The artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear on the last ten years – and the next
Deep fakes, influencers, viral fashion – we live in a world unrecognisable from the one we stood in ten years ago. As a chaotic decade comes to a close, we’re speaking to the people who helped shape the last ten years and analysing the cultural shifts that have defined them. Explore the decade on our interactive timeline here, or head here to check out all our features.
Ten years ago, Virgil Abloh, then working as a creative director for Kanye West, was one of a group photographed outside a Comme des Garçons show in Paris. Their outfits, which included Goyard briefcases, colourful thick-rimmed glasses, and leopard print trousers with cowboy boots, inspired a wave of internet scorn, much of it homophobic. There was even a skit on South Park.
In June 2018, I saw some of that same group reunite backstage at Abloh’s debut show as Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of menswear. In a video I took, Abloh embraces Ibn Jasper, whose blog about the backlash to the 2009 trip remains online. “What we are actually doing, is showing the fashion world that American men, let alone Black Men, know how to really get busy when it comes to the fashion game,” he wrote. “We can’t be erased,” Abloh says as they hug. He smiles the smile of a man who has fought to be there, an outsider no longer.
If you hadn’t been following his path from Pyrex Vision (the 2012 clothing project which consisted largely of stamping ‘Pyrex’ onto Ralph Lauren flannels) to #BEENTRILL# (a collective that also included Matthew Williams of Alyx and Heron Preston), Off-White (which released its first collection for AW14) and finally LV, Virgil Abloh appeared from nowhere. To some, he was another of the decade’s scammers – a man they’d never heard of with the audacity to slap quote marks on everything and call it fashion. To others, he was a prophet: proof that streetwear deserved respect, proof that a black man with a non-traditional path into the industry could land one of its biggest jobs.
Whatever your personal opinion on his work, Abloh’s success has been undeniable, with Off-White frequently nabbing the #1 spot on the Lyst Index of the hottest brands in the world. Sure, popularity doesn’t equal prestige, but Abloh’s power lies in communication, the ability to develop a visual design language for the social media era, one of arrows, black and yellow Hacienda stripes, and of course, those ubiquitous punctuation marks – all things that stand out when you scroll. He’s made Nike’s biggest collaborative shoes, rugs with Ikea, water bottles with Evian, suitcases with Rimowa, perfume with Byredo – the list goes on (and on).
But what does the future of fashion hold for the man whose fame and fortune comes largely from logomania? The answer might surprise you.
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Where I want to start is actually 2009, with that famous Tommy Ton fashion week photo. How do you feel about it now?
Virgil Abloh: If you look at it in 2019, it predicated the idea of the democratisation of fashion. It’s like those inspirational quotes that say, you know, ‘You get made fun of and then in the future everyone adopts what they were making fun of’. That was one of the very first modern fashion images that just went everywhere. It said that those who love fashion are just as important as the industry itself. It spoke to the power of self-produced images – Jak & Jil was a blog that Tommy Ton had, he was one of very few fashion photographers outside of shows. That image was a collaboration between his following and us and it existed before my whole career in a way.
How did the fashion industry feel to you then – how welcoming was it?
Virgil Abloh: It wasn’t particularly welcoming but the irony was that there was no security at the door of that Comme des Garçons show we wanted to get into. It was almost like, ‘Why would you come to a fashion show?’ It would be like walking into some random hotel conference for doorknobs and sitting down.
“The irony was that there was no security at the door of that Comme des Garçons show we wanted to get into. It was almost like, ‘Why would you come to a fashion show?’ It would be like walking into some random hotel conference and sitting down” – Virgil Abloh
By halfway through the decade, you’d gone from standing outside to having your first Off White show in Paris – what did that moment represent to you?
Virgil Abloh: I was at this point in fashion where my contemporaries and my friends, like Shayne from Hood By Air – who’s super important to the narrative – were painting this picture of what’s to come. At that time, the formal press was only just categorising that type of design as ‘streetwear’; as a designer, you get confronted with the term of your generation which you have no control over. From that frustration I decided if ‘streetwear’ was gonna be the sign of the times I was gonna define it rather than be defined by it. I needed to do a show to define what ‘streetwear’ could be, and do it with urgency, you know.
I felt that, at that time, most people would be like, ‘Oh, he’s not a stereotypical designer’. I don’t know how many shows I’ve done since 2016 but it’s been enjoyable to define the space that I would perceivably be put in. My motivation this whole time has been to represent for a generation – I’m still thinking about the kid that couldn’t get into fashion shows.
