What is Virgil Abloh?

In his own words


By Gwen Ong

What is Virgil Abloh?

What is
Virgil Abloh?

The Virgil Abloh story. In his own words.

Featuring the fashion industry’s views on the serial collaborator and Off-White™ founder.

Photographs by Juergen Teller

Interview by Hans Ulrich Obrist

The magic that is Virgil Abloh and his label Off-White has risen in the ranks with its ubiquity and influence. System magazine – Buro 24/7’s editorial partners – seeks out the designer to see how he thinks, talks, works and communicates. In an exclusive exchange for Buro 24/7 with leading art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, discover who or what is Virgil Abloh below.


Part One, Serpentine Gallery,
London June 30th, 2017

How did you connect with architecture?

My parents are immigrants from Ghana in west Africa, and my dad had one vision: ‘If I make it to America, I want a son with a distinguishable career.’ What he didn’t predict was that my teenage years would be the 1990s in America.

When were you born?

In 1980. I was playing, living the American dream, growing up in an American suburb thinking life was great because I wasn’t in a Third World country. I have African roots, but they were sort of washed away by growing up in suburban America. I was into skateboarding, rock’n’roll and rap. Lifestyle things. School was easy. I had friends who were rebellious. When it came to college, though, my father said he wanted an engineer for a son and he was going to choose my major. I felt it was the least I could do to pay him back. I was nonchalant. But early on, I was into DJing to split things, to take the edge off, to have something cultural to add to some- thing practical. I took humanities late, so I never had an art class. I didn’t know I was into it. Then I took an art-history class in my fifth year of engineering. I learned about the Italian Renaissance and Caravaggio, and it rewired my brain.

It was with Caravaggio that it clicked.

Completely. It was the idea that within art you could invent, just like you can invent a new way of distributing load in a tall building. That sent me into a tail- spin. By then I’d spent five years doing engineering, so I Googled three institutions where you could do an architecture masters with a graduate engineering degree and there were only three at the time. One was the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was like my foundation course on the Mies van der Rohe1 Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology has the greatest concentration of Mies van der Rohe-designed buildings in the world. The 20 buildings include S.R. Crown Hall, a steel-and-glass testament to the architect’s ‘less is more’ aesthetic. campus: I know nothing about architecture; I just have this book of Caravaggio paintings; and I walk into Crown Hall, and I lose my breath. From then on, I was learning about the foundations of Modernism and the International Style. Rem Koolhaas finished the students’ centre2 The McCormick Tribune Campus Center (MTCC) was opened in 2003. It was the first building designed by Rem Koolhaas in the US. Built beneath an elevated public-transit line, it incorporates a 160m-long stainless-steel tube to enclose trains as they pass over. the same year that I started. So I’m learning while Rem is giving lectures, Michael Rock3 In 2006, graphic designer Michael Rock was awarded the USA’s prestigious National Design Award. He later caused a scandal when he refused to visit the White House to collect the prize. is giving lectures, in a student centre with a tunnel for a train to go through. I was born from that crash.

Had you met Rem at that time?

No. But Content, where he writes about his work with Prada – the study of retail, the forward thinking, the non-conceptual design – was the launch pad for me to sit in classes and know what I wanted to take away from them. Michael Rock helped me learn how to think, too. Understanding the architecture in art and the theory with Prada showed me a path. At that point, I was mesmerised by Modernism. I felt there were pillars in that ideology that were going to apply when the Internet fully settled in.

‘What is Virgil Abloh?’ (фото 1)

Courtesy of our editorial partner System

Related content:
Buro 24/7 and System magazine join forces


‘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




And then the next transition happens.

Yes. I was working and then all of a sudden, I got a call from Kanye West. He said: ‘Hey, I heard about this kid in Chicago who can design and understands music and culture.’ So after two years of work practising architecture, building homes and working in various small firms, I went on to be his creative director for 14 years. It was a great experience to apply the things I knew. Kanye used to say that when you become that famous, you’re the janitor with the keys to the world.

People told him there was this new kid?

Yes, like, ‘Hey, there is somebody who thinks like you’. Chicago is a big small town. People you grew up with are always telling you what’s happening back home. I had one very young professor who taught me all the digital things, like Photoshop, Illustrator, AutoCAD, 3D rendering, 3D Studio Max. I just applied those skillsets to fashion. Kanye said, ‘Hey I need you to design this’, and I thought if I can design a building, I can think that through. And when he said, ‘Hey we’re going to build a pavilion for a lm in Cannes’, I said, ‘Let’s call OMA; let’s call Rem’, and that was how we started.

What exactly was your title?

My title was creative director, but I called myself an assistant. He was the spearhead and I would follow through. Or I would do research to add an underpinning of art and architecture to his equation. I had 14 years of running around the world taking meetings.





