Alexandra Kometovna

Virgil Abloh. The Off-White designer and globetrotting DJ on logo flips, Kanye West, and his plan to save streetwear.

Alexandra Kometovna
Virgil Abloh. The Off-White designer and globetrotting DJ on logo flips, Kanye West, and his plan to save streetwear.

written by JIAN DELEON
photography by ALEXANDER TAMARGO

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Virgil Abloh feels equally at home just about anywhere, which is a handy trait to have. Known variously as Kanye West’s creative director, DJ Flat-White, and the designer behind Off-White, his Italian-made clothing line, he might even be the archetype for a new generation of jet-setting gentlemen for whom “well-heeled” usually means a pair of vintage Jordans.

“I’m a citizen of the globe, I’m not from one particular place,” he says. Life for Virgil (as he’s known to just about everyone) began in Rockford, Illinois. His parents hail from Ghana. When we speak, he’s in Paris pre-senting his Off-White F/W 2015 collection, which featured suede hiking boots with metal claws that flip backwards for added traction, hoodies made of a fishnet, and buffalo-plaid shawls styled over ripped jeans with cowboy hats—a sartorial mash-up of Ennio Morricone and Kurt Cobain.

One of his more surprising inspirations was the resort town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Abloh used to snowboard there when he was in college, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

When he arrived in Madison in the mid-nineties, he was in “idle mode,” he says, and almost failed out of the structural engineering program. His roommate was Gabriel Stulman, the West Village restaurateur behind Joseph Leonard, Fedora, and Jeffrey’s Grocery.

“I was, like, fifty percent into engineering, but the other fifty percent was Gabe and I throwing hip-hop parties,” he says. “And we were gettin’ money!”

He and Stulman made frequent trips to Chicago, furnished their apartment with art, and threw swank dinner parties while their peers “watched football and drank beer,” he says.

“I just live with my eyes open”

He met Kanye West in Chicago in 2002, and has worked with him ever since, as his creative director, collaborator, and trusted sounding bound.

“Kanye’ s unrelenting, uncompromising hope is that the world can be saved through design,” he says. Virgil hopes so, too.

Abloh’ s own aesthetic hall of heroes is a potent high-low mix: Bronx graf-fiti artist Terrible T-KID 170 on one side, Mies van der Rohe on the other.

In 2009, Abloh and West moved to Rome for a season to intern at Fendi. West later cited the pair’s experience in a radio interview, arguing that mainstream fashion couldn’t handle what they were up to.

“That was a very pivotal point in both of our careers in making cloth-ing,” says Abloh. “We got a lot out of it, but not necessarily what we thought we were gonna get.” If anything, it convinced Abloh there was a hole in the market.

After returning to the States, he dipped his toes in retail, opening RSVP Gallery in Chicago with a business partner, Don Crawley. Car-rying a mix of brands from A Bathing Ape to Raf Simons, the shop also served as a launch pad for Abloh’s first label, Pyrex Vision. It specialized in t-shirts, hoodies, and flannel shirts screenprinted with graphics that referenced Michael Jordan and Italian painter Caravaggio. Critics (myself included) were quick to point out that the brand’s prices seemed a bit steep. A flannel shirt for $550? He had to be kidding. And maybe he was. It turned out the flannel shirts were actually from Ralph Lauren’s Rugby line, which Abloh picked up when the label was shutting down.

“Pyrex was more of an art thing than a fashion thing,” Abloh explains. “It was basically about graffiti—writing over things that weren’t mine. The whole trick was to take other brand’s stuff, print on it, and say all that stuff is mine now.”

“I’m in tune, and I want to be known for that, nothing else.”

The “logo flip”—knowingly reinterpreting and re-appropriating someone else’s brand—has been an essential part of streetwear since Shawn Stussy took the interlocking C’s of the Chanel logo and substituted his own initials. Abloh just took it a step further. In doing so, he also laid the groundwork for a serious career in fashion.

“I just live with my eyes open,” he says. “The more open-minded you are, the more possible it is to get inspiration and flip it,” he says.

The perceived dilution of streetwear is what inspired him to launch Off-White. He wants to take it back from the big conglomerates. Fash-ion-wise, he knows his clothes aren’t necessarily pushing the envelope, but they do speak a language his customer understands.
“I’m in tune, and I want to be known for that, nothing else.”