‘People can swallow the pill
because it’s on a T-shirt.’

The Virgil Abloh story. In his own words.

Interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist
Photograph by Juergen Teller

Face à face. Virgil Abloh & Hans Ulrich Obrist. - © System Magazine

The Virgil Abloh story. In his own words.

Part One
Serpentine Gallery, London
June 30th, 2017

Hans Ulrich Obrist: How did you connect with architecture?

Virgil Abloh: My parents are immigrants from Ghana in west Africa, and my dad had one vision: ‘If I make it to America, I want a son with a distinguishable career.’ What he didn’t predict was that my teenage years would be the 1990s in America.

When were you born?

In 1980. I was playing, living the American dream, growing up in an American suburb thinking life was great because I wasn’t in a Third World country. I have African roots, but they were sort of washed away by growing up in suburban America. I was into skateboarding, rock’n’roll and rap. Lifestyle things. School was easy. I had friends who were rebellious. When it came to college, though, my father said he wanted an engineer for a son and he was going to choose my major. I felt it was the least I could do to pay him back. I was nonchalant. But early on, I was into DJing to split things, to take the edge off, to have something cultural to add to something practical. I took humanities late, so I never had an art class. I didn’t know I was into it. Then I took an art-history class in my fifth year of engineering. I learned about the Italian Renaissance and Caravaggio, and it rewired my brain.

It was with Caravaggio that it clicked.

Completely. It was the idea that within art you could invent, just like you can invent a new way of distributing load in a tall building. That sent me into a tailspin. By then I’d spent five years doing engineering, so I Googled three institutions where you could do an architecture masters with a graduate engineering degree and there were only three at the time. One was the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was like my foundation course on the Mies van der Rohe campus: I know nothing about architecture; I just have this book of Caravaggio paintings; and I walk into Crown Hall, and I lose my breath. From then on, I was learning about the foundations of Modernism and the International Style. Rem Koolhaas finished the students’ centre the same year that I started. So I’m learning while Rem is giving lectures, Michael Rock is giving lectures, in a student centre with a tunnel for a train to go through. I was born from that crash.

Had you met Rem at that time?

No. But Content, where he writes about his work with Prada – the study of retail, the forward thinking, the non-conceptual design – was the launch pad for me to sit in classes and know what I wanted to take away from them. Michael Rock helped me learn how to think, too. Understanding the architecture in art and the theory with Prada showed me a path. At that point, I was mesmerised by Modernism. I felt there were pillars in that ideology that were going to apply when the Internet fully settled in.

‘My parents are immigrants from Ghana. My dad had one vision: ‘If I make it to America, I want a son with a distinguishable career.’’

Virgil Abloh

And then the next transition happens.

Yes. I was working and then all of a sudden, I got a call from Kanye West. He said: ‘Hey, I heard about this kid in Chicago who can design and understands music and culture.’ So after two years of work practising architecture, building homes and working in various small firms, I went on to be his creative director for 14 years. It was a great experience to apply the things I knew. Kanye used to say that when you become that famous, you’re the janitor with the keys to the world.

People told him there was this new kid?

Yes, like, ‘Hey, there is somebody who thinks like you’. Chicago is a big small town. People you grew up with are always telling you what’s happening back home. I had one very young professor who taught me all the digital things, like Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD, 3D rendering, 3D Studio Max. I just applied those skillsets to fashion. Kanye said, ‘Hey I need you to design this’, and I thought if I can design a building, I can think that through. And when he said, ‘Hey we’re going to build a pavilion for a film in Cannes’, I said, ‘Let’s call OMA; let’s call Rem’, and that was how we started.

What exactly was your title?

My title was creative director, but I called myself an assistant. He was the spearhead and I would follow through. Or I would do research to add an underpinning of art and architecture to his equation. I had 14 years of running around the world taking meetings.

And you were creative director not only of him, but also of his brand?

Exactly. Which I credit him as innovating because he’s an artist. He used to make fun of me and call me Steve Jobs because I always had such a long, precise explanation for every small thing. And that added a lot of rigour to what he was doing. We are still close to this day. I’d still be studying architecture if I had not met him.

It was a decisive encounter?

Yes. I am four years younger than him. I am a part of this generation that’s the tail end of the millennials and interested in a wide range of things. I chose to focus on my own project, which doesn’t look at art, architecture, music and fashion as separate disciplines, but draws zigzag lines between them all. So I work with Rem, Miuccia Prada, Kanye West, Beyoncé, George Condo, Vanessa Beecroft, Jenny Holzer. And I started Off-White™.

