The Unlikely Success of Virgil Abloh
Having gained prominence as a creative consultant to Kanye West, Off-White founder Virgil Abloh is proving his three-year-old brand has the business chops to back up the buzz.
PARIS, France — “There is a new guard of designers that represent the luxury culture,” says Bosse Myhr, director of menswear and technology at British department store Selfridges. At the top of the list, alongside Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air and Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, is Virgil Abloh, the longtime creative consultant to Kanye West, whose streetwear-inspired, Milan-based label Off-White has attracted fans from Rihanna to Gigi Hadid and is set to show on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule on Thursday. But behind the buzzy brand, the 36-year-old creative director has also built a genuine business that’s generated triple-digit growth year-on-year since its 2013 launch. Indeed, according to Myhr, Selfridges has seen sales of Off-White surge by 100 percent between 2015 and 2016.
“In a large part streetwear is seen as cheap. What my goal has been is to add an intellectual layer to it and make it credible,” explains Abloh, whose label unites an edgy street aesthetic with luxury-level fabrication and positioning, tapping into the tastes of a generation of consumers for whom streetwear is just as fashionable as traditional luxury brands. “The consumer is already dictating what they prefer,” he adds. “Vintage Levi’s are just as important as an Hermès bag and today they’ll come together in the same outfit.”
Paris Fashion Week can feel a long way from Rockford, Illinois, where Abloh grew up. He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin, followed by a master’s in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he first felt the pull of fashion. “OMA’s Rem Koolhaas had just finished his [McCormick Tribune Campus] student centre, which later [along] with his relationship with Miuccia Prada piqued my interest and opened my gateway into fashion,” Abloh recalls.
In 2002, at the age of 22, Abloh became creative consultant to Kanye West and his creative “think tank” Donda, a role Abloh has held for the past 14 years, though he declines to explain how this happened and avoids going into detail on his work with West, which encompasses tour merchandise, album covers and set design, and certainly helped to catapult his name into the global consciousness.
In 2009, Abloh interned, alongside West, in the Rome headquarters of Fendi. Soon after, he began building his first label, Pyrex Vision, which he debuted in New York in December 2012. The brand, which initially sold custom screen-printed Champion t-shirts ($225) and vintage Ralph Lauren flannels ($550), quickly gained a cult following, in no small part due to Abloh’s design partnerships with famous artists like West and A$AP Rocky. From the start, Pyrex attracted influential retailers like Colette (Paris), Union (Los Angeles), GR8 (Tokyo) and Storm (Copenhagen), and was sold next to luxury labels like Balmain, Céline and Givenchy.
“We saw kids from Harlem presenting Rick Owens and Raf Simons in a different way that connected directly to culture and Pyrex Vision became the aesthetic of that,” Abloh says. “[Until then] high-fashion was dictating what was happening in culture and for the first time that had been reversed by this generation of influential kids. That, in turn, affected the market.”
Pyrex Vision, which Abloh says he voluntarily shuttered in 2013, laid the groundwork for his next project: Off-White, a brand launched in September of the same year that blended a streetwear aesthetic with a more upmarket positioning. “With fashion you have to choose if you’re high-end, contemporary or streetwear, men’s or women’s,” explains Abloh. “Off-White is between black and white, there is no choice. It’s the idea that I wouldn’t decide, which relates more to the consumer.”
Read the full interview on businessoffashion.com