I met Virgil Abloh, creative director of brand OFF WHITE, arguably the leading brand in the current street fashion scene with its signature white diagonal stripes, months before his new pop up shop launch at Boon the Shop in Korea. We meet at Shoreditch House, the members only club in East London known for its roof top swimming pool and the go to spot for the fashion crowd. Virgil is dressed in simple clothes unlike his PR dressed head to toe in OFF WHITE. He answers every question in a low tone speaking slowly but in the most serious and thought provoking manner possible. He is also strikingly tall. Virgil is a full time designer but a renowned DJ and also a prominent stylist working with numbers of artists mainly from the music industries around the world. From white canvas to Korea’s national flag Taegukgi, Virgil reveals how his inspirations are juxtaposed to create something very specific and unique representing what is relevant now.
Tell us about your brand, why is it called OFF WHITE?
First I was trying to satisfy my own personal need to have an interesting name. I think a name is everything. It not only inspires me but also makes a perfect foundation so I rose at the name OFF WHITE because what better name than a colour of a canvas. It can take any colour, all the shade of every colour.
The white diagonal stripes have become the brand’s signature. Was this intentional? Followers are posting this pattern discovered all over the world on your Instagram?
Yes by chance but it came to me organically. I’m a graphic designer and it came from a combination of things. These are patterns that you see in an urban context. It’s something that naturally occurs in every city and every street. People just didn’t highlight it so I wanted to take it and make it my own ubiquitous branding as a feature to brand without using a name or logo.
There is a strong street vibe to your brand from the signature pattern that has become the brand’s logo to the name of the brand and of course the collection itself. It all flows very organically. Is this part of our DNA?
It’s something very important to me. I wanted to become a designer in my own way and I want to be true to my background. I was a kid from Chicago and I was into basketball, skateboarding and hip hop. I want to be true to that but also being a fan of design design (Virgil repeated the word ‘design’ twice as if emphasizing the term). My background is equally in architecture and I pursue refined designs. So as a designer, I’m merging these things together.
Your story is very interesting but also what you are doing is relevant to today. Streetwear, street fashion designer brand, and the youth culture is no doubt a growing trend in today’s fashion.
Only because it resonates with time. I think we’ve seen a shift in fashion where it was once being told to us but now fashion is defined by youth culture. The paradigm has been shifted. We have rebranded brands and we have remixed the way we wear brands together. We are living in a time where personal styling is celebrated.
All this process happened quite naturally in the fashion world?
Yes, it’s the times. Certain things spread that out whether it is through Tumblr or Instagram or just these new fashion icons (not necessarily being celebrities or models) influencing culture to evolve. My favourite stylist, Xin, (stylist Seungho Yang, an artist represented by YG Entertainment in Korea) he merges what’s happening on the niche level and apply it to the mass and communicate this personal style to the world. He is a visionaire.
What is cool to you right now?
What’s cool to me is interesting people with a personal style and a point of view, like the subcultures. I’m drawn to those who have a story to tell. I travel a lot so I’m into the interconnectiveness of different cultures (how cultures interact and connect). When I was DJing in Korea with some kids that were making rap music out of Japan without ever meeting, we had a common bond because of the internet and the current culture. They have a local story to tell with a local point of view. I like that because I’m a young person trying to do the same. I feel that it’s important to stay young in your approach even though I’m a young designer I’m older, too. I studied a lot before actually designing myself.
What did you study?
Just culture. Nerding out and listening to Ground music from the UK to streetwear from Japan, NY, LA, San Francisco, and London. Understanding that things resonate and not necessarily studying by academics but paying attention and getting into things that aren’t my culture.
In the past the business people who are the shakers and movers in the fashion world didn’t seem to understand this kind of a language or taste. Why do you think business people take you seriously now?
I don’t know. I don’t think they do.
I think they do. Your collection is stocked in multiple boutiques and department stores world wide, that’s a serious business.
I make quality clothes, deliver them on time, and be on top of quality control, making everything in Italy. This is not some young irresponsible streetwear brand that I’m packaging myself in. There’s a designated team working hard to run a reputable business.
Congratulations for winning the LVMH Award. Now that you’ve become closer to the main stream, do you not like that, will you rebel?
Nah, I’m into that! I love main stream. I’m just trying to make my dream goals and achievements. I always thought before I started I wanted to be like a ‘Karl Lagerfeld’ or like a ‘Hedi Slimane’ of our particular culture because they are all their versions of their particular cultures sitting at their helm driving a cruise ship for a certain culture. As a young streetwear designer I need to take it so serious that one day if that magic slot opens up after 10 years of doing your own collections we can have our own ‘Alexander Wang’ that used to go to ground parties and skate board and really be part of the hip hop culture. If we think our culture now is important let’s make sure, it doesn’t have to be me, but take our culture seriously that someone who is designing for one of the LVMH brand in the future can say that they have bought a Supreme tee shirt and has been at ASAP Rocky show when he was off of the first mixed tape (giggles). That’s what I want to hear in 10 years time.
I like that, that’s awesome. Let’s talk about music. Music is a strong influence to the fashion industry and there’s a strong magnetic force between music and fashion.
Music is like temperature. It’s almost like the rate of culture moves is how fast music moves. Fashion is however a little skewed with these ‘trends’ and things like that. Fashion has to move at a rate and keep up to that tide to how fast music is. An artist who creates a song that speaks of the aesthetics of a city and its culture can win it over a night with the success of that one song and those aesthetics can go faster along with that music artist.
What’s going to be at Boon the Shop? Can you tell us about it?
There will be menswear, womenswer and the furniture. But for me it’s the whole collective together that paints the whole picture.
How would you describe your brand Off White?
My mission statement is‘to represent the now’. I think out of the newness there can be a new sort of a brand and I’m classically into the brands that are tied to their creative directors – it’s all about the personal connection! To me the brand is a person, and I want to do all that but create a young version.
When will you be in Seoul?
Soon. We’re going to do a party and an installation. As a graphic designer flags infinitely inspire me and my favourite flag in the world is the Korean flag. My whole mode is to celebrate the flag as a graphic design so it’s going to be big patches and collage using that with my brand. That's going to be cool.
It’s going to be in colour?
Yeah, colour, some different colour patches.
What’s coming up next?
I’m working on my womenswear collection called ‘Split Ends’. It’s inspired by the 60s hippy culture. I’ve noticed a common thread right now how there’s an enlightenment period happening again. More young people are interested in social issues whether it’s the shooting in Paris (in January) or eating Kale and healthy juices there’s a whole revival of hippy values that just happened all of the sudden. I was inspired by juxtaposing it with streets to see what happens when you take that whole aesthetics and you mix it into something that’s a little bit more chic and street.
You called your men’s collection back in January, ‘Don’t Look Down’. I like that one. But then it was all about the Mt Everest and Wall Street, that combination was amazing.
Yeah, metaphorical but also a phrase to represent the human spirit to want to climb a mountain or climb to the top of your job. You’re not really successful if you’re looking down. I have to figure some sort of tension, something that doesn’t make sense but there’s all of it in my head you know.
And put together?
And juxtapose it?
Yeah, that’s it.
Written by Inhae Yeo
Photo by Youngchul Kim
This article has been featured in <Boon the Shop> magazine's SS 2015 issue.