But you had your own fashion label before that, Pyrex 23…

I had never done anything that was completely mine to the end for 10 years, so I decided to shoot a film in New York. It’s called A Team With No Sport. I took kids from Harlem to downtown SoHo and made this brand with clothes that weren’t mine. I took Ralph Lauren and screen-printed over it. Caravaggio on the front, ‘Pyrex 23’ on the back. ‘Pyrex 23’ is a two-line poem about being in the hood. The only way to make it out is to be great at basketball – and 23 is Michael Jordan’s number – or through Pyrex, which is the cookware in which you make crack cocaine. I made it as an art piece, and on the wall is writing by my artist friend Jim Jones who’s pixelated in the video. He is like a modern Basquiat. The music is ‘Heart and Soul’ by Joy Division. It’s a juxtaposition. Being black, people would assume I’d use hip-hop, but I always use niche European music references that I crash together for a different result. It creates a wider audience. That six-minute video I shot with a friend went through-the-roof viral. Sold from colette. I didn’t even produce the clothes, they were other people’s brands. It turned out to be a seminal piece of work.

When was this?

This was 2012, it was 12.12.12, when the video came out. I was trying to communicate that this generation wants to play a part in fashion and they have to make it themselves. Then I decided that if I was going to do a clothing line, ‘Pyrex’ as a name wasn’t to my taste. My career is about going back to the original – a black African kid growing up in suburban America. So I use my project to talk about race in the most non-literal terms. As soon as you talk in literal terms, people’s brains shut off.

‘I got a call from Kanye West. He said, ‘Hey, I heard about this kid in Chicago who can design and understands music and culture.’’

Virgil Abloh

When did you have your epiphany for the name Off-White™?

I had spent 14 years with Kanye West and I was like, ‘OK, let me remind myself of my favourite colour…’ Pyrex was a sensation. I was selling it and I stopped it. It was only meant for a moment in time, it was never meant to be a long-standing thing. I came up with Off-White™ as a means to talk about race. Off-White™ is in-between black and white, but my version of in-between is tainted with my opinion. It’s a blank canvas, a piece of off-white material that millions of artists can shape to give it value and meaning. Off-White™ is a modern version of a fashion brand. It’s a Trojan Horse for me.

Is it all designed by you?

Yes. It’s 200 pieces, men’s and women’s, four times a year. And I’m an architect! Building buildings was too slow and it wasn’t communicating to kids in my social circle. There was no way to talk about it at the bar.

And was there a manifesto?

Yes there is. It exists online. It’s about luxury, because my clothes are placed at a luxury price point. Off-White™ behaves like a luxury brand, but the spirit and everything underneath it relates to issues of race, youth culture, and globalization.

Is it what David Adjaye would call ‘new moral luxury’?

In a way. I believe that there is a generation gap, a younger generation that the presiding generation is trying to understand. Certain fashion brands no longer speak to a younger generation.

What’s the average age of people who would buy your stuff?

From 18 to Celine Dion’s age, so around 50. I have invested in this group that the hierarchy is trying to relate to. I invested in the kids and their knowledge base. I have this tremendous base of information that I am very particular about, that I have absorbed. Off-White™ is me being a black artist in disguise as a fashion brand in disguise as a DJ, or however people choose to describe me. I chart my course by using my brand to do special projects.

Can you describe a few examples of that to me?

The diagonal lines of my brand’s logo are very similar to the work of Peter Saville and Ben Kelly, the architect who did the Haçienda club in Manchester. I’ve commissioned him to do a mobile version of the Haçienda. It’s an Off-White™-owned piece, but whenever it is activated with music, we do it together. We debuted it in Miami at the end of last year, it got commissioned at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, and it is coming to Somerset House in London in November. Another example is Jenny Holzer, just two weeks ago.

I’m from Chicago, the land of Black Panthers, real social consciousness. And on the back of Off-White™ jackets is the word ‘white’, just like ‘Pyrex’ – another five-letter word in the same font. I use this word ‘white’ and you apply an opinion on a colour. The word ‘white’ in black or in red, like a Jasper Johns painting that says different words in colours. I put that onto clothing. My whole thing is very much about urban credibility. I work with people I can share with my generation. It’s an access point for a young kid to get to know who Jenny Holzer is because the art world is so far off in the distance and protected from them. I sent a message to Jenny Holzer; she already knew Off-White™ and we connected and worked for three months on a collection. When I post about Jenny Holzer, I know that there will be kids who are Googling like crazy and can now use her as part of their vocabulary. What’s happened with social media is that we’ve all become one. So I can go to Japan and see a kid who looks like my friend from New York, because they’re fans of each other and they’re sharing in distinct ways. That’s the power of social media.

