Virgil Abloh, fashion designer (Off White) and creative director for Kanye West, was recently featured in GQ in an article called “The Life of (Virgil) Abloh.” This cleverly named article highlights Abloh’s rise to fame from his time studying engineering at U of Wisconsin and architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) to his creative ventures in the fashion industry.
Photograph by Robert Maxwell
Virgil Abloh’s Story
He grew up middle-class in Rockford, Illinois, the son of Ghanaian immigrants who let him DJ on the weekends but also made sure he went not only to college (at the University of Wisconsin, where he got an engineering degree) but also to graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he studied architecture—
“I wanted to build skyscrapers because I ﬁgured if you could build the tallest building, you could design a spoon, you know?”
Virgil was young and already certiﬁed cool in Chicago at the exact moment Kanye was becoming Kanye; the day they started working together in 2003 was the day of Virgil’s ostensible graduation, when he skipped most of his own ﬁnal critique to take a meeting with Kanye’s then manager, John Monopoly. He offered his own good taste and a willingness to design merch; Kanye, perpetually drawn to people who know what he doesn’t, and who’d already met Virgil a few times around Chicago, put him on the payroll. Like the people who wear Off-White now, both Virgil and Kanye aspired to a cool they hadn’t quite attained yet. “There’s no line between a designer and consumer,” Virgil says today. “I’m also a consumer.”
Like Kanye, Virgil still thinks of himself as an artist. But what he really wants to be is a bigger and better capitalist. “Creative-directing a fashion house, we’ve all got our little pontoon boats or whatever. Some might be bigger than others. The fashion house is the ocean cruise. It’s like a f***ing cruise liner. It’s got 7,000 people on it. You’re steering it. That’s my goal. I want to do that.”
And he may get to. Last year, Off-White was the only American ﬁnalist for the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers. As Virgil has grown up and drifted toward fashion’s mainstream, the industry has begun to drift his way as well; a job at a major house would only certify a transition that’s already largely complete. Virgil still works closely with Kanye, and any honest assessment of Off-White’s success would have to include his affiliation with his more famous friend. But it’s Virgil who has quietly found the widespread acceptance in the fashion world that Kanye still craves.
Just a few years back, a clothing line from Kanye West’s prodigy basically meant silk-screened hoodies. These days, Off-White is shown on runways in Paris and sells shearling coats made in Italy, and Virgil himself has earned the respect of fashion’s elite. The printed hoodies will always be there for entry-level customers, but Off-White is now every designer’s fantasy: a full-blown luxury label with cred on the street and in the showroom.