On Tuesday evening, Off-White designer Virgil Abloh — running on just two hours of sleep after deejaying at Las Vegas nightclub XS the night before — stopped by the Apolis Community Centre, the menswear brand's flagship store and event space in downtown New York City, to join artist Tom Sachs and Barneys New York Creative Ambassador Simon Doonan for a discussion about how creativity can impact a community.
Abloh is notorious for being hyper-creative: Aside from designing collections for his critically acclaimed brand, he consults for Kanye West, deejays under the moniker Flat White, makes music with Guillaume Berg as the duo Paris, IL, and is never not traveling. "I love the ability to go between different spaces and share information between them," says Abloh. A champion of the youth, he feels that now is the perfect time for the next generation to dive into projects across the creative board. "I feel like it's grip-it-and-rip-it time. No chill, no sleep," he explains. "There are open seats at the table for young people to participate, and so I think whenever I notice that empty seat, I'm running, racing 24/7, connecting dots, trying to inspire my friends to do the same thing."
Considering his multi-hyphenate duties, it's crazy how Abloh manages to churn out between 200 and 300 pieces every season for his Milan-based label, but what helps is the fact that he doesn't get too bogged down with the collections. For Abloh, it's all "one big art project;" the clothes are just a cog in the wheel that is Off-White. "They're just sort of a means to paint a bigger picture that fashion should have a brand with someone behind it who cares about different contexts," he says. "Different social things, different landscapes — in disguise as a fashion brand that shows in Paris."
During Doonan's rapid fire of 20 questions, Sachs expressed his own thoughts on fashion, deeming it "unnecessary." (The artist has commented on the industry before, with past works including a fast food meal made from Hermés packaging, a toilet with the Prada logo, a Chanel-branded guillotine and chain saw, as well as a glock in Tiffany & Co.'s signature blue.) Later, he expanded on his position: "Things go in and out fashion quicker than [they're out]. It's called 'planned obsolescence,' or to be technical, 'perceived obsolescence,' and those things prevent us from buying heirloom and making heirloom products."
Abloh agrees, noting that he applies the same concept to making clothes. With each season, Off-White features the same graphic — white diagonal lines — on its garments to create a sense of continuity, rather than pushing new ideas or trends with every collection. "Fashion hasn't been intellectualized to give people a chance to buy between multiple seasons," he says.
Towards the end of the conversation, Abloh admits that he hates being on stage or with a microphone. "Because I'm essentially the same as you guys," he says. "I've just done a bunch of stuff that landed me up here." He would much prefer to scroll through Instagram or engage in group chats with his friends, pouring it all back into his work. "My main motivation is almost from your perspective of like, 'Off- White is whack. Off-White is streetwear. Off-White isn't fashion. Virgil isn't a designer, or XYZ brand is a real fashion brand,'" he says. "So all [those] hypebeast-type comments... Those things I sit and I look at it all. I'm a consumer, too."
But for someone whose focus and energy are driven by the youth and his peers, an audience member asked Abloh why his pieces are too expensive for the average millennial to afford. (On Net-a-Porter, an Off-White graphic T-shirt is priced at $280, and hoodies can go for more than $500.) The designer admits that he gets this question (or critique) a lot, and from the multiple answers going through his head, he managed to strike up a fair argument: "Don't let Zara and Uniqlo educate you on the price of a garment, because that's not fashion. That's like McDonald's. Your health is tied to that — a 99-cent nugget," explains Abloh. He goes on to mention the costs that come with sustaining a high-quality brand: customs and duties with shipping product, buying luxury fabric and paying employees a healthy wage, for example. "Of course my brand is inspired by the youth," says Abloh. "I wouldn't say it's directly made for the youth. It's who I am."
Of course, a current conversation wouldn't be complete without mentioning the results of last week's election. When asked if our new President-elect will help fuel creativity among artists, Abloh admitted to being "painfully optimistic." (He was in Italy upon learning the news, which "seemed surreal, like a joke.") "Our reality is what we make it, so I'm like, 'fuck it,'" says Abloh. "Our mind-set and what the world will be after that archetype of a person sort of passes away... to me, that's inspiring." But the designer believes that he and the younger generation still have work to do. "I'm looking for our Warhol, our Basquiat. I'm looking for our Studio 54. I'm looking for our Galliano, a McQueen collection," says Abloh. "Me putting a hoodie and jeans on a runway is just a point of difference." In his eyes, that's not "greatness," but he trusts the talent to make that happen is out there.