What is Virgil Abloh?

Photographs by Juergen Teller

What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine

What everyone really thinks of the Off-White™ founder, the serial collaborator, the man who lives in ironic quote marks, and who has become fashion’s hottest property.

‘I see Virgil Abloh and his Off-White™ concept as an encapsulation of this very particular moment in time, where luxury fashion and popular culture are colliding, fuelled by the power and influence of social media and the new “fashion establishment” it has created. He represents – in its purest form – the fashion populism that will certainly be remembered as a defining characteristic of this era in fashion. Given his serially creative mind, it will be interesting to see what comes next after Off-White™.’
Marco Bizzarri, chief executive officer, Gucci

‘We stock Off-White™. Right now, there’s a whole group of millennials who really respond to what he’s doing and really engage with it. I think he’s a really clever social anthropologist, and he’s observing through images on Instagram, through music, and all kinds of different media, what that generation really wants. I first heard about Virgil through my children before hearing about him in the industry, but in the industry, he has a reputation as being a very, very nice guy. That’s the consensus. I think fashion is changing so much, and the industry and what Virgil’s doing now is a different thing entirely. It might not be fashion in the traditional sense, but it’s disruptive. His success is saying, “You might have the snobbery to say that I didn’t go to fashion school, and I don’t know how to cut a dress on the bias, but so what?” People want his things, and they’re good and they’re well made, and he has a following that proves that.’
Ruth Chapman, co-founder, Matchesfashion

‘He tapped into a movement where our product is becoming more about the convergence of music, art, design and technology. He designs by experimenting.’
Daniella Vitale, chief executive officer & president, Barneys New York

‘Virgil has been able to captivate, evolve and in turn, create his own unique movement that appeals and resonates so strongly with the youth audience today. This is made all the more powerful through the fact that he engages this audience in a humble, courteous and truly inclusive way.’
Dickon Bowden, vice president, Dover Street Market

‘Virgil’s the perfect Renaissance man. He’s stimulated by the world and the world is stimulated by him.’

Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief, British Vogue
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine
What is Virgil Abloh? - © System Magazine

‘Anna and I have come to know and love Virgil – he has a respectful but enquiring mind that questions all boundaries and a spirit that ultimately transcends them. He is a force of nature, fast-tracking the evolution of mass culture.’
Peter Saville, graphic designer, and Anna Blessmann, artist

‘According to all the retailers I speak with, Off-White™ is one of the top-selling brands. And according to our quarterly analysis with Lyst, it’s now the third hottest fashion brand in the world, behind Balenciaga and Gucci. Not bad for a guy who many people dismissed at the start.’
Imran Amed, editor and founder, The Business of Fashion

‘Virgil Abloh has definitely worked to revolutionize high fashion through his fluid merge of streetwear and couture. His focus on detail and structure sets him apart unequivocally.’
Selah Marley, model

‘Virgil is the perfect Renaissance man. He is stimulated by the world and the world is in turn stimulated by him.’
Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief, British Vogue

‘Mr. Abloh represents to me everything that is wrong about the fashion system right now: excess of communication, abundance of needless hype, lack of true innovation, paucity of design. He is the smartest of communicators, for sure. Abloh has convinced everybody that he is the pinnacle of cool and a new breed of conceptual designer, and everybody believes so. The fact is, though, that he communicates nothing: the clothing he designs is average, evolved streetwear with some styling trick to make it look conceptual. Everything seems to me just like a pose, and heavily derivative of what Comme, Yohji and the like have already done way better over the years. Abloh has suave manners, and appears to be a nice person, if a bit too keen on self-promotion. I’ll be convinced of his talent when he truly delivers something original. He hasn’t yet. For the moment, it’s just blah-blah.’
Angelo Flaccavento, fashion writer

‘He’s definitely getting under the fashion industry’s skin and that isn’t necessarily comfortable for either party – but it suggests he’s onto something. Even if you think all he does is take what’s already out there, and slap a higher price tag on it, it’s hard to argue that his questioning of what fashion and luxury are, and whether or not they’re relevant, isn’t healthy. As for his Princess Di collection, I think a lot of people assumed it was tongue in cheek, but it was sincerely meant. To me, that was both intriguing and unexpected. He’s an interesting voice to have around.’
Lisa Armstrong, fashion director, The Daily Telegraph

‘When I watch Virgil DJing, I’m struck by his messianic relationship with his fans. They follow his fashion with the same intensity. But I think it’s much more about him than anything he actually makes. Like he was someone they were all waiting for. Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Colour me bemused.’
Tim Blanks, editor at large, The Business of Fashion

