Virgil Abloh - “Everything in Quotes”
6.2.2017, Columbia GSAPP, New York
Virgil Abloh is a longtime creative consultant to Kanye West and the founder of
the award-winning luxury fashion label Off-White™. The Chicago-based designer
received his Masters of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology
and his undergraduate in Civil Engineering at the University of
Madison-Wisconsin. His design for the West Loop restaurant Honey’s has been
lauded as one of the best new restaurants in Chicago in 2016. In 2015
Off-White™ was nominated as one of the top eight finalists for the LVMH Prize
in Paris. Abloh was named in the BOF 500 “The People Shaping The Global Fashion
Industry” List and nominated for one of the top five nominees in the category
of International Urban Luxury Brand at The British Fashion Awards in 2016. He
was nominated for a Grammy Award for Album Packaging for his creative direction
of the 2011 album “Watch the Throne” by Kanye West and Jay Z.
- Virgil was introduced by Michael Rock of GSAPP
- Virgil was a graduate student at IIT
- He contacted Michael about DONDA, Kanye West’s creative content company.
Michael remembers the
- “working with DONDA was not easy … many voices, collaborators,
hangers-on … what I quickly learned was that there were only two voiced
that mattered: the guy at the top and Virgil”
- He remembers interviewing Virgil and asking if he ever thought he would
be an architect while at IIT. Virgil: I wanted to learn how to design,
didn’t think I would be a practising architect.
- Virgil has a great sense of branding: how to build it and how to connect
with his audience.
- Brand is normally understood as something applied after the fact, a sort
of meta-order on top of something. What Virgil understood was that a
Brand is itself a set of policies and a methodology to ensure
consistently coherent results.
- The development of his brand Off-White reversed the conventional process
where you make something and then attempt to brand it; Off-White started
first as a brand (an idea) that could be extended across multiple
- When you touch on so many creative disciplines as Virgil, none of them
can be central. To be off is a central tenement of his philosophy:
off-track, off-tune, off-message, off-balance, off-filter.
- At the heart of it all is to be off-center. Virgil proves again and
again that the edge is where the action is.
- I’m excited to be speaking to architecture students
- Lectures like this is where I formulated my whole plan
- While Michael was speaking, I changed the title of this talk to “Young
architects can change the world by not building buildings”.
- I guess I’m an architect. When somebody asks if I am a fashion designer,
I don’t like that term, I just think. I think the reason why this
project scales across different platforms is because the idea of
something being confined to a box does not sit well with me.
- My three years of graduate school were more fun for me than my peers,
since I knew I didn’t want to build buildings, while they were seeking
- Why Off-White
- Irony is a tool for modern creativity
- If you’ve studied the greats, Bauhaus, Margiela, etc. and then you go
off and make a fake DJ group called Been Trill, which ends up selling
more shirts than you ever had in your life, vs the ones that had been
perfectly kerned in Helvetica, said something more serious, were arty. I
- That’s why I stopped Been Trill. But the thing is that modern culture
thrives off the ironic.
- Humor is an entry point for humanity.
- The zone place between Black and White is not grey.
- At all times off-white is juxtaposing two things that are either
dissimilar or very much alike.
- The name itself feels wrong, which made it acceptable.
- Off white is not a brand, it’s a faux luxury product. A playground
that I can build on.
- Be the 17 year old version of yourself
- My mission this talk is to convince you that what young designers want to
do is valid
- Margiela explaining the basics of what things are: colour, temperature,
clothing (the final layer), fashion (a series of propositions).
- For me, Margiela is like Rem. He made clothing was not just «fashion».
- Off-White is many things, but also street wear. A genre of clothing that
relies on printing on blanks for it to mean something.
- PYREX VISION. Shows movie
- At this point I was creative directing with Kanye for 6/8 years
- This was the first time I made something where I decided everything by
- PYREX was made since I felt there was a moment happening that needed to
be captured. The brand was only meant to be for the film, that’s why it
- Was the domino effect for me.
- PYREX 23: in impoverished black neighbourhoods, the story is that the
only way to make it big is either to be Michael Jordan (23), or sell
drugs (PYREX - a utensil to cook crack). I didn’t want to be too obscure
to distance my demographic.
- I think it is easy to make meaningful work.
- Putting everything in quotes allows me to off-white the situation. Allows me
to talk about the term, but also about other people’s using of that term.
- Streetwear is used as a term to describe how people find value in printed
T-shirts, I think it’s a new art movement. I compare it to the term Disco.
- I think streetwear is a term for people without resources creating
something that resonates with their demographic.
- Yeezus album cover
- Think about the era this came out in: two hip-hop kids that are obsessed
with design and progressing the world. For us this represented the death
of the CD, an open casket for a format that we were raised on.
