How Virgil Abloh and Mercedes-Benz plan to reshape the meaning of luxury

In an exclusive conversation with the hyphenate creative force and the German carmaker’s Chief Design Officer, we share insights into the process behind the landmark collaboration.

by Mahoro Seward
08 September 2020, 2:10pm

Though it may feel like the world has been placed on pause this year, things certainly haven’t slowed down for Virgil Abloh. Not only has he kept the wheels turning at his 9-5 gigs at Off-White and Louis Vuitton, he’s turned his creative gaze to things that run on wheels, too. Just over a month ago, we shared that the hyphenate creative force and collaborator par excellence had teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to create a one-of-a-kind artwork in celebration of the G-class model’s 40th birthday.

Mercedes-Benz Project Geländewagen

That the product of a partnership between the Louis Vuitton Menswear Artistic Director and the German carmaker was set to be a radical expression of contemporary luxury was a given, though what it might look like was the subject of pure conjecture until now. For the first time, the iconic automobile has been reinvented as the ultimate boy’s toy — a race car.

Revealed today as a digital artwork, a physical version will also be going up for auction — for those with particularly ample bank accounts — as part of Sotheby’s Contemporary Curated. To mark the occasion, we had an exclusive chat with Virgil and Gorden Wagener, Mercedes-Benz’ Chief Design Officer, in which they share the inspiration behind the project, and explain how it proposes to reshape the meaning of luxury.

Mercedes-Benz Project Geländewagen

**What were the main sources of inspiration for Project Geländewagen?**Gorden Wagener: The G-class is the most iconic car that we have at Mercedes-Benz, and Virgil and I both drive one. We started the design process by analysing its DNA, breaking it down to the essence to find out what makes it so iconic, capturing the experience of owning and driving the G-class in order to create a new and different interpretation of it.

Virgil Abloh: We really looked a lot at racing culture, too.

Virgil, before working on this project, what first came to mind on hearing ‘Mercedes-Benz’? And have your thoughts on the brand and what it represents altered since?
Virgil: My first experience with Mercedes goes back to early rap music videos when I was a kid growing up outside of Chicago. I just always picture this Jay-Z music video, where he’s in this G-Wagen, and that really shaped my culture.

Mercedes-Benz Project Geländewagen_Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, shot by Bafic_14.jpg

In the minds of many, Mercedes-Benz is, first and foremost, a luxury car manufacturer. In what ways is it more than that? And how did you seek to express this in the collaboration?
Gorden: I see Mercedes-Benz as a luxury label. We don’t just deliver a luxury product, but intangible luxuries such as beauty and the extraordinary, and also a sense of safety, security, comfort, convenience... It is an emotional connection. For this project, we wanted to find a new definition of luxury, one that makes sense for the times we live in, which is what Virgil brought to the table.

Virgil: I think at the core of Mercedes-Benz is this commitment to design and performance, and the luxury aspect comes in where these notions intersect, creating a stylistic functionality. With Mercedes-Benz you’re experiencing this top of the line machine, which can practically read your mind. Not only that, it looks good too. It’s been engineered to fit you and your lifestyle, not the other way around. Together we wanted to focus on that design element, and take it one step further.

Mercedes-Benz Project Geländewagen

What are the main overlapping features of your respective approaches to design and art-making? Were there any notable differences?
Gorden: Both Virgil and Mercedes-Benz are disruptive in our approaches. I think we both agree that the only way to push design and creativity forward is to question everything, break it down and start again. The Mercedes-Benz design philosophy is deeply rooted in this idea of sensual purity, which is at the heart of everything we do, and the idea of purity is a philosophy I believe Virgil also shares.  In terms of differences, Virgil has a very conceptual approach to his design, and we love the detail at Mercedes-Benz -- we are car geeks after all!

Mercedes-Benz Project Geländewagen_Courtesy of Mercedes-Benz, shot by Bafic_27.jpg

Project Geländewagen’s objective is “to push the boundaries of each respective creative realm and rebuild the luxury landscape anew”. What does, or should, this new landscape look like? How does it differ from the one we’re currently accustomed to?
Gordon: This is our job as designers, to define luxury and what it will be in the future. Sometimes it’s not so apparent, the future isn’t written yet. It is so easy to look back at the past and be romantic about it, but designers should push it forward through collaborations like this. Enjoy your work and be inspired and that’s how you create the future. At Mercedes-Benz, we consider an even more holistic approach to luxury design to be important moving forward: you buy a luxury product because it is something extraordinary that makes you feel good. It is emotional. The whole experience is important.

Virgil: In one sense it stays the same — luxury will always refer to items or experiences that we covet. But at the same time, we’re at this pivotal point where our needs are changing. A lot of people might “need” less, but they still “want”. This is where design, style and emotion become more important than ever.

Discover Project Gelaendewagen here.

Virgil Abloh