‘I’ve known Virgil since his very first T-shirt line, before Off-White™ or Pyrex 23. He has always remained the same throughout: so open to anything and everything that it can blow your mind! How many people have told me recently they’re working on a collaboration with Virgil – it’s amazing, inspiring, and hilarious! I think Virgil just says yes to any kind of project and he’s absolutely right! They’re all treated as a new experience.’
Sarah Andelman, co-founder, colette

‘I think Virgil is good for fashion – he has paved a road for black garment makers, as well as an avenue for glamour to be seen in street-smart clothing. He draws and creates parallels between luxury to street – they can become one and can become even.’
Matt Holmes, stylist

‘He combines all of the phenomena of the moment in a really smart way – social media, Instagram, street style. He’s a real street stylist, but not in the fashion sense, with perfect images taken outside shows – the real street. His way is definitely the future, combining all those phenomena that we’ll all sooner or later have to work with and identify. The designs are also great. I understand that he’s criticised, but it’s a very challenging platform for criticism when you’re working from the street and social media. And showing in Paris, the most critical platform. He’s collaborative though, and the way he collaborates is interesting because he works with the people who inspire him. The packaging, the graphics and designs are truly a successful mix.’
Gaia Repossi, creative director, Repossi

‘Mr. Abloh represents to me everything that is wrong about the fashion system right now.’

Angelo Flaccavento, fashion writer

‘Virgil Abloh is a true visionary. His understanding of the creative process and its value, juxtaposed with his understanding and appreciation for the business as it exists now and in the future, makes him a leader in design and more importantly in cultural progression.’
Kyle Hagler, president, Next Models

‘From what I know of Virgil, he is someone who has been able to maintain his humanity while becoming larger than life. To me, he is a very kind man.’
Melissa Collett, creative director, WORME

‘I met Virgil though Kanye West when he was starting Pyrex 23, before Off-White™, and I have been following his work ever since. I am a great supporter and huge fan of his. In my opinion, he is not only reinterpreting fashion but also culture, by making them both accessible and consumable by millennials. His success is built on his understanding of the Instagram era and his ability to take risks with his creativity and communications. The fact that world-renowned brands like IKEA and Nike, known as averse to collaborating in fashion, have asked him to design for them, shows the impact he has had on youth culture.’
Alexandre Arnault, co-chief executive of Rimowa

‘I spoke with Virgil at the Barbican for a Nike workshop, and it came to the question of whether his work is “streetwear” or fashion. I come from a “streetwear” background, and what was true of it in the beginning is true of it now: it is about looking at culture and bringing it into product in a more obvious way, to a point. When people say Off-White™ is a streetwear label and it’s not “fashion” in the traditional sense, I think it’s strange. Look at the luxury brands showing today, they do streetwear collections. When it comes to being connected to culture and youth right now, I don’t think there’s anyone else who comes out on top, not in fashion. The big thing about Virgil is that everywhere he goes, he’s talking to youth. He says I want to give you cheat codes; I want you to access my world; I want you to get into Nate’s world, and I want you to ask the hard questions, so we can help you get into it. There’s something extremely open and engaging about the way he communicates. Virgil is the type of person who would visit the Nike Campus and easily pick up a conversation with an intern and the next minute converse with CEO Mark Parker.’
Nathan Jobe, senior creative director, Nike

‘Virgil Abloh catalyses and defines today’s society. He is creative in a relevant manner and inclusive, and that’s the reason for his continual success. His creative mind is much broader than fashion; he is a global creative leader.’
Floriane de Saint Pierre, founder and president of headhunting agency Floriane de Saint Pierre et Associés

‘Simple: Virgil is a man of many talents. He’s proved that by touching and engaging with so many areas inside and outside of the fashion world. Sure, the fashion design isn’t challenging, but Virgil’s mind for brand expansion, with furniture and shoe – and more – collaborations in such a short space of time is enough to say that Virgil is a creative to get to know. Join in or get left behind.’
Rhea Dillon, AAMO Casting

‘Virgil is one of the few fashion stars to arrive in today’s convergence of pop culture, music, fashion, street style and social media. His unique graphic vocabulary coupled with a fresh sensibility for a new generation makes him one of the most important people to watch.’
John Demsey, executive group president, The Estée Lauder Companies Inc.

‘Virgil Abloh is today’s equivalent of a Renaissance man: a designer, an architect, a DJ, a civil engineer. He is the champion of a social phenomenon, a generational shift, which I can identify in so many people around his age. For example, my eldest daughter is 23 and when she finished university, she opted out of a typical day job to be a designer/curator/model/blogger/marketer; and she accomplished all of them in her latest project. The point is that this is a generation uninterested in being “defined” by any one thing, or brand or idea. The path now, especially for creative people, is not singular and linear; it’s multiple and parallel. A photographer is a director is a platform is an art director. In fact, at Art Partner, we stopped trying to label talent several years ago, we simply call them “artists”; and they need to be able to express themselves in different platforms, different mediums. I find Abloh and his generation absolutely inspiring, a much-welcome change after years on end where things were so uniform and predictable.’
Giovanni Testino, founder, Art Partner

‘According to our quarterly analysis, Off-White™ is now the third hottest fashion brand in the world.’

