Virgil Abloh Has No Plans of Slowing Down

When so many “fashion people” speak in tentative, pre-digested sound bites, Virgil Abloh’s candor and refusal to go along with conventional wisdom is refreshing. For ELLE’s look at the future of fashion, the Off-White founder and artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton talks about how creativity is like a sprint, why brunch is the ultimate fashion show, and why the intern is always the smartest person in the room.

The conversation around fashion pre-COVID was already pretty focused on how we can make the industry more sustainable, environmentally and in terms of pace. I know you took time off for a period last year, and you’ve talked about the frantic pace of the industry. Do you think the current crisis has accelerated those conversations? Do you think it is going to push the industry in a more sustainable direction, ultimately?

If I explain everything through my optimistic mind: You snap your fingers, and all of a sudden, the industry is cut in half. That’s sort of my shorthand rule. If we cut everything in half, the size of the collection, the length of the fashion week, the amount of designers showing, the scale of the fashion shows, the size of the collection, then it seems like it would renovate the feeling in the industry of: opulent, and too much, and so much stuff going on sale and not having enough time on the schedule, with so many collections driven by marketing and numbers, rather than designers and creativity.

If you ask about my pessimistic mind, because I bounce between both: People are going to do exactly what they were doing January 1st. As optimistic as you want to be, human nature has this resilience to what it wants to do. That’s how we got here in the first place. The glorious days of fashion got us to where we are at, because people were like, ‘Hey, I want couture! I want luxury! I want expensive things.’ But I don’t think you can have this discussion without thinking about the real world. That’s what I based my fashion career on. The everyday person who can’t afford to spend $60 for a T-shirt. That’s also the fashion industry.

abloh backstage with gigi hadid before the off white fall 2020 show

Abloh backstage with Gigi Hadid before the Off-White fall 2020 show.

Richard BordGetty Images

You are frequently called a disruptor. Do you think the industry is particularly in need of disruption right now? Is it going to need to be disrupted in order to thrive?

Yeah, I do. The main point that I stand for, besides my own disruptive ideas, is letting the young kids into the system. It’s not me saying, ‘Hey, I want to turn everything upside down for the sake of turning everything upside down.’ I just say that my career, thankfully, has given me the opportunity as a younger designer to go into older systems and say ‘Hey why don’t we do this this way?’ Or ‘Why don’t we not do that at all?’ or ‘Why don’t we relate to the people, the real people as well as our target consumer?’

The traction that we’ve been able to have in the businesses and companies that I work with, both Off-White and Louis Vuitton, comes from me simply being a younger perspective given a chance in a system that’s much older than I am. I come from a different generation, so of course I let my ideas come from my generation, and we have a dialogue and we’re able to put those into play. The ecosystem of fashion is trying to predict what’s going to be next. Meanwhile, the younger generation has the exact answer. It’s always the intern in the office who has the good ideas.

How are the current limitations kind of forcing people to be more creative right now? Have you found creative ways to reimagine the way that you do things?

I think it’s given me more perspective. I can’t say I’m more creative than normal. If you’re running a sprint without anyone else on the track, your time is going to be most likely slower, because you’re not seeing how far on or far off or on the pace you are and you don’t know if someone’s beating you or not. And I think creativity, especially in a fashion ecosystem, is like that. Since we’re at a standstill, we don’t know who’s changing the ecosystem. It’s kind of like the race has been paused. And that’s where I think it’s valuable. So I haven’t been extra creative, I’ve probably just been more thoughtful. I’m thinking a lot about everything, which is almost a gift that we all got because we step off the treadmills for a second and stop to think and be bored.

So much of creativity does come out of boredom or limitations and trying to work with what you have. Since we’re all reflecting in this time, what have you learned over the last few months that you feel is going to influence your work or is going to influence the industry going forward? Do you think there’s going to be a renewed appreciation for things like craft or quality? You’ve talked about vintage becoming the new streetwear.

Well, I think it’s going to be much harder. The buying public, there’s already a level of desire that’s required. People like fancy things! That hasn’t gone away since the dawn of time, but one thing that I think is resonating is this feeling of humanity, and that’s what I’ve always tapped into, more so than fashion itself, more so than the desire. How can creativity make a feedback loop with humanity? And that’s where I think that the future will see bright revelations and new ideas, if it can go in that direction.

gigi hadid walks off white’s fall 2020 show

Gigi Hadid walks Off-White’s fall 2020 show.

Victor VIRGILEGetty Images

There have been conversations about changing the way that seasons work and fashion weeks work. Dries Van Noten and many other people in the industry put out an open letter about how things need to change. How do you think shows and fashion weeks in general could change? What do you envision taking their place?

