Virgil Abloh, Menswear’s Biggest Star
At the Tuileries gardens, in Paris, one recent evening, three cameramen trailed Virgil Abloh, the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, as he surveyed the runway for his Fall/Winter show. He stood in a hangar-like structure that had been painted safran impérial, the official color of Louis Vuitton packaging. For the set, Abloh had commissioned a cityscape that resembled the Manhattan of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” music video—a downtown with carefully dirtied storefronts, dinged trash cans, and fake sewers that emitted plumes of steam. “What do you think of that?” Abloh asked Benjamin Cercio, the Director of Press, Influencers, and Entertainment at Louis Vuitton, pointing toward a pristine sign that read “RAUL’S BARBERSHOP.” Abloh contemplated the sign. “I think we should remove it,” he said. “It doesn’t look real.”
The Louis Vuitton employees, most of them dressed in black T-shirts that Abloh had designed, unanimously agreed. The videographers, who were documenting Abloh “for his archive,” I was told, followed him at an unnerving proximity, but he was unfazed; the four moved in concert, like principals in a postmodern ballet. The unit jogged upstage, to where the sixty-three-year-old graffiti artist Futura was adding his mark to a steel shutter. He and Abloh greeted each other warmly. Abloh has a buffed bald head, a light beard, and a friendly gap in his teeth. Because he fidgets with the drawstrings of his hoodies, and because he used to be a skater, one might assume that he is a sloucher. But he is subtly straight-backed. Despite his efforts, Abloh is elegant.
That night, Abloh’s round face receded into a black hoodie, which he wore along with a red tartan jacket, a pair of black jeans, and Air Jordan sneakers that he had designed for Nike. At thirty-eight, Abloh is technically a member of Generation X, but his career, and his success, tell the story of millennial consumerism. He often says that his professional instincts are guided by a desire to impress his seventeen-year-old self. In addition to his role at LV, he is the head of his own line, the streetwear label Off-White, which he founded in 2013, and which, during the third quarter of 2018, according to the Lyst Index, which converts sales and “sentiment analysis” into rankings, overtook Gucci as the “hottest” brand in the world. There are thirty-four Off-White boutiques, few of which resemble conventional stores. Something and associates, in Tokyo, looks like an office, with a water cooler and computers on wooden desks.
Before Abloh was appointed to LV, last spring, he considered a laptop his office. He is a trained architect, and likes to say that he is not a fashion designer but a “maker.” On Instagram, where he has almost four million followers, he has posted photos from the d.j. booth at Circo Loco, in Ibiza, and from his gallery show with the Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, at the Gagosian in Beverly Hills. Abloh has lectured at the Rhode Island School of Design, at Columbia, and at Harvard, where the audience, inspired by his discussion of design “cheat codes,” threw dozens of shoes at the dais for him to sign.
Abloh’s “cheat codes” include what he calls the “three-per-cent approach”—the idea that one might create a new design by changing an original by three per cent. His most recognizable gesture is the addition of a phrase in quotation marks, which appears to convey irony. For Off-White, Abloh has designed cowboy boots with the words “FOR WALKING” running up the calves, and a hex-nut-shaped ring engraved with the words “HEX NUT ring.” In 2018, for IKEA, he made a rug printed with an IKEA receipt. His work is often referential, and some critics have accused him of “stealing” designs. But Abloh sees it as rooted in the ethos of streetwear, which, to him, does not necessarily mean T-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers. “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp,” he told me. “It’s this idea of the readymade. I’m talking Lower East Side, New York. It’s like hip-hop. It’s sampling. I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song. I’m taking IKEA and I’m presenting it in my own way. It’s streetwear 10.0—the logic that you can reference an object or reference a brand or reference something. It’s Warhol—Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s soup cans.”
