interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
photography by CARLIJN JACOBS
style by LAËTITIA GIMENEZ
at the creative helm of his label off-white and louis vuitton’s men’s collections virgil abloh also successfully collaborates on multiple art projects, while using his many platforms to champion black talent, which he calls “a hallmark of my career”.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Virgil, this issue of Purple is about love, and I can see how much people love you. It’s very unusual. Most of the time, designers tend to have fan clubs of fashion addicts, but you’ve managed to create a whole global community of people who follow you, your music and collections, and who love your art. How do you explain that? Why do people love you so much?
VIRGIL ABLOH — It’s probably more through the work than through me. It’s not like I’m doing a lot of public speaking. It’s not like my Instagram is my real life. I look at it almost as a magazine of my life and the work that I do. So, all of my touch points outward are through my work. And my work started off very small. It has humble beginnings. And it’s also conversational.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You don’t put yourself on a higher level than the people you’re designing for?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Exactly. The world is at different levels. I’m looking more to create a connection at the level where people are, rather than trying to reinforce the level where they are by my work being positioned as higher — whether it’s Louis Vuitton or Off-White or Nike or Ikea… All these things already exist at different levels.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And you’ve said that you’re following a dream, not selling a dream. Can you expand on that? Is it abstract or something you could describe?
VIRGIL ABLOH — It’s more literal than abstract. The dream is an idealistic state about how the world organizes itself, the way that high societies or high art or high fashion sit on a pedestal because they’re aspirational. And my dream is almost literal in this sense. I can create at that level and bring that level or that journey as something that normal people can relate to.
OLIVIER ZAHM — But is it a dream of having an impact on society or something more personal? Do you view fashion as a transformative art form?
VIRGIL ABLOH — It’s always been a mirror for people. Or even a lens. People see themselves in these industries of design and art and music and fashion. And I’ve always made it a goal to develop a language, a signature, which makes that journey achievable and relatable.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So that people can easily follow you or appropriate your design?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Yeah. Or they can see themselves within it. They can see themselves in the ad campaign, or a photo, or their personal style — that it’s more of a reflection of contemporary society.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Or maybe they see it as a way of upgrading their life, of making life more interesting, fun, or sexy?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Yeah. It’s adding to contemporary culture. Every day, our world is made up of moments. And I’m an optimist, at the end of the day. I don’t believe in negativity as a premise. Our role as designers, or culture curators, is to add things to life that make it more inspiring, more engaging: to add positivity to the sequence.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And this inclusivity is related to your idea of what’s contemporary and what’s not…
VIRGIL ABLOH — Exactly. The contemporary ties us into what’s happening today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not dreaming of a better world after the revolution?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Maybe… Hopefully the world’s always a better place.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m glad to hear that you’re an optimist. I am, too. And this is actually pretty rare. What role does love play in your vision of life or of fashion? Is it an important concept for you?
VIRGIL ABLOH — It’s an important concept because love’s at the root of a primal emotion that drives us as human beings. The essence and the characteristic of the emotion of love, or the feeling, are that it moves people. The only thing that makes people move from point A to point B is what they love, whether it’s food, a person, a feeling, a place. And it’s impossible to do the work that I do if you’re not in tune with how the mass of people are moving — in which directions a lot of people are going — and understanding the structure of how people move.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, love is a moving energy.
VIRGIL ABLOH — Yeah. And I think of it on the macro level, not the obvious attraction level. It’s just one vein of a very complex logic around love.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s a movement that goes beyond you and can be transferred to the external world? It’s beyond your own immediate life, right?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Yeah. It’s the ecosystem at large.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Including the love of culture and aesthetics, but also of people in general. It’s uncommon that the designer works with the full picture. Going back to this idea of inclusivity, I sense that you get your inspiration from people, the street, and life itself. Is it a form of empathy?
VIRGIL ABLOH — No. Before my time, the reality of people was overlooked in terms of art and design. It’s always been, “Let me operate at a level above.” For me, looking at endless inspiration, I can find it every day outside the window, by the way that different people live, relate, and look for love. The fashion world, art world, and high society never looked at that as being important. And I simply came along and said, “No, this is important.” So, I design from the bottom in that sense.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you also have the ambition to transform the taste or style of the street? The street was very creative in the ’70s and the ’90s. Is the street interesting today?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Yeah. That’s a good question. Before, it was something that you could say when you found a subculture. Like if you’re into techno in Berlin or hip-hop in Atlanta, it usually lasts three, four years. Or there’s a golden period before things change, and before too many people embrace it and the ecosystem progresses. The interesting characteristic about looking at contemporary culture — everyday life, stories that haven’t been told — is that it’s endless. It doesn’t change. It doesn’t come in style and go out of style. It doesn’t become uninteresting. Because it’s a labyrinth. It’s not so micro. It’s actually an organism of different cultures moving around. Different cities changing. Different people coming in and out. And that’s the level that
I find intriguing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you digest that?
