Virgil Abloh and Daniel Lee

In early April, we sent the following request to a broad range of fashion designers.

Given the current situation, we would like System’s next issue to focus on long-form interviews led by designers – conversations recorded via video conferencing.

Now feels like a particularly relevant moment to focus on designers, as the industry looks to you to lead fashion towards the future, to capture the moment, and, perhaps above all, to enable us to dream.

What would you talk about? It’s not for us to dictate this, because we feel the project could have an inherent Warholian quality – anything that you say becomes valid when placed in the time-capsule context of this document
of the moment.

Many wrote back, saying they’d like to use the opportunity to connect with a friend, a colleague, a confidant, a hero, or another designer.

We’re extremely grateful that they did. And the least we could do to return the gesture is give each their own System cover.

Photographs by Juergen Teller
Creative partner, Dovile Drizyte

What do we talk about? Virgil Abloh and Daniel Lee - © System Magazine

In early April, we sent the following request to a broad range of fashion designers.

Given the current situation, we would like System’s next issue to focus on long-form interviews led by designers – conversations recorded via video conferencing.

Now feels like a particularly relevant moment to focus on designers, as the industry looks to you to lead fashion towards the future, to capture the moment, and, perhaps above all, to enable us to dream.

What would you talk about? It’s not for us to dictate this, because we feel the project could have an inherent Warholian quality – anything that you say becomes valid when placed in the time-capsule context of this document
of the moment.

Many wrote back, saying they’d like to use the opportunity to connect with a friend, a colleague, a confidant, a hero, or another designer.

We’re extremely grateful that they did. And the least we could do to return the gesture is give each their own System cover.

‘You and I are polar opposites,
but we are both balancing
the ecosystem, right?’

Virgil Abloh and Daniel Lee
in conversation, 28 April 2020.
Moderated by Jonathan Wingfield.

Virgil Abloh: Daniel, how’s it going?

Daniel Lee: Good. I’m in Milan. I came back here a couple of weeks ago from London because we started to open things up a bit here. What about you, Virgil?

Virgil: At home in Chicago. I’m enjoying the slower pace.

Daniel: This must be the longest you’ve not been in an airplane in a while.

Virgil: [Laughs] For sure. Are your factories open yet?

Daniel: Some are opening slowly.

Virgil: Same here, as of this and next week, things are starting to creep open, head offices are opening, which is a sign. I’m always an optimist, so I was looking at the upside of things and it is like, hey, you know, I just finished my last set of shows, so it has worked out to be a well-timed break.

Daniel: Same for me, because we don’t work very far in advance and I am definitely a last-minute kind of person. March, for us, is the quietest month of the year. We used to look at a three-month period for the next collection, so for us this has happened at a time that’s more-or-less manageable. But it is certainly strange staying in one place for so long; I haven’t done this since I was at university.

Jonathan Wingfield: What percentage of time are you both giving to working on fashion?

Daniel: It’s hard to say because I’ve never considered this a nine-to-five job. It’s so ingrained in what I do. Even a conversation with my friends could be related to fashion. It’s something I think about a huge percentage of the time and that hasn’t changed. I am trying to keep a sense of routine, though. Exercise is important, and my mind has definitely not stopped. I’m just not someone who tends to sit around.

Virgil: At the moment, sitting with a blank piece of paper and sketching to symphony music feels ideal, like, ‘Oh, we have all this time off and I can sit and just dream up ideas.’

Daniel: That’s the ideal, right? In our kind of companies, we really are creative led. I started at Bottega, not even two years ago and in that time the creatives and the designers have really advanced, but what has been great about this situation has been having the time to consider other elements of the business: the architecture, merchandising and marketing departments, and then really working together with those people. I don’t know how you feel, but there are certain elements of the job – communications is one – that feel entirely possible to do from distance. Whereas design can be a bit more challenging.

Virgil: Another thing I’m trying to do is keep the camaraderie and the excitement up. For my design teams, for example, their lifestyles have been turned upside down and even though we’re not making collections and the factories are closed, I have been trying to keep the creative spark alive. It has been more conversational; we’ve been reflecting on how the world has been affected by the situation. That’s the inspiration for the design of future collections, rather than picking up fabrics and draping them – stuff we can’t actually do right now. Our segment of the fashion ecosystem, especially, we are the younger end of the group, so we have to translate this whole mood shift into runway shows, campaigns and marketing meetings.