Imran Amed, founder, The Business of Fashion

‘To create something relevant, you need to look around you. You need to be open and curious – on a small scale, as well as a big one. I think that’s Virgil. It makes sense that he studied architecture. He managed to translate his eye for architecture and art with dexterity and precision into fashion. I think he’s super relevant.’
Paul Hameline, model

‘Virgil has been a friend of The Webster since day one, way before launching his own line! We saw his vision evolve through the years, keeping a very strong DNA, while he has remained exactly the same: an extremely polite, nice and gentle man. I first met Virgil with Kanye in Miami; we became friends and next thing you know, I was in his first “showroom” in his small room at Hotel Americano in New York. Today, it’s a full success story, and there is no age or style limit for his clients. Instagram is still an amazing strength for him and his ability to create “movements” and “things” – such as his “quotes” – is really impressive. We love him and everything he does!’
Laure Hériard Dubreuil, founder and president, The Webster

‘I was a vocal Virgil Abloh/Off-White™ sceptic at the outset because of his penchant for copying others, namely Raf Simons. However, since then, I’ve become quite taken with Abloh’s work and his approach. While so much of the fashion industry appears to be on a fixed path, Off-White™ feels as if it’s working from a different vantage point, with a different roadmap. It doesn’t hurt to be more egalitarian in 2017, and the fashion industry has very high barriers to entry. Abloh has functioned as proof that there are other ways to enter, giving young people hope. It’s his brand-building ability, and his ability to understand and resonate with youth (not because he is “tapped in” but because he is actually guiding it in ways) that I think will take him far, and likely land him at the helm of an established fashion house. It’s just a matter of when and which house, rather than if.’
Julie Zerbo, legal consultant and founder, The Fashion Law

‘I think Virgil is ahead of most of us. His talents spread wide and he somehow remains one of the most grounded, kindest people I know. He is in 300 places at once, and because of it he’s able to experience time in such a different way. I am super proud of him, in all the years we’ve been friends he’s deserved everything that’s come his way. He’s a visionary of our generation, and the craziest part is he’s just beginning.’
Bibi Cornejo Borthwick, photographer

‘I like the speed of it all and Virgil’s is a rapid rise. Fashion is so quick now that much of it is about communication. That is why fashion and Instagram are so well-suited of course. Virgil makes clothes that are communication. Obviously, he writes on shirts and shoes, but it is not just that. The products say what he means and then, when worn, say what the wearer wants to say. Vetements and Palace are the same in their own way. Including Off-White™, all three have happened so fast because they communicate directly with their fans and customers. They are on a spin cycle, more frequent than fashion weeks and ahead of advertising.’
David Owen, director, IDEA Books

‘I really like Virgil. I think he’s trying to do something pertinent. Any effort, not least as pointed as his, deserves credit. Chapeau.’
Marc Newson, industrial designer

‘I’ve never met Virgil, but my colleague says he has amazing taste in hand creams and that he’s a good DJ. I think getting people to dance is a fantastic skill. To get a whole room to jump around by means of great music is what I dream of at night. As a fashion creator, Virgil clearly gives people the assets to stand out, to be extravagant to their liking, which I find a beautiful thing, too. Spotting a stranger on the street wearing something that is diagonally striped and/or bears the name Off-White™ in bold type always delights me. (I’m yet to come around to the quote marks thing, though.) Virgil appeared in the most recent issue of Fantastic Man. I like his honesty. Wherever and whenever he speaks, he’s always delightfully open about his plans, ambitions and agenda. If only more people were like that. He’s also a master of branding, not just for himself, but also in terms of a “project” such as his label. I’m sure he could be just that for the big company or “house” that he sees himself running at some point in time. Two geniuses he reminds me of are Jeremy Scott and Karl Lagerfeld; they’re all incredible aggregators.’
Gert Jonkers, editor-in-chief, Fantastic Man

‘I really like Virgil. I think he’s trying to do something pertinent. Chapeau.’