What’s next?

I got an email from Michael Darling, the curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There’s going to be an exhibition about my role in the cultural importance of young people. There are not many people who leave a trail of projects in different spheres, so between art, music, fashion, culture, I have 14 years of provocative work. That’ll be in 2019 at the MCA.

Like a retrospective exhibition?

Not quite. There’s new work. It’s 14 years with Kanye West, leading projects, working on nuances with many artists, and my own projects that have never been shown. It’s all one evolving idea and I use a train of projects to refine one idea. You know, I realized that an architect has no relation to the cultural kids who are musicians and actors, the people who are provocatively involved with culture. So I decided to start a fashion label and pour it all in. When I build stores, I’m actually building them in a certain postmodern way. I have this theory that no two stores should be alike – the opposite of Starbucks and McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton where you walk in and everything is the same. The first part of the first store I designed in Hong Kong, on Causeway Bay, is natural, all green, and when you walk in, it rains. It’s a symbol that clothes can be worn; they are not these precious items. And at the back is stone from a quarry. The architecture stuff just falls in like that. Same with music – I work with music acts and do clothes for them. All the way to Jenny Holzer two weeks ago. It all fits in with my halo of having a fashion brand.

Fashion is acting as a gateway to everything else you do?

Yes, which is how we get to my latest work with IKEA. IKEA works with a limited group of collaborators and now they are realizing that they are such a big business, they want to do special projects. Marcus [Engman] is the creative director of the whole thing and he approached me. He asked what I wanted to work on and I said I want to work on the millennial’s first apartment. This is the post-Tumblr generation – we take multiple images and put them on a social-media platform and that exudes what our tastes are. So who is designing physical objects for the generation that has an aesthetic value, that understands what art is? I am really fortunate to be able to travel to very wealthy people’s places, people who live with a museum-quality art collection, but I also have friends whose first apartment purchases are chairs from IKEA. I was at the home of a friend’s friend in Mexico City and they opened the doors and there was a Sterling Ruby, there was a Jeff Koons, and this is someone’s house. I walk in and there’s that feeling of being able to walk in your socks to go get a bowl of cereal, while living with this art. And I thought: this is what this IKEA project is going to allow me to do, to transfer this sensibility to a generation that wants it. So that is what I am doing. I’ve written this 80-page book about the project. As you can imagine, I’m really long-winded about it. It’s still only halfway done in my own head.

I had photos of a prototypical rich person’s place and I made it like a catalogue, like how IKEA places the dollar amount next to items. There’s this chair that’s worth $60,000, but was originally designed for schools and wouldn’t have cost anything before. I always start with a very true understanding of why something is important, like the cultural wash of that chair. And then I usually come up with something that’s easy to follow with an interesting twist.

‘Your parents’ generation owned one jacket. This generation has 12 hoodies, 12 T-shirts; they’re buying clothes like it’s a sport and they’re reselling them.’

Virgil Abloh

I’ve heard that not only artistically but also economically you revolutionized the fashion world.

Luxury fashion worked in a certain way. Like, ‘Here, we’re going to sell you this dream’. Like the de Beers ad and aspirational clothing. You see it and you want to be that. Your parents’ generation only owned one jacket, one outfit. This generation has 12 hoodies, 12 T-shirts; they’re buying clothes like it’s a sport and they’re reselling them. Zara and H&M are making money by doing derivative fashion. So I wanted to make clothes for a luxury price point that have the spirit of young clothing, streetwear. And then I made a distribution model. I own the brand 100% myself, so I didn’t have to give away anything to get what I want. And I said that I want to be in every store that Margiela, Prada, etc. are sold at. There are 260 men’s stores, 250 women’s stores, and so then the younger customer goes to the store. My economic growth is now at a level that proves my premise. When I’m thinking about this IKEA project, it’s so vast; it’s more architecture than architecture to me. I’ve landed at a seminal project about designing objects in an era when millennials want a lower price, and IKEA’s built its whole business on providing higher design and global accessibility. One of the pillars of my work is releasing work in progress. I want these interviews that we’re doing together to be a sort of published research, a manifesto. The design process is going to come after this conversation. In 30 years, you are going to be able to draw from this project. That is what motivated me to do this. Think about the readers of this content who want to understand their times, in retrospect.