Daniel: I often talk about enjoying the physical act of designing, of being in a room full of people and the stimulus that comes from those conversations. They are an emotional process; they’re like a chain reaction, and I certainly miss that.

Virgil: I agree. I just had a call with my team this morning about marketing the collection. That team is detached from my studio and they are asking, ‘When are we going to get a chance to start planning again?’ and I’m like, ‘We haven’t had a chance to make the magic yet.’ It’s what you’re saying Daniel, we’ve lost that kind of ‘coincidence’, someone making something and you seeing it and saying, ‘Oh, what if we did that?’ That’s what has been lost by working as satellites: actually sitting in a room and someone suggesting something – that is where the magic comes from. I have been creating, but without the magic of coincidence.

Daniel: So much comes from happy accidents; they lead to so many things you never thought would happen. You always start a collection with an intention, but it is all about good instinct. It’s a journey that you cannot predict.

‘It’s like being back at university, working in your bedroom on your collection. It feels youthful, in an anti-corporate and back-to-basics kind of way.’

Jonathan: As we gradually emerge from this period and resume normal practices, do you think your impulse will be to dive into escapism and fantasy or will you want to double-down on realism and document what is going on?

Virgil: That is probably the most important question of our jobs today. I often bring up how the grocery stores just seemingly shifted. I was a vain shopper: super healthy and conscious, juicing, eating only organic, going to WholeFoods, which is a big thing in America. We looked at shopping as an extension of fashion in a way, but now these places have become depots, more utilitarian than purely lifestyle or even desirable. Sitting at home I’m trying to think about how fashion works for the consumer right now. The person buying a garment will probably be wearing the same clothes for a number of days; they don’t have a restaurant or a nightclub to go to; they don’t have an event to dress for. So I am more trying to dial into that reality. It’s obviously a socially conscious environment now, and people are way more thoughtful. So if I am going to do a new proposition for clothing, if I am going to add a new shoe, handbag or jacket, right now I’m thinking, does that even need to exist?

Daniel: I just want to continue in the same way we have for the past two years at Bottega; it’s not the time to change direction. I think a lot about the role of
fashion and it comes back to this idea of dreams and bringing joy. Creativity really does have its place: reading books, watching films. In a moment like this, we lean on creativity for some direction.

Jonathan: Should the next collections you guys do, and the accompanying imagery you will be overseeing, have a palpable sense of what has been going on? How might this impact what a collection will look like in the future?

Daniel: I don’t feel that I am a particularly political designer. I’m not outwardly talking about environmental issues, but it is a responsibility that we have and there has to be an acknowledgment of what the world is going through. I realize that my reality isn’t the same for everyone. My sister works in a hospital emergency room and they have all had the virus. We have to acknowledge that as an industry we need to be more mindful and more responsible.

Virgil: I agree. Our role collectively is to record the times and we naturally do that with the the clothes and runway shows and that is what makes us excel at our position. People are adopting a new stance that they didn’t have before, which I think is smart. We have to be thoughtful and true to whichever house we are in and show how that can bend to address the here and now. I don’t think in absolutes; it is always better to compromise and to sit 50-50 between the mood of the times and the body of work that we’ve been creating since we didn’t know we were making fashion. That makes it an honest approach.

Jonathan: As creative directors of houses with significant resources and staff, do you feel a sense of responsibility towards those people, to keep them in
some way engaged with the whole process of generating ideas and the magic coming out of the houses you work for?

Daniel: Absolutely. There are many people who moved to Milan for Bottega and for me, and I am very conscious of that. We speak a few times a week to make sure everyone is OK and feeling good, and certainly our role is to inspire and to lead these people through these times.

Virgil: I’ve been trying to make the studio atmosphere like a feeling of euphoria or escape. I’ve been telling my studio to revisit the times when they were in college, when they were working on their thesis or their final collections. As a consequence, there are books all over their places that they don’t normally have time to dive into; there are films and workout routines. This is the closest thing to a working vacation we’re going to get and I am trying to pull the youthful side out of them, from before they got to where they are now. My teams work on the collections so quickly that I never get to know where they come from. So, it is trying to look at the upside.

Daniel: I completely agree; it’s almost like being back at university and working in your bedroom on your final collection. Especially at the beginning of this season, it has felt like a return to real ideas, to experimentation. It feels youthful, in an anti-corporate and back-to-basics kind of way. It reminds me of the 1990s.

