On an early summer’s evening on the outskirts of Basel – a city almost certainly in Switzerland, but sometimes in France and occasionally Germany – hundreds of well-heeled men and women stand in line, giddily, champagne flutes in hand, waiting to buy a £140 brick. It is, naturally, no ordinary brick. It’s flag-down-a-passing-aircraft orange, and prominently branded in an edition of just 999. But, crucially, the brick – or “ceramic block” as its parents have christened it – has been designed by Virgil Abloh, a 38-year-old from Chicago, in conjunction with the timeless Swiss furniture company Vitra. Right now, Abloh is an alchemist: anything he touches in the worlds of fashion and design turns to gold (or often orange). The people jostling in this queue know that they could buy a brick and own a cherished piece of design history – or walk out and resell it immediately for at least double what they paid.
And yet, it really does look like a brick. Abloh, whose day job is artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, makes no wild claims for its utility. “It is sort of reminiscent of a cinder block, which is obviously a building unit to build structures such as we’re in,” he says, at the launch at Vitra’s headquarters. “But we decided to make that a ceramic household accessory. It gets adapted to your living space as an object itself, or it can be a paperweight, or it can hold objects within it.”
The brick is, in many ways, a perfect leitmotif for Abloh’s game-changing and divisive career to date. For those who are unconvinced by him, his main talents are in orchestrating hype and self-promotion. One of his often-quoted maxims is that you only need to change a design by 3% to make it fresh and original, and he made his name originally by applying this logic to graphic T-shirts, hoodies and sneakers. In GQ, the author Michael Chabon described Abloh as “one-third hip-hop, one-third hustle, one-third [Malcolm] McLarenesque inside joke”.
For others, though – and it’s an army that is beginning to drown out the doubters – Abloh is nothing less than a new Marcel Duchamp, the Andy Warhol for our times. His work is reliably playful, ironic and totally unreverential: one of his signatures is to add a lurid zip-tie to Nike sneakers. In March, Justin Bieber was stopped by police, who thought he still had a store security tag on his Air Max 90s. “Virgil, my God, bro,” Bieber posted on Instagram. “You freaking – you’re killing me, man!” Other trademarks are horizontal stripes, quotation marks, brash capital letters in Helvetica type. You’ll see them everywhere now: Kendall Jenner, Drake, Beyoncé, Serena Williams.
Abloh is also a pioneer, a relentless polymath. In March 2018, he became Louis Vuitton’s first African-American artistic director, and a rare black designer in the fashion establishment. His streetwear label Off-White, founded in 2012, is neck and neck with Gucci as the “hottest” brand in the world, according to the influential Lyst Index. He’s lectured at Harvard and the Architectural Association in London, and had a series of exhibitions at the Gagosian galleries with cult artist Takashi Murakami. The New Yorker recently called Abloh “menswear’s biggest star”; last year, Time named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
What Abloh taps into is a generation – millennials, essentially – who, until recently, have been ignored as serious consumers. His reach is shown most conspicuously by his Instagram followers, of whom there are 4.1m. This makes him tremendously desirable for established companies looking for a jab of Botox. Ikea has commissioned him to design a range of products, available from November. When, in May, the homewares giant “dropped” a rug from the collection – a grey and black wool-nylon blend with “KEEP OFF” across the middle – it sold out in a finger-click.
It’s a version of this frenzy that I’m witnessing at Vitra. The company – the European manufacturer of the designs of Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton and Jean Prouvé – has worked with Abloh on three new designs: the ceramic block and two “hacks” of classic Prouvé designs, the Antony chair and the Petit Potence wall lamp. There’s a commercial aspect to the collaboration but, for Abloh, that’s not the most exciting part. He sees the Virgil Abloh c/o Vitra project as an opportunity to reach and inspire a young person – in his head, aged 14 to 17 – who has never heard of Prouvé and probably has no interest in design.
So it’s a brick, sure, but maybe for the neophyte it’s also a way into an intimidating, expensive world. “Design is often something the general public doesn’t notice until it’s broke,” says Abloh. “You don’t notice a door handle until it doesn’t work. You don’t think about the history related to architecture, cars or phones – you just use them. Whereas I think we would all benefit from having a knowledge of design. At least that’s the premise that I operate under.”
Abloh is a big man with a gentle manner. He doesn’t often crack a smile this afternoon, but you can tell when he’s into an idea by the fact that his speech cadence, usually languid, quickens. He has offices in Paris, Milan and London, homes in Paris and Chicago, but no desk anywhere. His design work is mainly done on two phones that sit between us as we speak. I’d love to say that our conversation is so compelling that they remain untouched, but that isn’t the case. A sound engineer records our exchange for Abloh’s “archive”.
The Abloh story starts in suburban Rockford, Illinois in 1980. His mother Eunice and father Nee, Ghanaian immigrants to America in the 1970s, were respectively a seamstress and a manager of a paint company. As a teenager, Abloh was into skateboarding, soccer and graffiti but, looking back, his greatest inspiration was hip-hop. And he sees obvious parallels with critiques of his design work. “Hip-hop’s a music form that’s made by sampling a soul or jazz record and making a completely new genre,” he says. “You could argue, ‘Is it music or not?’ But you can say now that it’s the number one [genre] in music.”