- Project in Barcelona Pavilion
- With Off-White I can do reverse education: use music and fashion to
highlight great designers. Allow people to have similar moments as to
when I walked into Crown Hall for the first time.
- I think fashion can lose it’s strength when there isn’t any meaning
behind it. The only way for me to add meaning is to do these projects.
- Loaded message in disguise.
- There are a lot of empty gestures in design.
- About Luca Sabat wearing an Off-White crewneck that says “woman”:
- Fashion coolness can erase prejudice.
- S, M, L, XL
- The Bible
- Rem’s detail for things, like the Prada Foundation, that’s streetwear.
- Places look the same. This is a Koolhaas idea - the generic city.
- I want to design for difference. My greatest trick is to look at what a
genre is doing, and do it 3-5% different.
- What I’m trying to do is between Supreme and Celine:
- Chique but so authentic.
- Store in Tokyo.
- I hate stores. if you like something you should get it, not be sold
- It’s not even called a store, an office called Something Associates.
Most importantly, it has wifi.
- I now have two stores, each unique, in response to Generic City.
- An iconography that has meaning around the world
- I tried to come up with a monogram, but all looked like something else.
- Then I used the one that everybody thought of but nobody used
- I’m trying to use ready made things to get people to see them.
- Mirror building
- I hate offensive architecture. What can you put in Milan that does not
offend? Something that reflects it.
- I also like that it does not look like Ed Hardy.
- “buy now cry later” - a way to tell my consumers that there is something
behind the clothes
- It’s more important now than ever to have a basis. A traditional education.
- Off-White is a continuation of my 8 years in school.
- For every fashion show that I do, I start with quotes by somebody talking
about seeing art. Two weeks ago in Paris I used John Berger.
- The stuff that interests youth culture is important. The stuff that we make
is important. Who’s to say we can’t start cross referencing and having a
larger meaning. Off-White is taking things that are dissimilar and creating
a space where they can both exist.
- I knew that one day I would get the critique that Off-White is not
inspirational, so we made a long documentary showing how a single
collection is made. It’s not promotion, it’s to show the kids on Prince and
Mercer what designers don’t show them: the transformation form printing on
T-shirts to a couture collection.
- I joke that Duchamp is my lawyer.
- Appropriation, that’s streetwear. There’s rules to be broken.
- The reason why PYREX hoodies have Caravaggio on the front is because I
would have been an engineer had I not take one humanities class that was
on the Renaissance. The idea that he invented a style of painting was
- ”It’s highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels,
spapped ‘PYREX 23’ on the back, and re-sold them for an astonishing markup
of about 700%”
- Blog post on the internet, trying to be demeaning to a young kid.
- Backstory: Rugby, the Polo brand, was going out of business so I bought
all the stock from the entire contry. Printed on it, looked at it and
thought that it looked like 500 bucks.
- Later, I was in talk with Jim Joe (artist) about a rug for my showroom,
and asked him to make me one. He sent me a rug with the above quote on
it. I realised, what better rug to have in my showroom, to have buyers
come in and stand on.
- Things that are commercial aren’t considered art
- that premise doesn’t exist. My streetwear as an art movement is a way to
make product that feels artful, multiplied.
- Question time:
- Asked about the cost of Off-White, and the fact that he talks a lot
about youth culture but his clothes are extremely inaccessible.
- Yes, they are. I try to do lower priced things when I can. I am also
trying to have two conversations at once, since if you want to have
a conversation with the high-end, you have to be high end. Off-White
is made in the same factories as Louis Vuitton, just with a
- The fashion show video that I showed is a communication with a
different sect of fashion. I’m responsible to the youth but also I’m
trying to educate that upper layer of fashion that’s looking at your
instagram and taking your ideas.
- I think it would be cool if someone from our layer of culture got to
play in that field.
- Also making videos and photo shoots which are accessible.
- How do you feel about democratising your ideas. How do you feel about
counterfeits? Does something have to be made by you to be Off-White?
- No, that’s where Off-White is different. I love counterfeits, it’s
the best feedback. If something is working to the point where
somebody else can profit off that, it means it’s really working.
One of my upcoming projects is releasing the pattern together with
the garment, so you can do it yourself. That’s a Margiela idea by
the way. The previous comment raised that Off-White is expensive.
Off-White is not a fashion brand, it was made to inspire kids. If
- Off-White is too expensive, great, you should make your own T-shirt
brand. It’s targeted towards the demographic that can afford it, and
for the ones that can’t afford it it’s meant to make you start the
- Some question about youth culture.
- What keeps me up at night is the fear that Off-White is not
- The only way to gain credibility is to co-sign, so I co-sign Ian
Connor, (other names).