Virgil: And that is where you will find this renaissance. I have always felt that you should put fashion in the hands of younger people. The older generation of
designers who have been doing it, all the great names, they’ve had a firm grasp on the profession for 30 years. Now we are seeing creative directors who are in their first five years at a house or brand. We’ve all begged for newness or new voices. People are now considering things like, what is a design studio today? How are they run? How do the communications speak? What are we making in these little studios with our teams? And this time is allowing us to hone what we want to say.

‘How does fashion work for the consumer now? People buying garments don’t have a restaurant or nightclub to go to; no events to dress for.’

Jonathan: To what extent do you experience a sense of the gilded cage? Bottega Veneta and even more so Louis Vuitton are these huge companies, with incredible headquarters, and the wealth and power those places represent. Does no longer physically going into those places allow for more free-form or even
anarchic ways to think about what you are doing?

Daniel: I tend to spend more time in London, because when I am in Milan I can feel the weight of the house. We normally work in a rented photographic studio in London, a very simple warehouse, so it’s a return to basics, to those ‘university’ moments, which I always find very fruitful and freeing.

Virgil: Anarchy is the word! Like a very chic anarchy that pays respect to the forefathers and the corporateness, that is the job of the young – to overthrow or make a point. I am always trying to provide an alternative solution that is better and more modern. That is often how my meetings start. Thinking of the briefs I get from anyone in marketing, anyone who is not at the restaurant or the café or the nightclubs, breathing the air, it is their job to get what they want, so I am trying to find some happy medium and present ideas that we can all be proud of.

Daniel: Bottega is much smaller than Vuitton. What was interesting about Bottega at the beginning, and why I was so attracted to this project, was that this is a house with an incredible leather goods heritage, but the ready-to-wear infrastructure only came more recently. So the whole process has been quite liberating, which has been very helpful. We are discovering as we go along.

Virgil: What I love about Bottega – and I have always loved the brand – is that in America it is seen as unique. There was a small shop in Chicago that my mother-in-law would shop in and I loved that it was so luxurious, without the usual noise of the big houses.

Daniel: That was precisely the point. What I love so much about the brand is that it resonates with the person, what we do is very much for you and it’s not for anyone else; it’s for your interaction, your experience with a bag, coat or garment. What I love about luxury is this idea of craftsmanship, quality and, even though I hate the word, ‘timelessness’, that’s relevant here. Bottega is all of those things and at the same time, it is very different to everything else on the market. What we are moving towards feels authentically Bottega; we are not trying to reinvent ourselves. After this time of quarantine, I feel even more affirmed in what we are doing.

Virgil: Same for me, it is about cherishing true luxury, but thinking about what that actually means now. During my job interviews for Louis Vuitton, I questioned that antiquated idea of luxury standing for elitism or cocktail parties, that whole ‘I own this and do you own that?’ scenario. My generation simply loves the value of a beautiful shoe or handbag in their closet. In my mind, something that you cherish or covet is now luxury. I don’t think it’s so much about preaching from mountain tops about how expensive or rare a thing is – that is such an old idea.

Daniel: Also, Virgil, the reality of luxury is that it means so many different things today. And what’s interesting is that all these different aspects of luxury can coexist. There is no predefined way anymore. I think we went through the errors of different peaks and troughs. Like the new expression of luxury, but I think each creative director now has their own point of view about that.

Virgil: I want fashion journalism to level up to where the creative designers and the consumers have already risen. I hope that nuance is getting picked up on, between all of our collections. It is not the obvious; it is more the sub-context.

Daniel: As an industry that really prides itself on inclusivity and sustainability, we are really dealing with those issues more and more. That includes the idea of more kindness and compassion towards designers. I’m not sure if journalists appreciate how much of ourselves and our personality we put into those collections. It is such a heartfelt experience; we really expose ourselves season after season.

Virgil: Right now everyone is having a ‘What is going to happen to fashion?’ moment. It’s obviously the topic of the week, and more often than not people are looking for a practical answer, like when are the shows going to start again; what about consumption; what about sustainability? But I feel like everyone is always griping about the industry: ‘I always hated that’ or ‘The sales mark is down’. While I think the number-one thing that we can do as an industry is change how we represent what we do, how we talk about our work, and how that relates to the person in the street who can or cannot afford the items we’re involved in, or who doesn’t understand what our industry means. It is the easiest change that could be made.

Daniel: I go back and forth in my mind. How much should we designers support each other? How much is healthy competition actually relevant any more? Is that what ultimately drives us all to do better and to strive for more? It’s all a fine line, I guess.