The runway set in the Tuileries gardens included signs for Rivington and Ludlow, two streets on New York’s Lower East Side. Abloh spent countless hours in and around the neighborhood in his twenties, hanging out at Supreme, the skateboarding shop and clothing brand founded by James Jebbia, in 1994, and at the sneaker temple Alife. He hoped to re-create the spirit of the area at that time. “I want Bernard Arnault to walk in and be, like, ‘Did you bring the streets in here?’ ” he said, referring to the chairman and chief executive officer of the conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton.
For more than a decade, Abloh worked behind the scenes for Kanye West, commissioning work from, among others, Riccardo Tisci, of Givenchy, who designed the cover for West’s 2011 album “Watch the Throne.” (Tisci and Abloh were nominated for a Grammy for the design, which was printed on gold mylar.) The twenty-three-year-old actor Timothée Chalamet attended this year’s Golden Globes in a sparkly “bib”—a harness-like mid-layer garment, with B.D.S.M. undertones—of Abloh’s design. Kim Kardashian West, Serena Williams, and Beyoncé have worn Abloh’s clothes. Still, his appointment at Louis Vuitton, last fall, was big news. He is the first black man to be an artistic director at LV, and the third to lead a French luxury fashion house. Lawrence Schlossman, the brand director of the resale site Grailed, said, “Whether or not streetwear needs or wants it, Virgil Abloh’s appointment at Louis Vuitton is just more validation from the fashion establishment that the subculture is firmly in the driver’s seat when it comes to both aesthetics and business.” At the time, Abloh spoke of his appointment with some grandiosity, recounting that a friend had compared it to Obama being elected President—“like the same epiphany.” He told me that he no longer likes to dwell on the time when the fashion establishment looked down on streetwear and hip-hop. “It needed that period in order to get to where it kind of broke free,” he said.
In his designs, Abloh has invoked Basquiat, Michael Jordan, and Michael Jackson, figures who have come to represent the essence of pop culture. He called the show for his first collection “We Are the World,” the name of Quincy Jones’s 1985 charity single, on which Michael Jackson sang with frightening conviction. His second collection was inspired by “The Wiz,” the black camp retelling of “The Wizard of Oz,” directed by Sidney Lumet, in which Jackson played the Scarecrow. Abloh told the Times that he has always admired Jackson, not least because he was “the most important person in innovating men’s wear ever.” Abloh listens to music while he works. “When I have Michael Jackson singing in the background, it’s a different type of shirt, it’s a different kind of boot, it’s a different fit of pants,” he has said. At his LV office, he showed me a royal-purple sweater embroidered with the silhouettes of the Scarecrow and his entourage. Abloh is hardly the first designer to have been inspired by Jackson, but he might have uniquely bad timing in expressing his admiration. As I examined the sweater, I asked Abloh if he had heard anything about the documentary “Leaving Neverland,” which aired earlier this month, on HBO, and alleges that Jackson sexually abused two young boys. He said that he hadn’t. He told me that he wanted to focus on “the Michael that I thought was universally accepted, the good side, his humanitarian self.”
Abloh is disarmingly earnest. He sometimes calls himself naïve. Michael Rock, who co-founded the design firm 2×4 and has worked with him for more than a decade, told me, “You have to be an amateur, in a way, or kind of innocent, to do so many different things but then have an instant opinion about them.” Much of the work of being a creative director, he said, “is that you sit in a room and people bring things to you all day long, and they say, ‘This or that?’ or ‘This spoon or that spoon?’ That’s where the naïveté is an important aspect. You’re not exhausted. You’re not jaded.” Abloh makes quick decisions. Walking through the runway set, he took a few paces and stopped at a white monobloc lawn chair. The LV employees looked on. He frowned. “That’s not New York,” he said, and turned the chair onto its back, so that it appeared to have been knocked over: “That’s New York.”
