INTERVIEW | Backstage with Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh, with the help of cerebral conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, presented a prosaic collection at Florence’s Palazzo Pitti, in what marks his most important show yet.  
Laced with slogans which called attention to the Syrian refugee crisis, and the political turmoil worldwide, Off-White’s spring 2018 collection hit a moral high note.

Virgil Abloh (Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)

Backstage before the show, the 36 year old designer from Chicago opened up to NOWFASHION on why Michael Jordan is a hero, what he thinks of Milan, being invited to Pitti Uomo 92, and why he ditched architecture for fashion.

Sofia Celeste: So how do you feel? Are you ready for this?
Virgil Abloh: You know it’s funny, I’m not nervous at all. It’s like I’m running towards a train that’s about to hit me.  It is like something that’s supposed to make you feel nervous - that’s a big thing. I’m super into it! It’s a bigger show than I’ve ever done, and it has more of my own personal thoughts and work embedded in it as well.

SC: You said that being at Pitti means that you’ve arrived.  Perhaps they think that you’re a visionary, a driving force of the fashion world. What do you think about that?
VA: I don’t think that’s true. I think the opposite, you know. Fashion is a great industry, but it’s sort of asserted by an unknown voice. We all know it, and we all see those that are tuned into it. But, that’s my motivation, and I actually believe it doesn’t matter. It’s about an expression, a sort of feeling of I made it, or I’m here, I’ve arrived.

SC: What was it like working with Jenny Holzer?
I was completely inspired by her willingness to work together, which in turn made the process very invigorating and precise. We both felt compelled to address the current political climate, we wanted to make our point of view center stage, let people have a moment with our expressions and to have them exist.

SC: You said that you're going to express what you’ve always wanted to express, what is it?
VA: I don’t know. It is what it is, you know. Fashion is an innovative process. You do it and you do it again and then you do it again and then you do it again. That repetition sort of inspires a new approach every time, so it’s just trying to become more precise.  I feel like this collection is as precise as my ambition is, which isn’t always the case for a designer. You can want to build a spaceship, but you’re only building a plane.  By the time that you can actually go to space, then you feel something different emotion. It makes you think about things clearly.

SC: Did you get really good grades in school?
VA: You know, no. I sucked at public speaking. I was a B/ B minus or an occasional A. I would say straight B.

SC: You were previously studying architecture, what made you decide to take up fashion instead?
VA: I fell into it, I wanted to be an architect. I thought it was sexy. It checked all my personal boxes, but then I found that it’s a genre of design which doesn’t keep up to my pace, and doesn’t offer the same kind of gratification. When people try to label what I do and say like ‘DJ’ or like ‘architect’ or ‘fashion designer’, I find it pointless.  It’s all just different sorts of creative. They’re  basically just titles, I don’t believe in titles, I believe in work.

SC: There are a lot of basketball culture references in your fashion, is basketball a large part of your life?
VA: Michael Jordan is like superman to me, for a number of reasons: As a kid growing up in the 90’s, when your basketball team is losing for forever, then all of the sudden one guy comes and loses but becomes this larger than life figure. He inspires me like Kanye West or Pharrell or Duchamp or Koons or David Hammond. It’s people like Tony Hawk, and growing up and seeing people do impossible things with their work which actually changes your mind. You can think one way and then you could see a sculpture, you know Caravaggio has been a driving force for me, like wow THAT exists. I’m not that much of a basketball fan, but Michael Jordan sort of made me.

SC: What do you like about his story?
VA: Just him as a figure, the whole package. I think that any guy that’s born around the year 1980 - anywhere around the globe - is affected by the brand of Michael Jordan, his competitive nature and that he actually won six times [Jordan won the MVP player of the year award six times]. You know that’s cool to me, some people would say that’s super human.

SC: You’ve been in Milan for a while, what have you learned from being there and do you like it?
VA: I learned about osso buco, it’s my favorite dish. And I’ve re-confirmed that I love frizzante. Made in Italy has always been so relevant, and now that fashion’s changing, there’s opportunity to make clothes in other places. I came here because I believe in the tradition of the making of clothes, Italian culture supports that and embraces that.

SC: Perhaps Milan has learned something from you?
VA: I wouldn't say that. I think it’s a cool place as it is. I don't think that highly of myself.

SC: Well you know fashion’s getting more casual and there’s room for expression
VA: I like that streetwear has a place.  When I was starting my career in fashion three to four years ago, it was still questionable. I think that there’s been a great response to younger ideas, so I’m passionate and fortunate.

Off/White by Virgil Abloh Fashion Show (Photo by Gio Staiano for NOWFASHION)