‘At my job interviews for Louis Vuitton, I questioned that antiquated idea of luxury standing for elitism, that whole ‘I own this, do you own that?’ scenario.’

Jonathan: One of the principal ideas behind this project is to invite designers to speak with one another. For so long it was considered almost taboo for a designer to even acknowledge that there were other designers at ‘competing’ houses or groups, even though designers clearly have so much in common. Ultimately, you are the people driving the future, not the accountants, the marketing people, the suits. Isn’t that the designers’ ‘responsibility’?

Daniel: It is the creatives who will change the system. What I think Virgil has done so well at Louis Vuitton is challenge the idea of what a fashion designer is today. One of his triumphs has been the construction of a community around the collections; it’s about more than just the collections now. You’ve given a platform to a generation of younger creatives who really wouldn’t have had a voice – and there is something super important about that.

Virgil: That simply came from the idea: ‘I am going into an industry whose pillars I know really well. And I know that if I mimic the pillars to make something
distinct, then that is not valuable. It’s not me, it’s not my story, it’s not where I come from.’ I realized that the context around fashion – around the clothes and the collection – needed a new vantage point. I was like, ‘How can I make this inclusive, make it for real, but also an homage to the craftsmanship and the lineage before me?’ That is what interests me so much in the profession.

Daniel: I totally agree.

Virgil: I’d say the whole point of us coming together and having this conversation is that it was definitely taboo in the previous eras. I mean, do designers even talk to each other? Is it so competitive that designers can even end up talking shit about each other? If we really value our industry, and we want itto fulfil a marketing term like inclusiveness, then is wanting to mimic our government and making everything political really the right way to go? Like what you said Daniel, I don’t consider myself a political designer; I think that art and creativity sit above politics, and it is our job to distract away from those things. I mean, in politics if you say something, the other person doesn’t even listen; they just react.

Jonathan: You’re saying fashion’s appeal should transcend politics or indeed, the political beliefs of the wearer?

Virgil: Yes. What I love about fashion is that Daniel and I create things that exude beauty. A woman buying one of your handbags or a guy buying suits from me, those people could have polar-opposite political opinions, but they see the beauty in what we do. It’s entirely democratic. And that metaphor can be distilled down to how designers in our industry relate to one another. The old way of fashion was just, ‘Act like they don’t exist!’ or even worse, ‘We are in this vacuum called fashion’. That is the number-one outdated premise. I keep harping on about journalism, but it’s everyone in the industry. It’s not just designers; it’s also in our businesses; it’s in the marketing. In fact, the further away you get from the actual design studio, the more opportunity competitiveness has to become detrimental to understanding the overall ecosystem.

Daniel: It is a time for frank conversations around the future. The role of creative director is so unique and wonderful and challenging and produces so many emotions at the same time; I certainly feel that my conversations with other creative directors have been helpful. They’ve been able to give me advice and insight that I don’t think anyone else could have done.

‘Virgil has challenged the idea of what a fashion designer is today. His triumph has been the construction of a community around the collections.’

Jonathan: Daniel, you’re talking about a sense of frankness that this moment is allowing, how about asking Virgil a frank question?

Daniel: Oh, my God. [Pause] OK, do you still think we even need to do fashion shows? That is what I am really thinking about.

Virgil: I think that shows are actually more valuable to real people than they are to the industry people sitting on our front rows. It’s a shame that all that creativity and budget is going towards people who, as soon as the show music starts, sit with their pen out, waiting either to be impressed or not, and then they go to dinner and talk shit. Whereas the girl in Essex or in the middle of America is really excited by the shoes and the bag that you make, and can’t wait to save up and own it. I think it is a shame that, more often than not, the show is for the dissenting eye of the previous generation.

Daniel: I totally agree that there is that shift around the audience; a lot of the love I feel at Bottega is not necessarily from the people who attend the shows. It is on social media, it is in the stores, and I think that the real people and the real audience that we want to entertain, we need to think about how to reach them better.

Virgil: The work that you are doing at Bottega has astounding resonance – from the design studio to the consumer. It’s truly about craftsmanship and luxury and creating an identity with the shoes that stormed the world and the bags. What you’re doing reminds me of the glory days when I would walk past a luxury store and see a product that spoke for itself. It’s a product that is neither reliant on the logo, nor needs the influential customer wearing it and talking about how great it is.