My parents are immigrants from Ghana. My dad had one vision:
‘If I make it to America, I want a son with a distinguishable career’.



And you were creative director not only of him, but also of his brand?

Exactly. Which I credit him as innovating because he’s an artist. He used to make fun of me and call me Steve Jobs because I always had such a long, precise explanation for every small thing. And that added a lot of rigour to what he was doing. We are still close to this day. I’d still be studying architecture if I had not met him.

It was a decisive encounter?

Yes. I am four years younger than him. I am a part of this generation that’s the tail end of the millennials and interested in a wide range of things. I chose to focus on my own project, which doesn’t look at art, architecture, music and fashion as separate disciplines, but draws zigzag lines between them all. So I work with Kanye West, Beyoncé, George Condo, Vanessa Beecroft, Jenny Holzer. And I started Off-White™.

But you had your own fashion label before that, Pyrex 23…

I had never done anything that was completely mine to the end for 10 years, so I decided to shoot a film in New York. It’s called A Team With No Sport. I took kids from Harlem to downtown SoHo and made this brand with clothes that weren’t mine. I took Ralph Lauren and screen-printed over it. Caravaggio on the front, ‘Pyrex 23’ on the back. ‘Pyrex 23’ is a two-line poem about being in the hood. The only way to make it out is to be great at basketball – and 23 is Michael Jordan’s number – or through Pyrex, which is the cookware in which you make crack cocaine. I made it as an art piece, and on the wall is writing by my artist friend Jim Jones who’s pixelated in the video. He is like a modern Basquiat. The music is ‘Heart and Soul’ by Joy Division. It’s a juxtaposition. Being black, people would assume I’d use hip- hop, but I always use niche European music references that I crash together for a different result. It creates a wider audience. That six-minute video I shot with a friend went through-the-roof viral. Sold from colette. I didn’t even produce the clothes, they were other people’s brands. It turned out to be a seminal piece of work.



‘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



When was this?

This was 2012, it was 12.12.12, when the video came out. I was trying to communicate that this generation wants to play a part in fashion and they have to make it themselves. Then I decided that if I was going to do a clothing line, ‘Pyrex’ as a name wasn’t to my taste. My career is about going back to the original – a black African kid growing up in suburban America. So I use my project to talk about race in the most non-literal terms. As soon as you talk in literal terms, people’s brains shut off.

When did you have your epiphany for the name Off-White?

I had spent 14 years with Kanye West and I was like, ‘OK, let me remind myself of my favourite colour…’ Pyrex was a sensation. I was selling it and I stopped it. It was only meant for a moment in time, it was never meant to be a long-standing thing. I came up with Off-White™ as a means to talk about race. Off-White™ is in-between black and white, but my version of in-between is tainted with my opinion. It’s a blank canvas, a piece of off-white material that millions of artists can shape to give it value and meaning. Off-White™ is a modern version of a fashion brand. It’s a Trojan Horse for me.

Is it all designed by you?

Yes. It’s 200 pieces, men’s and women’s, four times a year. And I’m an architect! Building buildings was too slow and it wasn’t communicating to kids in my social circle. There was no way to talk about it at the bar.



‘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



And was there a manifesto?

Yes there is. It exists online. It’s about luxury, because my clothes are placed at a luxury price point. Off-White™ behaves like a luxury brand, but the spirit and everything underneath it relates to issues of race, youth culture, and globalization.

Is it what David Adjaye would call ‘new moral luxury’?

In a way. I believe that there is a generation gap, a younger generation that the presiding generation is trying to understand. Certain fashion brands no longer speak to a younger generation.

What’s the average age of people who would buy your stuff?

From 18 to Celine Dion’s age, so around 50. I have invested in this group that the hierarchy is trying to relate to. I invested in the kids and their knowledge base. I have this tremendous base of information that I am very particular about, that I have absorbed. Off-White™ is me being a black artist in disguise as a fashion brand in disguise as a DJ, or however people choose to describe me. I chart my course by using my brand to do special projects.

Can you describe a few examples of that to me?

The diagonal lines of my brand’s logo are very similar to the work of Peter Saville and Ben Kelly, the architect who did the Haçienda club in Manchester. I’ve commissioned him to do
a mobile version of the Haçienda. It’s an Off-White™-owned piece, but whenever it is activated with music, we do it together. We debuted it in Miami at the end of last year, it got commissioned at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool, and it is coming to Somerset House in London in November. Another example is Jenny Holzer, just two weeks ago. I’m from Chicago, the land of Black Panthers, real social consciousness. And on the back of Off-White™ jackets is the word ‘white’, just like ‘Pyrex’ – another five-letter word in the same font. I use thi

Explore More