Abloh is not the kind of designer who lets the clothes speak for themselves. In 2017, for the finale of the women’s show for Off-White’s Fall/Winter collection, the models—wearing lacy slip dresses and cropped bomber jackets—walked in the dark, holding flashlights. Robin Givhan wrote, in the Washington Post, that it was “like something out of ‘The Blair Witch Project.’ Had they changed clothes? Who knew if they were even still wearing clothes?”
Abloh’s LV runway show would feature riffs on classic menswear silhouettes: patchwork trenchcoats, two-pleat trousers, satin evening shirts, and zoot suits. The Lower East Side runway featured a path of touch-activated panels, which lit up when walked on, as in the “Billie Jean” video. Abloh worried that the effect of the panels would be diminished by the presence of the models, who would be holding glow-in-the-dark fibre-optic carryalls and wearing light-up sneakers. He turned to his crew. “We actually have a lot to run through,” he said.
In an industry of legendary tempers, Abloh is known for his calm. He is a methodical thinker who encounters setbacks with poised silence. “Even when he’s upset, it’s a chill, smooth upset,” his friend the fashion designer Heron Preston, who has known Abloh for fifteen years, told me. Kanye West once said that Abloh had been “the strategist” in their partnership. “I’m like Tesla . . . like Nikola Tesla, not the car,” West said. “I’m thinking of all these ideas, and Virgil is able to take all of those ideas and then architect them, because he is an architect.”
Like West, Abloh knows which artists to link with and when. He had invited the musician and producer Dev Hynes, whose performance name is Blood Orange, to create the soundtrack for the show together with Ian Isiah, who has a tremulous falsetto and says that he makes “sex music.” Abloh, considering the overabundance of light on the runway, turned to Hynes, who was wearing a Yankees cap and track pants and was helping Isiah find a phone charger. He said, “New idea: Show ends. Goes dark. First six models go down, no activation of the floor whatsoever.”
Abloh walked backward on the runway, making rhythmic gestures with his hands. “The key artist”—he pointed in the direction of Hynes—“walks down, and the floor only works for him. It’s an encore type of energy. I gotta ask Dev to do that. Dev should activate the floor.”
He sidled over to Hynes. “You can walk impervious to the models in the space,” he said, showing how the floor panels worked.
Hynes seemed impressed. “Oh, shit,” he said.
Abloh was pleased. “It’s trippy, you know? Technology. I had to go HAM.”
He walked to a stoop outside a storefront on the set, lay down, and curled up in the fetal position, like a vagrant. The LV employees intuitively understood the directive and pointed their iPhones at the stoop.
Louis Vuitton was founded in 1854, by the box-maker to the wife of Napoleon III. Abloh first encountered the brand as a teen-ager, through hip-hop. Its monogrammed products—the suitcase, the carryall, the pouch, the wallet—were hallowed accessories for the black and aspirational, who have always had a baroque and kinky relationship to luxury. In a famous photograph by the artist-provocateur David LaChapelle, from 1999, Lil’ Kim appears nude with LV monograms decorating her skin. Abloh recalled seeing, in the early two-thousands, the musician Pharrell Williams carrying an LV wallet called the Wapity. West, in his lyrics, has referred to himself as the “Louis Vuitton don.”
Under Marc Jacobs, who became LV’s artistic director in 1997, artists such as Stephen Sprouse, Murakami, and Richard Prince designed their own, irreverent versions of LV bags, which became coveted pop-culture objects. In 2017, Kim Jones, then the artistic director of LV menswear, launched a collaboration with Supreme, which was one of the most successful in LV’s history. It included pocket knives, skateboards, hoodies, and six bags that combined the two brands’ logos. When I asked Abloh about James Jebbia, he told me, “I consider him a mentor to the highest degree.” It was Jebbia who had advised Abloh to open a store, he said. “Otherwise, who knows what Off-White is, if it’s in Barneys, or Saks, or Colette?” For Abloh, there is a similarity between Jebbia, whose mastery of the “drop”—the release of a highly exclusive line—has resulted in pandemonium outside stores, and Ralph Lauren, a Brooks Brothers salesman who grew up in the Bronx, the son of Ashkenazi Jews. Lauren did not introduce the world to a new style of clothing—navy blazers, school crests, flannels, saddle shoes, and polo shirts were all Wasp staples long before his time. But he made the uniform attractive to people who had never set foot inside a country club. Comparing the two designers, Abloh said, “They are both minds and spirits that show that clothing can be much more than just the tangible, physical garments for the human body.”
