On Thursday afternoon in New York, at Vogue's inaugural "Forces of Fashion" conference at Milk Studios, two of street culture's most influential figures, Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston, took the stage with editor Chioma Nnadi to tackle the nebulous topic of "cool."
Both Abloh — the mastermind behind Off-White and, previously, the much-hyped label Pyrex Vision — and Preston — who runs his own eponymous brand, designed a collection with the New York Department of Sanitation and is a former Nike employee — have been on the so-called streetwear scene for years; they've worked together as part of the art, fashion and music collective #BEEN #TRILL, selling DIY merch that went viral, was beloved by rappers and sold for hundreds of dollars. If anyone is able to epitomize "cool" in 2017, it's these two — but do they believe that this quality is something that can be commodified and still stay in tact?
Believe it or not, the answer is yes — even in the world of luxury fashion. "If you covet [something], it's luxurious to you," said Abloh, breaking down his philosophy regarding the concept of luxury. "The jest is: Cool kids want to be rich, rich kids want to be cool," added Preston, regarding the mix of high- and low-end brands they see young people wearing on the streets of Soho today. "The friction between that is something we've always noticed ... The luxury world wants so hard to be 'cool' and be in the streets, and that is really becoming relevant."
Of course, the topic of Supreme's collaboration with Louis Vuitton — and recent $500 million investment from The Carlyle Group — came up, as did the question of whether such an insider-y, niche label can scale globally and keep its street cred.
"Supreme is coveted … If you're 17 years old, getting into a Supreme store, buying that first T-shirt, something you never want to lose for the rest of your life, it doesn't matter if it's $30," explained Abloh, who likened this generation's fascination with Supreme to his own with brands like Marc Jacobs and Vuitton as a youngster. "That 17-year-old kid is going to remember Supreme for the rest of his life." But, according to Preston, part of the label's appeal is that it still feels so small and is not quite a household name — a fact that's likely to change in the months and years ahead.
So, how can Supreme avoid "selling out" amongst its fans and alienating the subculture of customers it's built over the past two decades? "Staying honest, staying true to the core, that's what [Supreme founder] James [Jebbia] has been sharp at," said Preston. That, and hiring the right people with interesting points of view who can keep Supreme's integrity in tact. "Companies are just people, that's what they are."
"In my mind, the coolest things are when someone is so specific and they've sort of blocked out every notion of what you're supposed to do and they do something pure — that's what I search for," added Abloh, name-checking brands like Chrome Hearts (designed by a husband and wife team), Hermès and Chanel alongside people like Michael Jordan and Kurt Cobain with a central point of view that never wavered.
"Everything that I obsessed about, the variance was only one or two percent from the core," said Abloh. "Individuality is the essence of what's cool. You can replace 'cool' as a figurative thing with 'being yourself,' but being so specific that people can find you."