Part Two
Empty Gallery, New York
July 28th, 2017

I am opening a retail store here in August. The first Off-White™ retail store, on Mercer Street. Art direction for me starts as a series of questions. As a new, young brand that’s challenging luxury, I said, ‘Is it cool to have a store?’ The answer is no. Stores in 2017 for a brand are a little braggadocious. People can go online and buy things. Customers can choose digitally.

So it is unnecessary to have a store?

Yes. So I’m opening a gallery; it is called Empty Gallery.

So it is not a store, it’s a gallery?

Branded LLC through and through, but it’s not an Off-White™ store. I found this space on Mercer with a burned-out second floor, so it’s double-height, and then I made the whole thing into a white-cube gallery. A garage door opens at the front. It is activated by curating an artist. First put the artwork in the space and then the retail comes in second, so there is a hierarchy. I did a street survey and was informed by the shopping culture, the walking nature of this area. You can walk by a retail store, but if it stays the same for 10 years, why would you ever go in? For me, my brand is digital; it came from Instagram. People know the brand through images, but they never see the clothes, so I am giving them some experience of the store. There is sound design, there is art direction, and I did the first installation myself.

And what about the clothes?

The clothes are there, but they are secondary. I have designed the fixtures in a certain way and the merchandising in a certain way. You are walking into a world that happens to have clothes in it.

It’s the first non-store store. It opens tomorrow? I’m in LA.

I’m in Montauk. I’m not even here for the opening. I am here working on that and a few other projects and meetings of that nature. There is a lot of energy in this city at this moment.

You feel there is a lot of energy here right now?

Yes, there is. A lot of the creative young force that made New York City moved to LA, so this city is dealing with a creative drought, but there are creatives who have hunkered down and now it’s the real ones left. After the hype that drew everyone to LA, there are interesting things happening here.

You find it revived?

It is sifted. You sift it away and find the core of creatives that is interested in the 2.0, the after-effect of youth culture. Everyone young is an artist, designer, creative director. What you have now is a generation like myself, age 37. I’ve been learning and working through my teenage years and 20s, and now I am in my 30s applying these ideas in new ways.

You’ve maintained your base in Chicago. Is that a conscious decision?

It is super conscious. When you live in a city like Chicago, you’re ‘out of the mix’. There is a natural cadence in New York or LA, so there is a reality check when you go home. Travel allows me to consciously compare and contrast. I can see the differences between a European train of thought of a 25-year-old to that of a 14-year-old in New York City. They are starting to analyse the world around them, and my creative process is super-reactive. Like when I went to the Serpentine and I saw Arthur Jafa, it immediately triggered a train of thought. That’s where I find the value in great work; I just loved how he was able to articulate his ideas.

You should do a T-shirt collaboration with Arthur Jafa.

I would love that. I think there is a clear synergy between what is happening in respective spaces. These little remnants offered to the public are like entry points to that dialogue. I love how the Serpentine is embracing a particular genre of art, giving a voice to stories that are happening now. His work is ultra-relevant.

Are the glasses another of your many collaborations?

Yes, with Warby Parker. I work in a collaborative tornado every day. Warby Parker disrupted the market place and basically threatened Luxottica by offering prescription eyewear online for $95. I over-intellectualize and I design fashion in an architectural way, so when asked to do a collaboration, it was more me asking a client what they need and then offering my opinion. I often think democratically. In this case: ‘How do you design one pair of glasses?’ Not for one person but across the set. That is how you can influence mass change. There is a new trend in eyewear that’s a bit more 1990s, glasses with really small lenses. But then there is also a presiding trend. So I designed one frame and then I shrank it by 50% and increased it by 150%. It is one frame in three sizes: large, small and medium. Everyone can find a shape that suits them, but it is only one frame. To me, it is all about ideas. The diagonal lines are the language of the brand, like my monogram, before Louis Vuitton or Gucci. It is derivative. It’s a pattern.

‘People have too many clothes, so why make more clothes? My clothes are ironic. They are designed to make people question what else is in their closet.’

Virgil Abloh

So diagonal lines are your monogram?

Yes, exactly. Which is so generic, and I use punctuation a lot as well, as a branding tool. My idea is to embrace generic-ness. I have this theory on anonymity, too. Anonymous design, which you get in furniture a lot. The presiding thing with youth now is normcore.