Like Jebbia, Abloh is a master of the short-run collaboration. He has designed water bottles for Evian, Big Mac containers for McDonald’s, and uniforms for his former high school’s soccer team. He has worked with Champion, Equinox, Gore-Tex, Ikea, Jimmy Choo, Kith, Sunglass Hut, Timberland, and New York City Ballet. In 2017, the Web site the Fashion Law asked, “How many collaborations is too many?” Abloh seemed to be aiming for ubiquity.
As with those projects, Abloh’s work at LV seems to both inflate and deflate the brand’s traditional aesthetic. I first met Abloh in January, at a pop-up—which Louis Vuitton had branded a “residency”—at the Chrome Hearts jewelry store, on the Lower East Side, where his Spring/Summer collection was available for purchase for the first time, to select clients. Bags were displayed in raw packing boxes. To the Keepall 50, an LV classic, Abloh had added a neon-orange ceramic link chain. There was a Seussian whimsy to the Prism Keepall 50, which was made of clear, iridescent PVC and cost three thousand eight hundred and fifty dollars. People crowded around a dining table that looked, from a distance, as if it were made of mottled wood. On closer inspection, guests could see that it was imprinted all over with the LV monogram. Abloh had designed it, and it cost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
The next day, a thousand people lined up for the drop outside a Louis Vuitton pop-up store in Tokyo. Michael Burke, LV’s chief executive officer, credited people’s “pure, unadulterated desire” for the popularity of the collection, which outperformed the 2017 collaboration with Supreme by thirty per cent in the first forty-eight hours. Abloh told me that he doesn’t have an ideal buyer, but his ironic, self-aware designs tend to attract the kind of affluent young man—a consultant for a startup, say—for whom work attire means a Vetements T-shirt featuring the DHL logo and a certain pair of Nike Jordans. (In 2017, Abloh launched The Ten, an ongoing collaboration with Nike, for which he is redesigning ten of his favorite Nike sneakers. Nike claimed that the first run sold out in minutes.)
If Abloh has a unique understanding of this type of young man, sometimes dismissed as a “hypebeast,” it’s because he is one of them. Abloh is a shopper. Since high school, he has amassed a collection of five thousand T-shirts. One day in Paris, as we circled the Palais de Tokyo in a car until we were no longer early for Heron Preston’s fashion show, Abloh talked to me about a sweatshirt, from the skate brand Alphanumeric, that he had bought by messaging a teen-ager in Asia.
Abloh has two phones, which he uses to work on his designs and to WhatsApp with his teams in Milan, London, and Paris. He often illustrates his points by pulling up Instagram images from his peripatetic life. At one of our meetings, in Chicago, he told me that, on a recent free evening, he had flown to Sweden to see the Texas rock band Khruangbin play for two hours. “And it was worth it,” he said. “My travel agent, she’s a wonder woman. She works it out. I fly through the night. I don’t waste time.”
Abloh lives between Chicago and Paris. He is married to Shannon Abloh, a petite, blond former media specialist who sits in the front row of his shows with their two children, Lowe and Grey. Abloh does not post pictures of his homelife on Instagram, and one senses that many of his followers don’t know that he is married. For Abloh, social media is an artistic scrapbook and a way of building hype. “I use it to frame,” he told me. “It’s context. It tells the narrative of the thought process.”