Marc Newson, industrial designer

‘I met Virgil in Paris about four years ago. He comes across as slightly goofy, very innocent and the kind of person who is a genuine fan of fashion with a vision that sees the system differently. All of this coupled with the way that he presents himself to the world – boldly and exacting by way of his wares – indicated to me that he had something. Off-White™ is an interesting case study in how designers can see success amid the escalating and consistently tumultuous landscape that is inciting fear, not motivation, among many of today’s most prolific labels. And what I find most refreshing is how simple he makes it seem.’
Leandra Medine, founder and writer, Man Repeller

‘I stopped trying to work out if Virgil Abloh was a “good” designer a long time ago. I don’t think it matters – the impactfulness of what he does is more relevant and interesting than how well-crafted or executed it is. His recent collaboration with Nike is one of the most intriguing collaborations of the past year. In the workshops he hosted in New York and London – at which aspiring young Hypebeasts could sit in on talks about DJing with Benji B, design their own sneakers with Michèle Lamy, or create graphic T-shirts with Heron Preston – you could see that Virgil is really pushing the envelope when it comes to populist design. He’s integral to traditional hierarchies being dismantled; it’s becoming increasingly hard to distinguish between “streetwear” and the work of many luxury houses. But there are elements to Abloh’s work that feel rushed. Often it feels as if he applies the immediacy of printing an idea onto a blank T-shirt to his “luxury” ready-to-wear. There’s a sense that some of the references he has incorporated are things he’s just learned of, or hasn’t fully understood. Take his recent womenswear collection, inspired by Princess Diana, and The Sun bag in particular, for example. While I appreciate what he was trying to do – and the fact that he is not British, so probably unaware of what that newspaper stands for – it was indicative of the drawbacks of his process. In the past, he has spoken about “freedom” and “empowerment” in womenswear, but he then included the logo of one of the UK’s most misogynistic newspapers, which persisted with some form of its “Page 3” feature – a hackneyed, outdated reduction of women to a pair of tits – until March this year. That was clumsy and ill-considered.’
Calum Gordon, fashion writer and author of Contemporary Menswear

‘To me, Virgil’s success glows from his talent for being curious. Any time I’ve hung out with him, I’ve noted how intriguing and inspiring he finds the smallest idea – and just how quickly he’s able to process it into a vision greater than the original or keep it true to where it began while adding the smallest amount of vision to renew it. From that I take a lesson that anything is possible if you really look at whatever you set your mind on. Everything I’ve seen him do since we became friends has been true to his DNA as an artist.’
Dexter Navy, filmmaker & photographer

‘I like Virgil.’
Tom Sachs, artist

‘What he’s doing reminds me a little bit of what Andy Warhol did by commodifying art.’
Emily Weiss, founder & CEO, Into The Gloss and Glossier

‘I think that Virgil is a wonderful thinker. He is a little bit of a Jeff Koons of the fashion world. I find his approach to fashion and clothes as objects interesting in the fact that their value is determined by their context. The idea of appropriation, and the acceptance of an object like a sweater being a sweater, but transformed by the other references you bring to it. There’s an idea of bringing the discourse of appropriation into the fashion conversation. I think that’s what has captured my interest. I find his theory interesting. It’s not really about designing, but it’s not about styling either – the two big schools of fashion design that we seem to have today. It’s about neither. I think he approaches fashion as a series of projects; he’s very active, collaborative and inclusive with his approach.’
Stefano Tonchi, editor, W

‘I’ve never met Virgil, but my colleague says he has amazing taste in hand creams, and is a good DJ.’

Gert Jonkers, editor-in-chief, Fantastic Man

‘I think Virgil represents a phenomenon. The way he works is completely new; it’s the future. Russian kids are crazy about him, too – 13-year-old kids go wild for his work here.’
Alla Verbel, vice president, TSUM department store, Moscow

‘Virgil is for me the perfect expression of what contemporary designers have become, or should become in order to adapt to a system that has profoundly changed: he is a veritable multitasker and a communicator for whom clothes are just part of a wider job. Virgil travels easily, with a natural proclivity for invariably hitting the right spot, across disciplines and countries. He is an authentic globetrotter, spending an incredible amount of time en route to somewhere. By living like this, he gets to know things, and to experience them for real, which has an effect on his oeuvre. He knows people, knows what’s cool everywhere and is able to translate it into a personal idea of fashion as communication. I think he is a master of the virtual, who does things for real. He has another quality that’s instrumental to all of this: he can literally talk anyone into bringing a project to life.’
Karla Otto, founder of Karla Otto PR

‘Virgil is smart and aware and calm. I’m glad I met him. I want to watch what he does. Can he be president now?’
Jenny Holzer, artist

‘While everyone else is in the business of saying no and being extremely controlling about their brands, Virgil is having a good time and doing it all. Not only is he talented, but he’s charming, unique and beloved by everyone. There hasn’t been a vacant or soon-to-be-vacant opening that someone hasn’t said, “I’ve heard that Virgil is up for that job”, including Givenchy, Versace, and ones I can’t name at the moment. In fact, someone even jokingly suggested him for the editor of Vanity Fair. I’ve certainly heard crazier ideas. Fashion folks tend to revel in misery and Virgil seems to be doing the opposite; we should all take note.’
Michael Carl, fashion director, Vanity Fair

Taken from System No. 10.