Jonathan: It’s interesting to consider this notion of ‘post-logo’, this return to the pure desirability that Daniel elicits by creating beautiful products for Bottega. What is the relevance right now of this all-important symbol that is the logo? Do you think that the next era in fashion might signify a return to quality product more than the logo or is that just unrealistic?

Daniel: Personally, I don’t even think about the logo. I don’t wear logos, so that has never been part of my life. For me, instinctively, I guess I just gravitate towards logo-less product. When I began at Bottega, the intention was to make product that was valid to put out into the world. I believe in my soul that if you put that much love and care into products then someone else will also appreciate it.

Virgil: For me, it’s a bit different. There is no absolute; it’s another 50-50 scenario. Louis Vuitton is huge, so if I make a cashmere sweater without a logo on it
and then I make one with a logo, the scale of the economics is insanely different, so that is the nature of where I am. I mean, I have made a profession out of making a logo more interesting, but more often than not, I am actually trying to make product that doesn’t rely on that or is a bit more interesting than just the logo. That proves to be a fun challenge. I don’t run away from that, but there is nothing that feels like purer beauty than just appreciating an object for what it is, not because it signifies what brand it comes from.

Daniel: Today’s successful creative directors take into account the heritage of their house; they understand if the house needs a logo, and if it doesn’t, it doesn’t. When you go against the grain of the heritage, and you don’t respect that, I think that is very transparent. I feel like the real reason we have had success at Bottega is that we have been so rooted in the craftsmanship, the heritage. That really was the root of all the key products and it has real meaning.

Virgil: Exactly. You and I are polar opposites, in a way, but we are both balancing the ecosystem, right? If you look at us on opposite sides, it’s two different styles of design. The point is that we appreciate each other, and we are providing solutions in fashion that are both logo-less and logo-driven. It is not about competitiveness or which customer you speak to, or that old idea of ‘you’re either Bottega or you are Off-White or you are Louis Vuitton’. You’re not – and those things don’t make sense any more. Why isn’t fashion journalism following the logic of the customer? That kind of customer you find on social media who has one of your Bottega bags and pair of the Nike sneakers I’ve done, and they Instagram a perfect photo in their bedroom, where the product looks beautiful and really speaks. What would happen if the industry started celebrating the mingling and merging of products that resonate together? Look at the fashion-week schedules: it’s like 30 designers in every city, and we each get one hour of everyone’s time. Take all 90 of us designers and we are providing clothes for the top end of the whole world, even before you get to diffusion like H&M and Zara – so we’re like a collective. There’s only 90 of us on earth and there are billions of people. It’s the same for the editors, there’s only 80 of you guys. So between all of us, we are a lot more collective, but that fashion schedule says, ‘You work for System, you work for Vogue, you work for Bottega, I work for Louis Vuitton, so we don’t speak, we don’t mingle, we look out of the side of our eyes to know what is happening.’ Why can’t we think of our industry as an industry for dreaming, like the film industry does, or like the art world does sometimes? Like a collective of artists in a position to transcend categories and be as diverse as we want it to be.

‘Daniel’s Bottega is beautiful product. It relies neither on a logo nor the influential customer wearing it and talking about how great it is.’

Jonathan: Some smaller brands will inevitably cease to exist because of the effects Covid-19 will have on the economy and consumerism. There is going to be a shift in the fashion industry’s ecosystem: ‘less’ might replace ‘too much’. How does that make you both feel?

Daniel: There is inevitably going to be a domination of bigger brands. Sadly, we live in a time where it is easier to exist as a bigger brand. Something I feel on
a very personal level is the idea of London: I was trained there and I continue to see London as this incubator of design talent. Many of the guys I work with in the studios in Paris were trained in London. One thing we are working on right now is using our resources – the production company, the communications, the Bottega expertise – to partner with Central Saint Martins to create a platform will allow this year’s graduates of the BA fashion programme to present their work. This kind of initiative is great: the bigger brands, which have more access to technology and innovation, partnering with younger design talent to provide them with a platform
to show their work.

Virgil: It has to be like that. Like you said, brands will close, I agree, and I am also saddened. Our industry is so excessive: the collections are huge, and when you go to Selfridges, the floor has 300 designers and everyone is trying to vie for your attention. So, just like a natural ecosystem, what’s happening now might be a way to minimalize things and let the best rise to the top. We all love amazing things, but look at it pragmatically: it is harder to have amazing things when there are 300 options. My advice to younger designers, whose brands might be closing and for whom bankruptcy is a real issue, is to look at the upside and see what you can do to work at a house or see what you can do to partner with another brand, and start something new. Bankruptcy is not a bad word, shutting down a business is detrimental, sure, but what I’ve learned from my own career is that the sooner you put your first idea and your first business in the trash, the sooner you begin your real career. As soon as I let that first thing go, I realized that it is not the end of the world, it is only the beginning.

