virgil abloh's raw creative vision
We catch up with modern day renaissance man as he launches a new collection of furniture at Art Basel Miami Beach's design fair.
While Virgil Abloh may be a jack of all trades, this hasn't prevented him mastering whatever he dedicates his time to. Each endeavor he undertakes is thought-out and considered, part of a bigger plan. Creative director extraordinaire for Kanye West, in demand DJ on the international style scene, mastermind behind fashion label Off-White (which recently received a nomination for the prestigious LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers), and now showcasing his design skills in Miami, Virgil's artistic ambitions seem only limited by hours in the day.
We caught up with him during Art Basel, where he was showcasing his new furniture designs to talk about his concepts going beyond fashion, his relationship with Tom Sachs, and the testing year that has been 2016.
The passing away of icons, the rise of Donald Trump, climate change, economic slump: this year has been a bad one. Do you feel it affects your vision or work?
One hundred percent. My only concern how it affects people other than me. Does it inspire a generation? Does it have a reaction? Do it push the envelope for our time to have more great art, a greater cultural effect, you know?
Does it make you want to take a stronger social or political stance in your work?
Yeah it strikes a chord in me — I was naturally doing that, but I think even more so now, I'm motivated to keep on that path. I want to make things that are culturally-charged in a specific way as a response to the world we're living in.
What do you mean by culturally?
Everything that is currently happening — subjects of race, gender, sexuality, politics… These should appear in art. Art should be reflective of all this.
What's been your highlight of the year?
I don't really have highlights. Everything's a blur. The year is a highlight; the different compartments and things that make up the year, those are the highlight. For me it's mostly about the work I put out.
How about a low point?
I don't have those either [laughs] — it's combined, a combination of it all. I simply look at the time and try to make stuff; I have a wealth of ideas in my head and I just focus on getting those out.
In the last four years, your progression has been rather amazing, by any standards — from Pyrex, to Off-White, to the LVMH Prize nomination, to your spring/summer 17 womenswear show. What would you pinpoint as the moment, event, or even encounter that felt like the tipping point of what is happening today?
It must have been the womenswear show when I saw things crystallizing in a way, or the fitting right before then with my team. Stevie Dance, who is sort of my partner in crime when it comes to the concept of Off-White and the styling, and Fabien Montique who is the photographer, we're sort of the outer-facing brain trust that puts these shows together and I feel like we've got a good energy and synergy about what we're doing together.
At this point, with your momentum you could have probably applied yourself to anything, and it would have received attention. Why furniture and interior design?
I look at different genres for making things. I think I am a creative person — I make things and then they fall into different categories. In this case it's furniture, you know? Another idea might be a T-shirt, so that's fashion...
So this choice came to you naturally?
Yeah, my background is in engineering and architecture so I was making things in this sort of space before I was doing clothes or anything else. This body of work is based around my starting point in design, what architecture is to me. It's about constructing materials and making them disappear.
Since we're speaking about your installation, could you tell me more about that sign? [On the back wall of the booth is a sign which oscillates between two sentences and the recognizable stripes motif of his Off-White]
The idea is that it's a painting the same way that it's a construction; its sits on the wall and the wording is a strong part of my creative process. Those phrases take you to a certain place when you see them, they speak to you in a certain way. Like "Picture a Lake" — to me it's like a painting of a lake, and it takes you there. It's the same level of abstraction as having these cubes as chairs.
They materials are very raw.
I like the permanence of them, that's part of the design, to make objects last longer than you. That's architecture as well….
It's been said these designs are influenced by modernist icon Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, but also by the work of Tom Sachs and Marcel Duchamp. In what way do you consider yourself an extension or evolution of their work?
I think it's important… these are cultural positions that, you know, they exist for people that have the same mentality. My drive is to make things that will be as important and relevant to a future generation as the work Sachs and Duchamp are. That's our duty as artists and architects, to add to the lineage of design.
How was your talk with Tom Sachs at Apolis Community Center in New York?
Really good. We have a really awesome relationship — he is a mentor of mine, someone that is a guiding voice. Anytime I have a chance to connect with him, I value it a lot.
Will you ever collaborate together?
Yeah, we've been working on projects, we kick it. We're both super busy but to me it's about a lifetime of work.
Despite your many projects and affiliations, you're often most associated with streetwear. Does that seem fitting to you? Or should we just see it as another facet of what you do?
I equally love and reject being categorized by the term streetwear. I'm into intellectualizing "streetwear." It's a way of thinking and an expression of modern thought in design and culture, reflective of our now. In my artwork, I'm focused on attempting to insert a "streetwear" point of view, but in a distilled refined version of that sentiment.
You're often referred to as a "designer" or a "creative director" but have mentioned you'd prefer (at least in the future) to be referred to as an "artist." Why, do you feel the term is more fitting or encompassing?
It's a little bit more broad, it's the heart of creativity; it's not like the creative engine, it's the heart. That's what I'm intrigued by.
How do art and commerce relate to you? Or the relationship between timelessness and speed?
I love both realms and I feel that one complements the other. The fashion aspect is fast, but there's a charm about the temporariness of it. The artwork challenges me to think in different terms.
There seems to be a disconnect between the pricing of certain clothing and what people seem to think they should cost — especially in streetwear or even lifestyle brands. What are your thoughts on that? Do you feel the observation is unfounded?
The thing that most people need to realize is that just because it's a piece of clothing, it doesn't mean it comes from the same infrastructure. There is independent infrastructure and then there are mega brands who make things. Clothing is a necessity so it's a commodity. Designer items, which are more artisanal and are thought of in a different way, are generally more expensive because a designer is seeing these as art. These things are made by a person that's seeing them in a different spirit, you know? There's a discrepancy always but the great thing is that there is choice.
You've mentioned that there is a "Renaissance" happening with new techniques and the internet allowing for creatives to share, discover, and learn faster. But there is also a darker side to that amount of exposure and communication, including an overload of designers and brands, a certain loss of privacy, a watering down of concepts and true ground breaking artistic movements. How does this affect you as an artist, but also as a person?
Yeah it's a conflicting time, but it's our time. It is the atmosphere we still have to make great work in. The ideas and concepts I'm focused on, take into account the climate, it's part of what helps inform the design decisions. I would say it feels like the Renaissance, because it's inspiring how our generation now has the opportunity to influence ideas that resonate on a large scale.
Text Robin Torres