He took as an example the necklace he had been wearing at Chrome Hearts, which resembled a string of paper clips and was encrusted with pavé diamonds. In 2017, he said, he had posted an image of a paper clip on his feed. A few months later, he posted an image of the chain, with the caption “Jacob,” in quotations, a reference to Jacob Arabo, who is known as Jacob the Jeweller. (In 2008, Arabo was sent to prison for two and a half years for lying to investigators looking into a drug ring.) A week later, he posted a video in which the artist and filmmaker Arthur Jafa—who goes by A.J. and is a cultural father figure to a younger generation of upstart black artists—gushes over the necklace’s singular design. Abloh explained, “Then it was in the art context, from an esteemed artist.” He added, “I’ve branded paper clips now.”
Virgil Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois. His parents, Nee and Eunice, are Ghanaian immigrants who met in Accra in the seventies. In Rockford, Nee worked at a paint company and Eunice worked as a seamstress. Eunice taught Abloh how to use a sewing machine, and at a young age he began designing T-shirts. In high school, he was a skateboarder, a soccer player, and a tagger. “People think I’m not crafty, but when I was a kid I loved making paper airplanes, balsa-wood planes,” he told me. “I have a very steady hand. And then, graffiti, obviously.”
Nee wanted his son to have a practical job, so Abloh studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “But I was, like, ‘I don’t want to be an engineer in the classic sense,’ ” Abloh said. “And the only way to not do that is to do fifty per cent engineering, fifty per cent life.” In Madison, Abloh and his roommate Gabriel Stulman, now a New York restaurateur, hosted farm-to-table dinners in their dorm room. On Wednesdays, Abloh d.j.’ed at the bar where Stulman bartended, and would walk back to campus carrying shoeboxes full of cash.
After graduating, in 2003, Abloh enrolled in the architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where, he told me, he was “profoundly inspired” by the work of Rem Koolhaas, who wrote the book “Delirious New York” and has, in addition to designing buildings, worked on runway collections for Prada. (The two are now friends.) Koolhaas provided Abloh with a new model of what an architect could be. “I was, like, ‘Now I can be even more excited about architecture, because I don’t have to just do architecture,’ ” Abloh said. “Studying architecture, to some people, is, like, ‘Oh, you build buildings.’ But to me it’s a way of thinking. It’s a way of problem-solving with a rationale. And you can apply that rationale to building a building but also to scrambling eggs.”
Frank Flury, a tenured associate professor at the Illinois Institute, was not surprised that Abloh, his former student, now had one of the most powerful jobs in fashion. “Listen, I have every year a hundred students,” he told me, in a thick German accent. “I can’t remember everybody. I remember him for some reason. I remember—how should I say without being politically incorrect?—he was a little different from others. Not because of his skill set. I remember he came every time to class with different clothing.” Mary Ward, who was a teaching assistant, remembers that Abloh was kind and cool, and that, one day, he came to the studio wearing a beige hoodie lined with fur. “It was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen,” she said. Abloh told her that he had designed the hoodie and that his mother had made it.
After graduating, Abloh worked for an architecture firm in Chicago and wrote for The Brilliance, one of the many blogs covering street style and design which had proliferated in response to the elevation of streetwear to high fashion. Abloh’s prose was wide-eyed and enthusiastic. Reviewing the Ralph Lauren restaurant in Chicago, he wrote, “The staff was rocking crispy Polo button-ups and ties, it was a nice white table cloth set up.” One day in 2006, on his lunch break, he was browsing in the Gucci store and noticed a new two-hundred-dollar Gucci T-shirt that appeared to be influenced by bootlegs of Gucci T-shirts. “The sad thing is, the $10 fakes are better,” Abloh wrote. “Graphic wise, design proportion, and actually cotton t-shirt wise too. The expensive ones are too refined, there’s nothin’ hood about them.”