Yeah, I’ve been a part of those conversations as well. What I think is that they ultimately sit on one side of the fence. There’s two different paths: there’s fashion, the creative side, then there’s the economics of fashion, and obviously they relate to each other. From the business side, we’re carrying too much weight of the fashion weeks and the discounting and when clothes are marked down and the relation between independent stores and bigger stores. I think this is a great moment for those conversations to be had so that it can be more refined. Everyone is echoing the same sentiment.

So I quite agree with all of that, with that sort of refinement. When I put my creative hat on, I completely don’t care. There’s an inherent pace, no matter when the fashion week is and that’s my personal responsibility, to be inspired at all times and to work at the pace of the race. This was a dream of mine. It would be the equivalent of being like, ‘I want to be in the Olympics, but I don’t want to train every day.’ I go manic with the pace. Not only am I doing fashion, I’m just excited by life. I’m that type of person. My mentors and idols, like Karl Lagerfeld, when you say his name, what you mean is excellence. Or Steve Jobs, or Michael Jordan. That’s a different class of creativity. It’s not just doing it for the love of it, it’s doing it to sort of make a new canon. I definitely grew up with those inspirations, so I’m not one to say that the fashion schedule is too fast or it’s not like the old days, et cetera, et cetera.

This period in history is being compared to the 2008 financial crisis in some ways. Do you think there are any similarities? Did you take away any lessons from that time about how to deal with challenges? It’s interesting, a lot of designers that I cover actually started their careers around the time of the financial crisis at a time when people said it was the worst idea to launch a business, and they managed to do it against the conventional wisdom.

I think that speaks to human resilience. Things don’t go right down to zero, you know? A year ago everyone was sort of unanimous in believing that like diversity, inclusiveness, sustainability were all targets for the whole world in general, not just fashion, but fashion included, and the beauty of that is when it gets seen through. That gets seen through by letting the world be a free world. Letting people give different opinions, people from different economic classes, different groups all have an equal opportunity to play on the same field and that to me is the premium goal of our industry.

the scene at off white’s fall 2020 show

The scene at Off-White’s fall 2020 show.

Victor VIRGILEGetty Images

What do you want to take away from this moment and what do you want to leave behind?

For me, I want to be more thoughtful. I consider myself very lucky, because I’ve been able to, over the past five, six, seven years, lay a foundation in my career. People have seen the ideas evolve. I started out from a printed T-shirt and now to Hailey Bieber’s wedding dress. That A to Z is ultimately phase 1. In my mind, I haven’t done any work yet, I’ve just sort of made a case for why my point of view is valid. What I’m into now is making my voice mean something, making my voice speak to a larger creative community at hand and through action, not press releases, make something that is more heartfelt and speaks to the community and people and humanity frankly through my outlet of fashion, music, art and design.

Comfort was already accelerating, with athleisure and the fashion sweatsuit, but has now has really become a huge part of everyone’s lives. Do you think people will emerge from this and want to get more outfitted, head to toe, becoming more maximalist or, do you think they will take from this that you don’t necessarily need to dress in business casual to look professional? I’ve now seen everyone I work with wearing sweatshirts on Zoom and it doesn’t make me take them less seriously or think they are unprofessional, so, it makes you wonder: Why did we invest so much into looking a certain way? Will this pull people further in the comfort direction or will there be a reset?

I’ve been stuck on one central point, which is restaurants and bars, and to me, fashion is driven by going to brunch with your friends and seeing something you’ve never seen before. The highest ranking system is ‘Hey, where did you get that from?’ That’s an emotional transfer: ‘Yeah, my friends think my style is cool.’ That, to me, is the root of modern-day fashion equity trading. This pandemic and where we are at with social distancing sort of obliterated that landscape, the brunch, the friends, the hang —that drives fashion, frankly, more than the work you and I do in a way. Writing about fashion, me making something on a runway, it’s neck and neck with how someone finds out about a new trend and they want to go to the store and find that exact thing or something like it.

I know. I miss seeing people on the subway. I’m always paying attention to what people are wearing and I’m definitely the person who asks ‘Can I take a picture of this sneaker and sock combo?’ and people think I’m insane, but just vibing off what people are wearing, all these different types of people, that’s harder to do now.

Part of me thinks ‘Yeah, people are liking sweatpants and all that,’ but as soon as they see someone wearing high heels and a cool leather skirt, their brain is immediately going to want to get dressed up. That’s human nature and how trends pass from one another. The way that trends will evolve once it hits the mainstream may be different than what we perceive we’re going to get.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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