VIRGIL ABLOH — I add my twist. In LA, there’s a scene of cool restaurants and chefs. Or skaters — they’re different from skaters in New York. And there are graffiti writers in Paris who’re doing cool things, cool art exhibits. There’s the crew of kids in Milan: great designers, art directors, photographers. And by moving in these different scenes and having real connections, I can synthesize some commonalities. And I can do a collection in Paris that showcases what I’ve seen by operating in those spaces.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your use of quotation marks is a smart way to be explicit or didactic. Would you say that fashion has a message? And if so, is it abstract? Does it involve love?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Well, people desire and lust for things that have a weight to them or that have some resonance. You could put on a white t-shirt every day, but most people don’t. Fashion taps into a primal need to express oneself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Fashion has this ability to carry a message. And you don’t seem to be afraid of this explicit dimension or communication, right? You’re not just into the style.
VIRGIL ABLOH — I’m into the whole ecosystem. I’m more interested in the human connection that drives the whole impetus.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, your fashion is all about creating a community, creating and making change, not just an identification with a style. It’s more a social language?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Exactly. In essence, I’m trying to record our “now” — make a contemporary recording of what’s happening in the outside world. In the future, if you go back through my body of work, you can say, “Oh, this is what he thought was premier at the time.” Or my work from three, four, five, 10 years in the past — it shows what the rest of the world looked like at that moment.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s so interesting. It’s really beautiful to understand your work better through this idea of love and community, Virgil. I’d compare your work to music in that sense.
VIRGIL ABLOH — Thank you. I think there’s so much to learn between the different disciplines — fashion, music, art — and I’ve always aimed to draw lines between all of those.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it’s not an inspiration. Music’s part of the essence of your collection — as much as your artwork, design, objects, and sculptures are also extremely immediate, like wearing a t-shirt. It makes sense. There’s something physical — an energy that circulates there. It’s not an art totem. People don’t feel smaller, they’re not intimidated: it’s something immediate. Could you describe one of your projects that’s more connected to this idea of love?
VIRGIL ABLOH — My womenswear. That gives me the ability to design for a demographic that’s at the core of a primal idea of love. The muses, the way that you considered womenswear from [when you were] a child growing up, and the stories that I can tell, make it, at the core, an experience to be able to design with that lens in mind.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s your take on the civil rights situation in the US, where white supremacists continue to kill people of color and justice seems to protect them? I’m, of course, referring to the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and other victims of racial injustice…
VIRGIL ABLOH — These events are among the worst acts of humanity on planet Earth. It’s the opposite of love.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Besides the police brutality and looting, don’t you think that the Black Lives Matter movement is the biggest love revolution to happen in America since the civil rights revolution of the ’60s and the protests against the Vietnam War?
VIRGIL ABLOH — There is clearly a reawakening — on a large scale — of the hate that underlies systemic racism. You could say that protesting hate is a move to foster inclusiveness and love.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Has the BLM movement influenced your approach to your next collection?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Supporting Black talent is a hallmark of my career. As far as my collections, they are always a response to contemporary culture. My work never exists in a vacuum — it is always reacting to the current times. I feel that it is my duty, as a creator, to document the current era in art, music, fashion, and design.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Is there something specific about Chicago, your city, in relation to the BLM movement that you can share?
VIRGIL ABLOH — Indeed, Chicago has a unique problem of violence. It is the saddest situation that requires urgent attention. Locally here, I work on specific programs to give opportunities to the local kids to follow a different path of fashion instead of the path of continued violence. The program is called Chicago CRED. It is something in my lifetime that I want to have an effect on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you optimistic about the future of the ongoing BLM movement? Do you see it as a deep social revolution that will change American society and also the world? Or are you afraid the situation will return to how it was before?
VIRGIL ABLOH — In life, you have to decide to be an optimist or a pessimist. In order for me to be motivated every day, to wake up, I choose the former. I lead with love, and I lead with action, in trying to give other Black students the opportunities I had.