Meanwhile, Abloh had started working for Kanye West, a Chicagoan who was gaining recognition for his production work on Jay-Z’s album “The Blueprint.” West, who had first contacted Abloh as he was finishing his architecture degree, was planning to go solo and wanted to surround himself with a creative entourage. For the next ten years, Abloh was his confidant and artistic fixer. Google a photograph of the musician from the early two-thousands, and chances are that Abloh, a little chubbier than he is now, will be standing nearby, like an expressionless bouncer. The two men travelled together constantly. “We’d be flying on the same plane,” Abloh recalled. “I’d be in coach. He would come back from first class . . . to oversee my work, while the person next to me would be, like, ‘Is that Kanye West in coach?’ ”
West wanted to be a fashion designer. One summer, he and Abloh visited London, where they spent time with Kim Jones (now the menswear director at Dior), at his home. “We would all sit around and look at vintage pieces and lots of old Japanese magazines and talk about references and ideas,” Jones recalled. He described Abloh as “prolific even then, constantly designing and editing.” In 2009, West, Abloh, and their associates Taz Arnold, Fonzworth Bentley, Chris Julian, and Don C. went to Paris Fashion Week together. “Then, it was, like, no one was going to fashion week,” Abloh told me. “Now the barista at Starbucks knows it’s fashion week. It was not that.” A photograph, by Tommy Ton, of the men standing outside the Commes des Garçons Hommes runway show went viral. In it, Don C. is holding a Louis Vuitton briefcase, Kanye is holding a Goyard briefcase, Arnold is wearing leopard-print pants, and Abloh is wearing a Moncler vest, yellow sneakers, and red nerd glasses. “I remember Kanye saying, ‘We’re going to look back on this and it’s going to be similar to the civil rights movement, because we’re standing up to have a voice,’ ” Don C. told GQ. “At the time, I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t compare this to Rosa Parks.’ But in hindsight, it is comparable, because we’ve encouraged new people to participate.” Later that year, West arranged to do a six-month internship at Fendi. Abloh joined him. They were each paid five hundred dollars a month.
West had said that he wanted to “pick up where Steve Jobs left off,” and in 2012 he launched DONDA, a design firm, named after his late mother, that seemed like an arty fraternity. Soon afterward, Abloh, who had helped West produce fashion collaborations, launched his own line, Pyrex Vision. Its logo was the word “Pyrex,” printed in sport-block font, and the number “23.” Pyrex was a reference to the bakeware used to cook crack cocaine; twenty-three was Michael Jordan’s jersey number when he was on the Chicago Bulls. These things represented, to Abloh, the two economic paths available to a black man who wanted to get out of Chicago: drug dealing and sports.
The brand introduced itself with a moody video, called “A TEAM WITH NO SPORT,” in which sad boys wear hoodies, basketball shorts, and huge flannel shirts with the Pyrex logo printed on the back. Complex magazine reported that the shirts were from Ralph Lauren’s Rugby brand. (The original shirts cost about eighty dollars; some of the Pyrex ones sold for seven hundred and twenty dollars.) In 2013, the same year that West launched Yeezy, a sneaker collaboration with Adidas, Abloh shuttered Pyrex and created Off-White. Two years later, he was the single American finalist for the L.V.M.H. Prize for Young Fashion Designers. Like Olivier Rousteing, at Balmain, Abloh recruited socialite-models as de-facto brand ambassadors—in his case, Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner, among others.
West, in an interview with his interior designer Axel Vervoordt, said, of Abloh’s LV appointment, “It’s not bad or good—it’s my creative collaborator being the head of Louis Vuitton.” West had struggled to gain the critical approval he craved for Yeezy. “I wish to be closer to UNICEF or something, where I can take the information that I have and help as many people as possible, not to just shove it into a brand,” he said. When I asked Abloh about rumors that West felt that his protégé had overtaken him, he said, “What does it matter? When was this a competition?” He believed that the speculation was somehow racialized. “Like, ‘Oh, these two creative black guys, we’re going to pit them together and put at least one down. So now we have this one until further notice.’ ” He went on, “I’m his assistant to this day. We have the both of us.”
