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Travel is one of the most enriching and worthwhile experiences in life. It’s especially true when it’s associated with creative expression. Off-White Designer Virgil Abloh turned traveling into a true lifestyle, with plenty of creative interactions across the world.
Mixing cultures and blending past and future to embrace a new global rhythm of fashion, they’re the essential compositions of Virgil’s work. In his relentless travels, he often stops by Milan, the home of Off-White’s operations. The decision to pick this city represents his vision and emphasizes Milan’s role as a culture and style booster.
Along with the importance of physical experiences and travel, collaborative efforts play a key role in Virgil’s work. Off-White serves as Virgil’s own personal art project. It’s a vessel to collate the most diverse ideas and to join forces with influential cultural figures. From the early days to the birth of Pyrex Vision, Virgil together with his crew – Kanye West, the A$AP Mob, Matthew Williams – left a lasting impression on the perception of fashion.
A couple of months ago we linked with Virgil at the Off-White headquarters to find out more about how travel and physical experience factor into his creative process, and how collaborative work and celebrity associations have affected and shaped his career.
We know travel is an important part of your day-to-day life. Before Milan, where were you?
A lot of places. I started traveling to Montreal, Toronto, New York, Philadelphia, then to New York, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Miami, London. I’ve been to all these places in like three weeks. It’s a mix of DJing and business travel. I mix the two all day, everyday.
Do travel and physical experiences have an important role in your creative process?
Yes, it’s essential to being in touch with what’s happening. There’re a few styles of design in any culture, like this style of fashion design is a subculture [holding a sneaker in his hands]. It’s important to be a part of the culture. It’s the events like book signings, art shows, and the design of it. It’s the things that you see right in front of it rather than looking at it through the computer. Like those kids in Milan wearing the keychain with the keys on that. For me, if I did that in the collection, it’s because I’m here, not because I saw a trend. I come from ’90s skate culture; you have to be a part of the culture that you’re representing. I think it’s the culture that I enjoy and I also participate in it.
Sounds quite different from the absence equals presence approach we’ve seen – in some cases – across the past decades (eg. Martin Margiela). How do you feel about that?
He’s like a God; he can do whatever he wants. He tells us what to do and leads us with his legacy. The kid thing that I’ve mentioned, and our approach, this is a new genre of design. It’s not to be confused with high fashion. It’s a new hybrid. The style of fashion that I do and that the style of fashion of this new generation is a new version of fashion design. It’s like couture has got the rhythm of a different era, while the rhythm of this era is like everyone’s wearing Levi’s, printed t-shirts. That’s fashion now, but it wasn’t fashion before. The designers from the era before like Margiela, Alaïa, McQueen, that’s a different era, and I think my goal is to embrace the culture of now but also infuse the designers’ nature of the past. It’s culture, but a cultural mix. I think the god of design is Raf Simons, and we’re all the after-effects of his earthquake.
Why did you choose Milan as the base for your design studio and center of operations?
Italy, in general, has a history of making clothing. One thing you realize when you travel around the world is you don’t see the divisions in the world; you just see what people are great at. We all live on this planet; it’s more like a global view rather than a nationalist view. It’s like you buy groceries from a certain grocery store, you go on vacation in certain places in the world because it’s better than going on vacation in shitty places in the world. That line of thinking is how I arrived at the opportunity, but it’s not like I chose Italy, it was because of the existing team. I came here because I liked what they had to offer.
Do you think Milan has something, in particular, to offer in regards to your own personal discovery and that of Off-White?
Yes, to me it’s the local culture, I have a lot of friends here, it’s very conducive to hire a particular style of art direction and design. It’s great. I feel there’s like a specific Milan-based art direction style which is totally different from Berlin’s one, New York, or LA. This is very distinct.
What about your background? Does it have something to do with your decision of choosing Italy?
Not in a direct way, my background is architecture, also engineering, but more like the art history of modernism. I found there’s a correlation to that here. A lot of my friends are super knowledgable about design. It’s a global view of modernism. I travel a lot because I can see, I can weave together what’s contemporary about kids here and what’s contemporary about kids in Berlin, in London. It’s more of a globalist view rather than any sort of nationalist. Taz Arnold once told me that he wanted to be a citizen of the globe, more than be from a particular place.
Were there ever moments where you felt it was difficult to create your own identity because of certain celebrity associations?
Yes, but it’s in a way that it’s not even a problem. It’s just the nature of doing creative work. For me Off-White is a project for myself. It’s very much like a very personal art project; it’s not even a clothing brand so much. It’s a container where I can put in all my ideas; they span from fashion to marketing to naming, branding, aesthetic and music. That’s what it is for me; it’s an outlet. By definition, I made it so I can be the decision maker, but I love working collaboratively with everyone. I made a career, up to this point, by working collaboratively with everyone from my brand to a person.
What are some of the most and less satisfactory moments of your career?
There are no bad ones. Satisfactory ones are achieving goals that I don’t necessarily know I would achieve. It’s a great moment along the road and just validation of a concept. I believed in streetwear and printed t-shirts, I didn’t think that I would be associated with designers. This gave me focus; it just let me know what direction to go. To me that started with Pyrex Vision, the project that launched Off-White. It was the moment that, the scene of us kids in New York: the A$AP kids from Harlem, my friends and I working in the fashion industry, Kanye West, we changed the flow of fashion. It used to be top-down, it was high fashion that made the trends and the products, and this is how you wear it. Then we took those trends and garments and started wearing them in a different way. Rocky and Bari wearing Rick Owens with Palace, or me and Matthew Williams going to London and buying every Palace shirt and then bringing them back. It was like we were wearing Hermès, Palace and you’re wearing Supreme with Givenchy leather shorts.
That took the designer world and made their own, then right off the coast, I made Pyrex, which is something that we made and could push it into a high fashion context. That’s to me the important thing, where we are up today. From that screen-printed T-shirt to doing Paris shows – I only show in Paris, I don’t show in New York. It’s all off of this generation… that shirt you’re wearing, that’s part of the movement. All of us, are a generation of artists that are on a platform because of our will, not necessarily waiting for acceptance. Not wanting to be accepted by fashion, it’s just our style.
(This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity)