent of me using quotes and claiming that when you see quotes, they’re mine. It’s just a gesture, but it’s created with a careful mind. And so drawing the link from this magazine-style look and feel to, wait, this architect is doing Prada stores and patenting ideas, I was like, That’s the way out of just boring architecture. It’s Prada. So that book helped me make this link between architecture and fashion.

You’ve also referred to the contemporary artist Tom Sachs as a mentor, even though he said on a 2016 panel in New York City you were on that fashion is unnecessary.

You’re going to have to ask him what he means by that, but I firmly believe in polar opposites. There is something unnecessary [about fashion] but there’s something vital, and it only gets confusing when you try to distill things with such weight tied to humanity into something flat…. It’s that fluidity where the power comes from to create.

And here, in his own words, a few of Abloh’s favorite things:

<p>Photo by Victoria Hely-Hutchinson for WSJ. Magazine.</p>\n

Photo by Victoria Hely-Hutchinson for WSJ. Magazine.

“To me, the apex of an object is that it figuratively—but literally—can give you power. Watches, like the Patek Philippe in the front center, are a quintessential object that says you’ve made it, and I’ve made a habit out of

buying and customizing them. I blacked this one out and took all the numbers off. Brands don’t love when I do stuff like that, but sometimes it’s for the larger conversation, and I do it with respect. The new Louis Vuitton Nike Air Force 1s on the right, that’s almost chemical—that took me 40 years to figure out how to do. It transcends a shoe; it’s an art object to me. It says something about our human history, about our current times. Behind the shoes is one of two Hermès HAC Birkin bags that I had custom-made in alligator in an insanely big size, and you pay without any assurance of when, or even if, you’ll receive your order, which is a wild concept. It took me so long to get them. Those are aspirational objects at the end of the spectrum of things that I always idolized to have as a sense of accomplishment. The earliest memory I have of ‘art’ is African sculptures that my parents had around the house; the piece to the left represents an important epicenter and reminder of art for me. Now I live with those sculptures as well. Below it is a stuffed animal I made from fabric in my studio to send to children’s hospitals, so they not only exist as high fashion but as objects with purpose. To the right of that is a jewelry piece I made in the lineage of [rapper] Slick Rick. It’s embedded in hip-hop [history] and Black culture, this idea of wearing a chain around your neck made of diamonds. It’s a candle figure, almost of the Disney variety, and I’m going to have other chains hang off the chain. ‘Lighting the way’ is very much a metaphor for my art practice, which is a descendant of hip-hop history. It sort of ‘scribes’ a new chapter in an art practice that is largely not acknowledged by the institution as valid, and that’s me.”

© Amanda Randone 2021