Kanye West's creative director Virgil Abloh launches streetwear clothing line

By Rebecca Gonsalves

As Kanye West’s creative director, Virgil Abloh has enjoyed access all areas. But for his own label he takes inspiration from the everyday, says Rebecca Gonsalves.

Virgil Abloh's love for shabby chic is translated in his Off White collection, with its distressed aesthetic.
Picture / Getty Images
Virgil Abloh's love for shabby chic is translated in his Off White collection, with its distressed aesthetic. Picture / Getty Images

Having been Kanye West's creative director for the past decade, Virgil Abloh has had the privilege of working with some of the most interesting, influential members of the fashion industry, but, right now, he's more concerned with the opinions of the kids he sees on the streets.

Born in Rockford, Illinois, Abloh studied engineering before completing a master's degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. There, he learned not only about design principles but also about collaborative working, studying a curriculum devised by Mies van der Rohe, the third and final director of Bauhaus, on a campus he had designed.

"That was like church to me," says Abloh of the experience. "I was so inspired by the concepts, let alone the actual building."

Abloh is a busy man. Alongside his work with West, he owns an art gallery and now has his own label, Off-White, an extension of Pyrex Vision, the art project-cum-clothing line he launched in December 2012.

When it emerged that the flannel shirts that formed the range were end of the line Ralph Lauren Rugby stock that had been screenprinted and priced at $550, controversy ensued. However, that first collection still sold out from its prestigious stockists, which included Colette in Paris.

Off-White might share an aesthetic ideal with Abloh's earlier project, but it is actually a far broader collection, and one that is made for the brand in Italy. It's probably easiest to categorise Off-White as streetwear, although high fashion's growing interest in that genre is making it an increasingly hard-to-define aesthetic. One way in which Abloh's designs differentiate significantly from the established ideals of the style is his distressed aesthetic - fabric is ripped and frayed, subverting the usual prestige of keeping an item box-fresh.

"Pyrex Vision was an artist's statement that was [recognisably] streetwear, and then it transformed into Off-White, which, just by its name, its premise, is the polar opposite," says Abloh, who has previously worked with Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, another phenomenally successful brand.

"All of a sudden I realised that I don't love modern design - I like shabby chic things. I like dirty sneakers; things that are worn and used and I find a beauty in that, but I come from a culture that favours the pristine and the box-fresh. I'm working with those opposing ideals to try and make something new."

In early August, I met Abloh at Copenhagen International Fashion Fair where he has created an installation in the venue's Crystal Hall, alongside a Malcolm McLaren retrospective.

His approach to the installation, entitled Industrial by Nature, was to focus on his inspiration rather than on the end product.

"I purposefully didn't bring very many clothes," he explains. "I felt it was more poignant to focus on the imagery that I started the collection with, as the mood board often gets left by the wayside when you move on to developing a collection. I wanted to spend as much time on just one reference in the same way I would on a collection; that meant [installing] two tonnes of sand and four industrial fans."

A self-confessed "compulsive collaborator", for the installation's imagery Abloh worked with visual artist Cali Thornhill DeWitt, who he connected with via Instagram.

He recognises that such modern inventions have completely reshaped the way people in the creative industries work. He sees a shift in people's knowledge of fashion and taste that is in part spurred on by the way sites such as Tumblr create visual juxtapositions that had rarely been pursued by traditional print publications.

"In a general sense, my whole career is a collaboration with a number of artists."

As a long-time fan of Raf Simons' work, it's surprising the Belgian designer isn't top of Abloh's collaborative list, though he would jump at the chance to work for him: "I would be an intern - sweep the floor, clean his living room - just to be in that space. He's such an inspiration, but I wouldn't collaborate because I don't think I'm worthy," he says.

This confession is a rare moment of humility from a man who sees himself designing for an established luxury brand such as Hermes or Goyard in 10 years. But such confidence is warranted, currently at least, as customers clamour to buy Off-White. Selfridge's in London has already had to re-order menswear for autumn/winter 2014. "He's been a real fashion presence for a while now," says Terry Betts, director of menswear for the department store, which carried the line exclusively.

"He's been on the radar of people who work in the industry for years. Most of the guys that I know working in fashion also keep a close eye on Kanye's work and the input Virgil has had has always been really respected.

"With labels like this, having a strong visual identity is everything. Guys will see a brand name or a logo and go online or on to Instagram to find out what it's about.

It's a really exciting way of spreading the message and Off-White's easy-to-understand aesthetic emphasises that powerful idea of being part of something. When streetwear really works, more than anything else, it's about ideas. It's clever - even when it's completely simple."

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