Abloh told me that the tendency to assume that people are in competition is one of many “pitfalls of human nature.” Another, he said, is the impulse to diminish someone by categorizing them, or “putting them in a box.” Speaking about this, Abloh grew animated. “Like, categorizing things, for what?” he said. “That’s like one of those jokes people tell, like ‘Virgil the Virgin.’ ” I told him that I didn’t understand. “Imagine me as a kid,” he said. “ ‘Hey, what’s your name?’ ‘Virgil.’ And then someone says, ‘Virgil the virgin.’ I didn’t even rate it.” He went on, “It’s not the No. 1 pitfall. No. 1 is people wanting to get the gratification of putting something in a box.”
Talking about his detractors on Instagram, he went on, “If I post a picture of me wearing a Palace tee, they’re, like, ‘You’re a poser, you don’t know how to skate.’ ” (He does know how to skate.) Abloh distinguishes himself from a dilettante who becomes a d.j. or a designer or a musician simply because he has the followers. In June, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago will mount a three-month-long “mid-career retrospective,” designed by Koolhaas’s research studio, AMO, which will exhibit some fifteen years’ worth of Abloh’s work in art, design, music, and fashion. Abloh is excited to offer proof that he, like any serious artist, has developed his ideas over time, and that “there’s a narrative and a body of work.” He hopes that the exhibition will make clear that he transcends any one of his roles. When I asked Heron Preston what he thinks Abloh will do next, he said, “What will he do? He’s probably going to quit fashion and open up a hotel or get into architecture. . . . He’s going to sell Off-White, be done with LV, and he’s going to take on more of the artist role.”
Abloh’s Fall/Winter collection for Off-White was called “Public Television.” At the runway show, models, along with the rappers Offset and Playboi Carti, wore graphic T-shirts and neon sweaters under reconstructed school blazers. Offset, from the Atlanta group Migos, wore an ankle-length lavender puffer that had a fanny pack fused to its side. Two female models wore floral unitards, heels fringed with zip ties, and football helmets. Stevie Dance, the runway stylist for Off-White, told me that the ensemble had come to Abloh in a dream.
The collection was a surreal reinterpretation of Off-White’s so-called normcore beginnings. The brand’s first collection included oversized flannels, hoodies, and washed out jeans—items not dissimilar from the ones that Abloh had designed for Pyrex Vision, and, like Pyrex, Off-White was coveted by a coterie of influencers. But Abloh cast it as a more intellectual enterprise than his earlier brand, presenting the clothes in a thicket of references ranging from Caravaggio to the Bauhaus. The début collection, Abloh said, was inspired by the Farnsworth House, southwest of Chicago, a modernist Mies van der Rohe building with glass walls, which appears to float in the nature surrounding it. “I want to give my point of view and merge street sensibilities in a proper fashion context,” Abloh said. “I think that, if I can merge the two, it’ll make something interesting.” He described Off-White as “defining the gray area between black and white.” In 2017, he told an audience of students at Columbia that it was “not a fashion brand” but “a faux-luxury product.” It was easy to interpret the statement as a pretentious defense against those people who saw his designs as slapdash.
And yet, with each season, Abloh’s collections for Off-White have grown more sophisticated, incorporating wrapped shawls, translucent raincoats, riding pants, and nipped-waist jumpsuits. In 2017, on the twentieth anniversary of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, Abloh presented the collection “Natural Woman,” the devout, haunting work of a pop-culture obsessive. On the runway, clutches in the shapes of the logos for People and Life hung from the models’ spindly arms. Naomi Campbell closed out the show in bicycle shorts, like the ones that Diana wore to the gym, and a cream-colored blazer with a bustle that recalled the cut of the “revenge dress,” designed by Christina Stambolian, that Diana appeared in the night that Charles confessed to his affair on national television. The collections that followed—“Business Woman,” inspired by Kim Kardashian West, from 2017, and “Business Casual,” from 2018—were similarly ambitious. Preston told me that, under Abloh’s influence, “everyone is learning how to sew. That’s the new wave.”