Abloh is not, by most accepted definitions, actually a millennial himself: most have that category starting with a 1982 birthdate. Certainly his academic career followed a more traditional Generation X path. His parents wanted him to learn a trade, so he studied first civil engineering and then trained as an architect. His heroes were an eclectic crew: Kanye West, Rem Koolhaas, Pharrell Williams and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.
The story goes that he engineered a meeting with West by finding out where the rapper screen-printed his merchandise in Chicago. Now, he says that they probably would have run into each other anyway. “We’re from the same city, so it’s a small circle.” Either way, they clicked and, for a decade from the mid-2000s, they worked on projects together (Abloh is sometimes called West’s creative director). When, in 2009, West decided to slum it as an intern at the fashion house Fendi in Rome for six months – with a salary of £400 a month – Abloh tagged along.
Not many make the jump from intern to artistic director, but Abloh’s ascent tells you what a crazy journey the fashion industry has been on in the past few years. Today, under-35s drive more than 50% of the revenue at some of the top fashion labels and streetwear is mainstream. “For sure, I bet on it,” he says. “I made a career out of it. When I was showing in fashion week, people were saying, ‘That’s not fashion.’ I wasn’t referred to as a fashion designer.”
Abloh is sometimes described as a dilettante, but he points out that nothing he’s achieved has been easy. “My career had been 15 years long and there’s only been people paying attention for the last three,” he says. “I’ve been doing this exact amount of work and type of work for a long time. It’s the life of a designer and artist that not everything works, but when everyone’s watching hopefully it’s working.”
In 2019, everyone’s watching, everything’s working. On the day we meet, Abloh has flown into Switzerland from Chicago, where the Museum of Contemporary Art is staging a career-spanning retrospective: he is, to confirm, 38 years old. His latest collections for Off-White and Louis Vuitton were presented at Paris Fashion Week this month (his LV jamboree, which featured floral harnesses, Arsenal’s Héctor Bellerín and a red bouncy castle, was “the standout show” of the week, said W Magazine). He’s had to finish off this project with Vitra and go back and forth with Ikea. Most of us, it’s safe to say, wouldn’t last five minutes as Virgil Abloh.
The reason for this punishing pace is that he loves what he does and perhaps knows that this is his time. “I feel like now is a tremendous time in culture,” he says, at the Vitra launch. “I feel like it’s the Renaissance. I feel like Bernini just sculpting away, defining a moment of enlightenment. I’m just an eager kid who looks at every day as a possibility to make something and leave a good impact.”
Abloh’s private life is mainly that – private – but we know he is married to Shannon Sundberg, whom he met in high school, and they have two young children, Lowe and Grey. It’s been estimated that he’s on the road 320 days a year – “a myth,” he counters – but he doesn’t deny he has to be obsessive about his work. “Any person you can cite: Steve Jobs, Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Jordan – they are not common names because they did it nine-to-five,” he says. “There are people on Earth that dedicate themselves to their practice or whatever. I’ve always been like that.”
In his staff, Abloh looks for and expects a similar work ethic. At Vitra, he notes that he makes most of his hires straight from social media. “If you have an awesome Instagram, I’ll follow you, DM you and say, ‘Hey, do you want a job?’ And if you are self-motivated, you’re going to get promoted in two seconds because that’s ultimately the shot I wanted when I was a kid.”
Working at this speed also means that Abloh doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about how people (especially trolls) are responding to what he’s doing. He’s adamant that his gaze is set 30 years down the line, not at the comments on an Instagram post. As he puts it: “I’m not waiting for someone else to tell me what grade I get on it.”
And how does he feel about his work reselling for inflated multiples of their original price? Another shrug. “Like on my list of things to worry about… I can’t control it,” Abloh replies. “I’m just the creator of the idea, the company is more in control.”
On the evidence of his Vitra project – whether Abloh is interested or not – he appears to have another hit. The range sold out in days, and it does seem to have initiated a conversation about design among a new crowd. At the end of a public talk he gave at the Vitra Campus, the stage was mobbed by teens and 20-somethings, many of whom were standing in their socks, thrusting up sneakers for Abloh to sign. “He’s a rock star!” says a design writer that I’m sitting next to. It’s definitely hard to think of another contemporary designer who would inspire such a response – even harder to name one who would later play a 90-minute DJ set, until 12.30am, at the Vitra summer party (unexpected highlight: Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’.)
Of course, Abloh’s designs will likely never be for everyone – perhaps inevitably for someone who confronts, and affronts, the status quo so directly. At Basel airport the next day, I try to put one of his cinder blocks through the X-ray machine. The security officer looks bemused and pulls me aside for clarification. “Français, Deutsch, English?” he asks. “What is this?” I explain to him that it’s a ceramic design object. He takes a knife, slices the tape on the cardboard packaging. I’m travelling with a PR and he opens Abloh’s Instagram page, showing the brick in situ. The image already has 40,000 likes. The security man’s expression is unchanged: he picks up the brick, spins it around in his hand, puts it back and waves me through without comment.
There will be another drop of Virgil Abloh c/o Vitra this autumn. Visit vitra.com for more information
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