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The Rise of Virgil Abloh

Words by Kendra Hunsley  

The insurgency taking place within the fashion industry is one that cannot be ignored and has the entire industry in hysteria. There’s a wave of modern fashion designers and creative directors who have infiltrated the traditionalist fashion scene as we’ve come to know it and are disrupting its paradigm. Demna at Vetements. Gosha at Gosha Rubchinskiy. Alessandro at Gucci. Virgil at Off-White.

Trends are trickling from the street up. Luxury no longer holds the same grip on consumers.”

In spite of the fact that one cannot mention Virgil Abloh’s name without appending Kanye West in the same breath, Abloh is transcending from his shadow and commands the centre stage under scintillating lights which he has proven to be quite deserving of. Esquire magazine christened him “The chief in the vanguard of a new kind of fashion populism.” Virgil Abloh is, amongst many other things; an architect, a fashion designer, a creative director and DJ. An off-spring to two immigrant parents stemming from Ghana, Virgil grew up in middle-class Illinois. In true African parent fashion, graduating from colleague was a topic not up for negotiation. Virgil graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin- Madison and later acquired a masters in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

At age 22, while being immersed in lecture notes and study groups, Abloh met Kanye West and formed part of his creative team, the pair have been in unison for the past 14 years. Virgil advises West on everything from tour merchandise and album covers, to stage design. An executor to the visionary, helping him formulate his ideas.

He also founded the menswear boutique RSVP Gallery in Chicago and collaborated with Heron Preston and Matthew Williams on the streetwear and tumblr favourite #BeenTrill.

Virgil is the brainchild behind Pyrex Vision. Abloh saw an opportunity and purchased Ralph Lauren Rugby flannel shirts for $40 under declining stocks, put the word ‘Pyrex’ on the front and the number 23 at the back and sold it for $500. Just like that. It’s the quintessential act of day light robbery, I afforded it a disinclined dap as the shirts reportedly sold out in minutes. Taking a ready-made item and adding graphics to it is the stereotypical indolence that the higher ups within the fashion confederacy roll their eyes towards. Although, he explained, Pyrex wasn’t supposed to evolve into a clothing line, It was an art project which was not intended to transform into a fashion brand. Abloh explains the project was a depiction and representation of the two escape routes out of poverty-stricken Black communities. Sell drugs or become a basketball star. Pyrex: The cylinder used to cook drugs. 23- Michael Jordan’s jersey number. The success of Pyrex Vision solidified Abloh’s aptitude to offer something significant to the fashion industry. Virgil also saw it as a window into the fashion circuit. It thus gave birth to Off-White. The brand’s offerings, both on the runway and on the backs of ‘cool kids’ swarming the streets, has commanded praise and adoration. It was also a finalist in the critical acclaimed LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Abloh’s take on fashion is to amalgamate disparate entities. The lines between luxury and streetwear are being blurred and Virgil is at the centre of this new phenomenon.

The style of fashion that I do and the style of fashion of this new generation is a new version of fashion design. The rhythm of this era is like everyone is wearing Levi’s and printed t-shirts. That’s fashion now, but it wasn’t fashion before.”

Off-White has stores in Hong Kong, Tokyo, Seoul, London, Shanghai and Beijing, each with a distinct design, a completely different vibe and feel to the next. The Tokyo store doesn’t even look like a store, more an office space that happens to have clothes in it. The Hong Kong store has an entry way with plants tantamount to a jungle. As you walk in, water sprinkles down onto the flora, accompanied by the sounds of birds chirping. In an industrial heavy place with buildings stacked up on each other, Abloh explains, how refreshing it would be to have a designated space solely dedicated to nature.

“What I’m trying to do is between Supreme and Celine.”

Although most may see fashion as a far walk from Architecture, Abloh applies the same principles he learned in the lecture room, to the design studio.

I’m like that scorned architecture student from that one moment that Professor told me I wasn’t going to make anything, and I finally found a loophole of how to make a building through a printed T-Shirt.”

 His attention to detail is unrivaled. The man’s mind works in an intricate way. He has a peculiar way of infusing heterogeneous interests and making you feel as if that’s the way it should’ve been in the first place. His fascination with architecture and modern art is apparent in his garments which creates a sense of intellect and layering to his craft.

I distinctly feel like this generation is the first one where we can like unveil the mask, give the kids the tools, let them create and we’ll have a better existence afterwards.”

 His affiliation to one of the most recognized artists in the world and a fleet of barely 20-year-olds who are at the centre of the ‘culture’ may be watering down his brand and silencing the true craftsmanship and artistry that he pours so vigorously into his work. Abloh expresses that the kids from the block who have a dream but may not be able to see pass the barriers are at the centre of his brand. But one could argue, how is he making clothes for kids who are likely unable to afford his garments? He defends the notion by ushering in the anticipated “quality clothing costs money to produce” narrative that high-end brands have stowed away in their pockets and promptly pull out when necessary. Virgil has an an air of indecisiveness to him, rarely giving a clear-cut explanation. Perhaps it’s the archetypal character trait of a brilliant mind. Perhaps he really doesn’t have it all figured out. Either way, the fashion industry is attentively watching and is inquisitively waiting to see what he does next.


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