Backstage at Off-White SS19Photography Nicky Zeng
Do you think at that point, in 2016, the industry has started to open up, that it was becoming more of the democratic space it feels closer to now?
Virgil Abloh: I’ve never been one that felt like the doors were closing – I’m an optimist so I don’t even recognise that, that’s how I got to where I’m at. I think that what helped it along was streetwear was also a global concept – designers like myself and Shayne had the advantage that European designers in the vein of streetwear helped people understand what this new wave was gonna be, designers like Demnaand Goshawere all a part of the same creative community, we all played a part in making a new atmosphere.
How did it feel to see the rest of the industry, traditional brands, try to get involved with streetwear, to imitate something that wasn’t authentic to their heritage?
Virgil Abloh: It’s wild, you know, and it all goes back to that very first image: what seems preposterous actually becomes the new norm. I always try to look at the positive side and so when I do see brands adopting a new mode of design that’s not traditional and is actually inauthentic, to me it’s validation that we ultimately changed the atmosphere of design. What I like to think is that the doors are now open to young people to work in these places, to help them do it in an authentic way.
That reminds me of something you posted on Instagram after the first Vuitton show – it was a picture of you taking your bow and the caption was “you can do it too”. What was in your head when you were positing that?
Virgil Abloh:To come from designing a graphic t-shirt in 2012 to making it to a house to design a collection… As a young black kid from Rockford, Illinois, from immigrant parents from Ghana, West Africa, that was like, impossible, you know? Like, categorically not gonna happen in a lifetime. I thought that fashion was one of those industries that would reinforce people feeling that ‘This isn’t for you’, ‘If you don’t have this shirt, you’re not in the club’. And so that post was sending up a flare to people watching that what might seem impossible is actually do-able in a lifetime.
“To come from designing a graphic t-shirt in 2012 to making it to a house to design a collection… As a young black kid from Rockford, Illinois, from immigrant parents from Ghana, West Africa, that was like, impossible, you know? Like, categorically not gonna happen in a lifetime” – Virgil Abloh
Did that first Vuitton show feel like history as it was happening?
Virgil Abloh: It’s a funny question because to keep up my work rate I never stop and I never look back, ironically I’m taking a sort of break now. It felt like it was probably one of like, three (most) fulfilling moments in my career. That I got to a space and I got to a loud enough megaphone to say in an abstract way exactly how I feel. To me it was about making like an art piece of fashion, using the megaphone that is Louis Vuitton, one of the oldest brands in Paris, to have the first models that came out, look like me, dressed in all white on a prism coloured runway show in daylight. I wanted to make a statement and use the clothes to power that and I feel fulfilled that that body of work came out the way it did and when it did.
I think that you represent a modern proposition of a fashion designer, compared to this preconceived idea of what a designer is. How do you think that the idea of a fashion designer has changed over the last decade?
Virgil Abloh: You know, I grew up in the 80s and 90s and in that generation we had our own idea of what a fashion designer is, and we had our own idea of what a musician was – people would say that hip hop is just sampling, that it’s not even like, playing the piano… As a fashion designer I’ve had enough of a thick skin to explore and make (it) something of my own.
I believe being a fashion designer is selling it short if it’s just limited to making clothes. A piece of clothing is more important than the fabric it’s made of – it’s representative, it means something. It says something about a generation, a brand… when I think of fashion brands, I immediately think of like, United Colours of Benetton or Ralph Lauren, or Margiela – just say a brand or say a designer and it takes you to a different place because everything they did embodied something. That to me is what a fashion designer is today, not simply the antiquated version of what the term means.
Backstage at Louis Vuitton AW19 MenswearPhotography Christina Fragkou
What do you think will happen to the idea of streetwear in the 2020s?
Virgil Abloh: Wow. I would definitely say it’s gonna die, you know? Like, its time will be up. In my mind, how many more t-shirts can we own, how many more hoodies, how many sneakers? I think that like we’re gonna hit this like, really awesome state of expressing your knowledge and personal style with vintage – there are so many clothes that are cool that are in vintage shops and it’s just about wearing them. I think that fashion is gonna go away from buying a boxfresh something; it’ll be like, hey I’m gonna go into my archive.
“(Streetwear is) gonna die, you know? Like, it’s time will be up. In my mind, how many more t-shirts can we own, how many more hoodies, how many sneakers?” – Virgil Abloh
At the end of the decade, what excites you?
Virgil Abloh:I’m excited by the next one. I’m excited to see what we do in this next chapter because the strides we made in the last ten years are too insane.
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