Abloh says that he wants to design for both “the tourist and the purist”—the hypebeasts and the fashion élite. Of his many catchphrases, his favorite might be “Duchamp is my lawyer”—an apparent defense against the charge of copying or co-opting existing works. Many people noticed that the chair Abloh designed for IKEA’s “Markerad” line was almost identical to a Paul McCobb spindle-back chair from his Planner Group series, although Abloh’s had a red doorstop under one leg.
Abloh eagerly lists the names of the industrial designers, fashion designers, and artists who have influenced him. The sweatshirts in his 2015 “Nebraska” collection were an homage to Raf Simons’s 2002 “Virginia Creeper” collection. Simons, a menswear pioneer, has said that there are now “too many hoodies with prints out there.” He has described Abloh as a “sweet guy,” but said that he did not bring anything original to fashion. Abloh responded, politely, that Simons did not understand youth culture. (The rapper A$AP Rocky, who became the face of Dior Homme after Simons’s tenure, tweeted, in response to Simons’s comment, “OFF WHITE DEFENSE SQUAD!!! FAK U MEAN, WHEN I SEE RAF IMMA HAVE A COUPLE WORDS 4 HIM.”)
The Instagram account Diet Prada, which is run by the fashion annalists Tony Liu and Lindsey Schuyler, called out the similarities between Abloh’s chair and McCobb’s. It also compared an Off-White T-shirt, from Abloh’s 2016 collection, to a poster by A. G. Fronzoni, which used an identical font design. In January, it posted a diptych of two extremely similar outfits, both yolk yellow and featuring jagged text. The first was made, last year, by the relatively unknown indie label Colrs. The second was from “Public Television.” This did not seem like an homage. Shortly after Paris Fashion Week, I met with Abloh for the last time, at the Soho House in Chicago. When I mentioned the post to him, he took the opportunity to praise Diet Prada’s editorial project. “All props to them, that’s a great concept,” he said. But he added that the account didn’t take into consideration that coincidences can happen.
He said that he had never seen the Colrs look when he designed his yellow ensemble. The allegation was founded on “basically the use of a yellow fabric with a pattern on it,” he said. “Ring the alarm!” He sighed. “I could go on for a whole hour about the human condition and the magnet that is negativity. That’s why the world is actually like it is. That’s why good doesn’t prevail, because there’s more negative energy. You can create more connective tissue around the idea that this is plagiarized. It’s better just to sit and point your finger. That’s what social media can be. All that space to comment breeds a tendency to fester, versus actually making something.” He went on, “It allows you to package up this thing as: ‘You’re not a designer. Close the book. Because, designers, you should be from Belgium.’ ”
Abloh’s brand relies on an excitement around the fact that people who were once ignored by the fashion gatekeepers now rule the industry. Last year, Abloh met Ralph Lauren at an event honoring the older designer. I asked whether he and Lauren had discussed Pyrex Vision, which had used the Rugby shirts. Abloh answered only obliquely, saying that Lauren had “kind of tipped his hat” to him, and that they’d posed for a photo. “I’m still the seventeen-year-old wide-eyed kid. I’m in shock that I’m meeting Ralph Lauren, and he has on Jordan 13s!,” Abloh said, referring to Lauren’s black-and-red “Bred” Nike sneakers. The shoes revealed Lauren’s “impeccable taste in Jordans—like, taste beyond, like, a hypebeast.” He went on, “So I was, like, ‘Oh, shit, he’s got on, like, the freshest outfit. I need to capture that, ’cause the world doesn’t know that Ralph Lauren wears Jordans.’ I was, like, ‘I can deliver that.’ ” And he posted it for his followers. ♦