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What Virgil Abloh Really Thinks About Streetwear

Ask “It” designer and Off-White brainchild Virgil Abloh about the phenomenon that launched his career—streetwear—and you’ll get a variety of answers.

It’s a “buzzword,” according to the Illinois native, but also a “trap,” “the new ready-to-wear,” “everyone’s 14-year-old kid, what they’re searching for online and exchanging on Instagram.” And most damning: It’s the “ingredient that you can just sprinkle on anything.” Or at least, that’s how fashion brands seem to treat streetwear these days in a bid to capture customers hungry for high-end clothing inspired by the coolest kids around.

More than anything, streetwear is neither temporal fad nor enduring movement, per se, but an “evolution” that, Abloh charges, “caught blind” an industry entrenched in its own sets of rules and regulations. The phenomenon plays into what’s already happening on the consumer level: People have instant access to a wealth of information a swipe away on their smartphones and can see what’s hot and happening on Instagram and on the street. No longer are brands the sole forces dictating what’s new and next, Abloh said.

“The key metric is the word relevancy,” Abloh told a roomful of fashion leaders at the WWD Apparel + Retail CEO Summit in New York City last month. “If something’s relevant, it’s already occurring on the street.”

Relevance, continued the Louis Vuitton artistic director, is why Supreme drops generate blocks-long queues outside the Nolita store but a nearby luxury boutique might be a virtual ghost town. What’s more, streetwear, however you want to define it, was relevant to a 17-year-old Abloh, who as a teen interested in pop culture would go on to bring his university training in civil engineering and architecture to bear on fashion—the one industry that connected all of those disciplines and interests and could unleash his relentless need for creative self-expression.

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In talking about fashion, Abloh references pivotal art history moments like Duchamp’s readymades or the German Bauhaus fine-arts-and-crafts movement with the casual ease of someone who sees the disciplines as inextricably intertwined and forever in dialogue, forever informing new ways of creating wearable art and seeing the world. Abloh, a self-described workaholic, confessed to an “overintellectualization” of streetwear in his early days as a designer, borrowing the readymades art principle—putting a known object in a new context so it “speaks a new language”—for apparel emblazoned with “the language that’s on everyone’s keyboard.”

But rather than overthink his clothing, Abloh made a conscious decision not to design for the “fashion elite” but to serve what he describes as the “tourist,” the person who is interested in something but lacks the encyclopedic knowledge that an insider, or “purist,” would.

Abloh said he’s ready to graduate from being known as the “streetwear guy” to “exploring how fashion can be formal again” but with his trademark twist.

“It’s more interesting to make formalwear with a new spirit,” Abloh said. “What’s the new tailored jacket? What’s the new suit? I love to wear suits, if it’s related to this new lifestyle that exists in 2018.”

Noting the element of surprise is “super important in fashion,” Abloh confirmed the importance of collaborating with like-minded partners—and the best in every category, which to date includes Ikea and Nike. “All of a sudden we’ve created a new product or category just by sort of a willingness to collaborate,” he added.

It’s his work as a DJ playing at some of the trendiest clubs in the trendiest global cities that Abloh credits both for Off-White’s meteoric rise and his own continuing popularity among people embedded in “the scene.” That’s because DJ-ing enables him to break down the barrier between “designer” and “consumer” and forge a “stronger bond” with the people buying his clothes, and he’s taking that customer closeness to the highest levels of fashion.

“What’s great is that the role with Louis Vuitton gives me an opportunity to bring some of those ideals to what I believe is the best brand in the luxury sector,” Abloh said.