Daniel: Real creativity will find a way. Certainly, both of us are very determined and this wouldn’t have deterred me; I would have still found a way. As you are saying, maybe it is time for a smaller market. Maybe it’s the time to offer some of these great creatives who have been working on smaller brands and businesses the opportunities to work in larger brands’ design studios. That maybe isn’t a bad thing.

Virgil: This is how the world worked before fashion; it’s how every civilization, every movement within art, every genre within anything you can think of, there is always a younger generation that goes for the neck.

‘If I make a cashmere sweater without a Louis Vuitton logo on it and then I make one with a logo, the scale of the economics is insanely different.’

Jonathan: One part of the fashion industry most affected by the current situation has been the photo shoot, because it’s an innately collaborative process. As we emerge from this period, will people take some elements of this imposed isolation and these restrictions and reconsider what the collaborative campaign production process could be? Or do you think that everyone is just dying to get back to what that process was like six months ago?

Virgil: Again, with my half-half, 50-50 hat on, I am sitting looking at all these Zoom photo shoots and the lo-fi-ness and loving how modern it is. Like when I shoot with Juergen Teller and he uses his iPhone, I think, ‘Wow, everything else is about using big production sets, whereas he can create an image that is pure and authentic, and doesn’t feel like it is highly produced.’ I think beauty is something that transcends every up and down of every civilizational change. The beauty and message need to be detached from the aesthetic and the status quo, and I think that this line in the sand will give us the chance to reanalyse that.

Jonathan: What’s the flip side of the coin for you though?

Virgil: I am not a fan of things becoming lower quality just because of circumstances. One thing I am afraid of is that all the brands are going to start presenting themselves like they are the Red Cross. All of a sudden, these commercial things are now trying to be heartfelt. I see it on TV commercials, like for cars saying they’ll extend your payments to later. I’m very averse to things becoming marketing exercises, when they are not soaked in what the brand really stands for.

Jonathan: You’re talking about commerce masquerading as altruism.

Virgil: Exactly, and that scares me because while I feel it is a responsible thing to do, I also feel like there is going to be a lot of noise inspired by that same impetus, which is to communicate to the customer that you feel XYZ. That is something the big brands don’t do so well because they’re so big, while independent brands do really well because they don’t have shareholders. So perhaps that will open the door for young independent brands to surge ahead in this moment. And it’s down to people like Daniel and I to keep our businesses on course.

Daniel: I am really attached to the level of execution that we are working at now. The quality of the image, the consideration, all that preparation and process –
it’s huge to arrive at one picture that lives alone in the street. So much work goes into that and we cannot let go of that. We also have to remember: we are leading huge luxury houses – and there is a certain level of execution that goes hand in hand with that. When you are one of the most expensive brands on the market, there is a level of expectation. I think we should all be more responsible; we should look deep within ourselves in terms of humanitarianism. That kind of behaviour should be at the core of everything we do, not something to be used as a marketing exercise; it should be a given.

Virgil: Louis Vuitton is one of the biggest brands, so we have a tremendous responsibility to keep the top-end healthy. If we decide not to do a show, that means there is a young design student who won’t do a show because editors won’t go to Paris or Milan. If we all of a sudden take a back seat, there won’t be the same vibrancy in the market. We have a large market share, so we should be able to ride out the storm and use creativity to bring out the overarching ecosystem, and let it chime. To me, that’s a big important aspect of what we are doing.

‘If we want to fulfil a marketing term like inclusiveness, then is mimicking our government and making everything political the right way to go?’

Jonathan: While we are in a reflective mood, I wanted to ask you about professional disappointments. I have been watching sports documentaries recently and elite sports stars all seem to have experienced disappointment at some point in their career, like poor results or injury – but the true champions are the ones who are able to learn from that and come back stronger. Thinking about fashion, it is less clear if there are moments of disappointment in a designer’s career. Could you both describe such a moment in your careers, where something happened, but you grew from it to come back stronger?