You know normcore was coined in a lecture at the Serpentine?

That is the presiding mood of young people, of my generation. This idea that generic is the new cool. Anonymous is fine. And I have drawn parallels with my work, my furniture. If it looks like design, then it must be design. In fashion, a trend becomes so ubiquitous that it is easy to duplicate and people do it more for that reason than for aesthetics. I like finding ideas under that camouflage of anonymity. I use fashion as a tool to communicate. We are now such a visual society. We consume images.

Is your store already on Instagram?

You know, that’s funny. It is not. I have deliberately made the choice to let the organic process of discovery happen. So I DJed last night and I used my set like a sonar. I did an experiment and DJed for six hours straight in Brooklyn with a Funktion-One sound system, no cameras allowed. I did a marathon set just to get a litmus test of where music is at right now. It was a way of thinking.

What kind of music do you play when you DJ?

I play 80 percent contemporary music that they think I am going to play. The remaining 20 percent is songs that they forgot they loved, to awaken their minds. A rock’n’roll song that you might not know the name of, but you know the lyrics. You constantly have to reawaken people. You play that one chord no one is expecting to hear and then everyone is engaged.

What kind of music is it?

I play techno, hip-hop, rock’n’roll, soul. It puts my brain on display. It is as eclectic as I feel, as I am, as I work with art or fashion. I’ve started working on a super-large-scale sculpture for my Museum of Contemporary Art show. It will be one of the first times that people see my artwork. I am doing a one-to-one scale sculpture of a Concorde airplane made of cardboard boxes. It’s essentially a paper plane. I was at structural-engineering school when 9/11 happened. I saw a plane in a building in my brain, in a class that was studying how buildings fall down. This sculpture will travel the world, but will always be intercepted with buildings. It will be made out of ready-made boxes. And there’s the idea that commercial people used to be able to break the sound barrier. Another project is for Nike, which has given me 10 shoes to redesign. It’s a design project, not a fashion project. I’m reimagining 10 icons in Nike’s portfolio across their different brands.

They have given you famous shoes.

Famous shoes that I have reworked. The oldest Nike technology, crashed together like a collage. I love showing the process. This is unstitched, this is raw edged… To show that there is human interaction, that these things don’t come from a factory, that there’s handwork, mixing arts and crafts with industrialism.

There is always an underlying voice in my work, with a little humour or irony. A human connection. I use texts on the inside of the shoes. The writing that you can see on the shoes is my handwriting attempting to be Helvetica. I like Helvetica. It’s the most generic font there is. It keeps an even keel. It is of no import. I have adapted it so it is my own.

What other sculptures have you done?

Lots of furniture work, so you’re not sure if it’s a chair or a sculpture. That’s in the IKEA work, too. I designed and made an armchair myself, building upon things to bring them to a new generation.

Like with Superstudio.

Yes. This is my DNA. Five years of practical work and no aesthetic training and then three years of architecture, which is all aesthetics based on the practical, so my brain is equally split. I can think of structure and have an aesthetic. I can slide the scale between them. Add in my theoretical analysis and I can propose new ideas that are provocative. One major thread that runs through my DNA is that I like using ready-made things. That is a tool to evoke instant emotion. Like with the music, when I play songs that are in the backs of people’s heads. I use diagonal lines on the street as a pattern. But I am branding.

On my Instagram, I often use quote marks or trademark symbols. I look at those as graphics.

Do you have a definition of design?

Do you know Bob Gill, the graphic artist? I just discovered him last week. He is like: ‘Forget all the rules you learned about graphic design, including the ones in this book.’ Very provocative, the idea of evoking emotion and taking people on a new journey. At the root of my definition of design is having an intention. There are enough things in the world. Remember when recycling began? That way of thinking triggered how we are today. This whole health thing, too. These parallels exist in my design. How much is too much? People have too many clothes, so why make more clothes? My clothes are ironic. They are designed to make people question what else is in their closet. You should only buy something new if it is different. But then they’re my vehicle, too. When I looked at Arthur Jafa’s work, the first piece with the black Confederate flag and the black American flag blew my mind. The medium is there to talk about race. Thinking of my T-shirts as works of art, I built a brand around a word related to race, and people can swallow the pill because it’s on a T-shirt. The graphic says ‘white’, but the brain says something else. The colour white isn’t opinionated. It’s a colour, but it is layered. It’s also generic. I look at clothing as a canvas before I look at it as fashion.

Taken from System No. 10.