Virgil: That is a good, but hard question. Essentially we are taking about the ups and downs and the journey to get to where we are now. When I think about that, it’s not so much the moment in the public eye. My career has been slow and steady. It started from one printed T-shirt and now I do 12 collections a year, between men’s and women’s, Off White and Louis Vuitton. The most significant moment in my career was sitting in front of the top management at Louis Vuitton, and saying, ‘Hey, if you give me the opportunity at Louis Vuitton, I will return the results the best I know how.’ That opportunity obviously came while a lot of people in the industry were thinking to themselves, ‘Should they hire him? What’s it going to be like? Will it just be T-shirts and sweatpants and sneakers? Can he really
design something within the ethos of the house?’ That is more the challenge you are referring to. I don’t consider anything a failure; my whole career is based on prototyping and experimenting – it’s me finding my voice through every project that I do. What I take away from reflecting on the past is how I am showcasing that, within what was a very particular industry, people who are open-minded and who give other kinds of people a chance can make a path. We are seeing results; we are seeing the upside of diversifying the role of designer; the upside of adopting the new. That is the part that I approach with tremendous care: I care more about making the industry showcase what good can be done. I don’t care much about the criticism, because there are 10 new kids who weren’t in the conversation but now are. Then there’s the person who has been having the same feelings in the same position for 20 years.

Daniel: I’m trying to think of one particular moment for you, but I never feel I have completely reached my potential. There is so much more that can be improved and that is what keeps you evolving and growing. People see our careers now, but this is just a live snapshot. To get to this point has been a very long period, with many ups and downs, and learning along the way. As designers, we are extremely critical of ourselves. I certainly am – every collection, product and campaign, I always try and analyse how it can be better.

‘You just cannot dictate relevance. It is such a gamble; there is no way we can predetermine what will become popular and why.’

Jonathan: What are your own personal metrics for success?

Daniel: For me, it is about feeling fulfilled, inspired and connected to what I am doing. I feel that is really a gift because I am very happy with where my life is at right now. Do I think I am successful? Not yet, I am just starting and there is so much more to do.

Virgil: Me, too. It’s about staying exactly true to what I see; that is my fulfilment. I think that is what has given me the tough skin to sit in these positions and do the things I do. Ironically, I am not looking for outside validation.

Jonathan: Surely everyone does to some extent.

Virgil: Well, I was a shy kid at school, and I wasn’t as good at skateboarding or soccer as I wanted to be. So design and art and learning turned out to be exactly
what I wanted to do. Making things and seeing them come to life is the ultimate gratification. But I do have a practical answer that fits both Daniel and I, and that is relevance. We are designers; we make things in the hope that they will kick a dent in culture. Like when Daniel’s first bags and shoes were released, it changed the whole ecosystem because those were the most beautiful high heels or bags, and they were resonating. We can both have these lofty answers, but at the end of the day those shoes and bags create a moment in an industry in which there are so many options. And that is a tremendous metric. I am never satisfied by things, you know; you’ll never hear me say, ‘Oh, it’s sold out in a day! Yay, I did a good job!’ That to me is the whackest thing on earth.

Daniel: You can’t dictate that idea of relevance, though. It is such a gamble; there is no way we can predetermine what will become popular and why. There was no strategy behind Bottega, and I don’t have the definitive answer. It just became the zeitgeist for some reason. It makes sense and just kind of works.

Jonathan: What comes most intuitively to you and which part do you have to overthink to make happen?

Daniel: The intuitive part is easy for me: it’s the design. I went to Central Saint Martins and it was what I studied at university and it is the thing I have been the most comfortable with since graduation. The process is instinctive; it is almost a reaction to a physical object and looking at it in a different way. Design is often like thinking about a problem and trying to find the easiest solution. As for what I overthink the most… That’s a hard one. I think in today’s society, there is a certain responsibility to how we communicate and the way in which we reach the audience. I really want to make sure I am standing for all the things I believe in; that is where I second guess myself, the casting, the choice of locations, a lot of consideration goes into that.

Virgil: I am maybe eight years in right now, between Off-White and Louis Vuitton. I’ve got my feet firmly in the industry in a way I understand, from an independent side and big-house side, and I think the part that comes most intuitively to me is conversation. Before I start designing, I start with an hour of just talking to my studio team, like, ‘What have you been up to you? What do you think? What’s the mood? What are people wearing in London? What do you think about Brexit?’ When we get back together, it’s going to be just talking because I often turn those conversations into garments or a runway show idea.

Jonathan: Who are your most fruitful conversations with?

Virgil: The funny truth is that I go to Louis Vuitton stores or Off-White stores and I get into conversations with the salespeople, and find out how they are selling my things. Conversation to me is like my secret weapon. As for what I am overthinking the most… well, the longer I do this, the more responsibility there is – and no matter how optimistic I am, it hasn’t always been that easy. Take my second season at Louis Vuitton: the inspiration was Michael Jackson. I did it, everything was fine, but then one month after the show, the documentary came out and the New York Times all of a sudden writes this thing saying it was irresponsible of me to do that – as if I could predict the future. That caused a moment of stress because I’m working for a big company that has invested a lot in my inspiration, and the media can look at it and be like, ‘That is taboo and bad – why did you do that?’ So that makes for tense moments. Another time I threw my staff in Milan a party when the collections were done in March and I put them on my Instagram. It was only meant to be fun, but then people started saying, ‘Oh, Virgil doesn’t have a
very diverse office’, and I got a lot flack for that, for not having what is a seemingly diverse staff. It’s 30 Italian people who have worked with me tirelessly from the beginning, growing a small brand into what it is today. So when you bring up moments of overthinking, with the responsibility I have, I can’t talk to someone like I would a friend at the bar. That’s the position I’m in and I understand that I have responsibilities and that there are unfortunate sides to my position. So I overthink putting opinion out there in a tasteful, artful and chic way that doesn’t distract from the message. That takes considerable thinking.

Jonathan: What is the overriding emotion you’ve been feeling over the past few weeks? How would you summarize this period?

Virgil: I keep thinking about what Daniel said in the very beginning: we are in positions where this pandemic is less detrimental. My favourite restaurant just closed and so the staff no longer have jobs; they are unemployed and they don’t know what they are going to do about their rent in two months. That is the grassroots existence for people, so I try to reflect on that just as much as I’m like, ‘Hey, I am enjoying myself.’ I am excited to spend time in a sort of solitude and have a wide perspective, and not just my personal one.

Daniel: I’m feeling gratitude, because I know there have been so many different experiences in this moment and we can be grateful that this moment gave us the opportunity to spend time with our families, to stay home and to reconnect with hobbies that we might have let slide. So my experience has been a positive one.

Virgil: It’s a bit like purgatory; it’s almost like you’re in a track and field race and it’s that moment when you go down into the set before they shoot the gun. I like being busy and I didn’t realize how much I was dictated by a deadline. This situation is unique, not only because everything stopped, but because every future deadline has been moved. I do one thing and then go onto the next, but I’m sitting here, sketching and having ideas, but nothing is sticking. There’s the news, friends are just watching films, and I am listening to tons of music, but no one is putting anything out; there are no shows and stores are closed. That’s a reminder of how much that changes our ecosystem because whether you pay attention to them or not, the shows are always there on the periphery. Also, I can’t exactly
lock into what the mood of the day is because people are posting old photos or watching the same film on Netflix. As as soon as culture gets back, then I am going to start latching onto more concreteness.

Daniel: I agree, for the entire first half of the year my diary has been wiped out. The deadlines and the rhythm give you a sense of purpose; it can be quite disorientating to have so much time. I am just not used to it.

Virgil: A lot of my friends are artists, and so they do a show when they’re ready. They exist in solitude; they might go on a trip and paint for months. That reminds me of how much of a personal practice art is. If you took the industry side of what we do away, if we just did a show when we wanted, that would take a different person.

Daniel: Yes, it is not how I operate. I like the deadline; I like the cut-off point. It gives me structure.

Virgil: I had a call this morning with my two studio heads and for them being without a deadline is even worse than for me, because I’m the one who comes
in with the ideas, while they are used to a budget and schedule. I think this situation has been disorientating for them. If you look at fashion on an industry level, it’s not just us designers; there are huge teams and that disorientating feeling is going down to every level in fashion brands. The factory where I ordered the trims and the fabrics is now closed, all the research I was doing is an old idea now, how do I rev that up and change my fabric selection or colour palette? All these sorts of things are stuck. The fact that restaurants are closed is really bleak… because people buy clothes and have that aspirational thing to go out to a restaurant or wherever, where fashion fulfils a need. Restaurants and nightclubs are the stages for fashion; people needs those settings. And right now those are closed and they won’t reopen in the short term, so it’s like where are all the ideas going to live? What is the future of our output? The ‘stage’ has been paused.

Taken from System No. 15.