He’s been in the fashion industry over a decade, has created some of the most coveted clothing and collaborations of all time and has reached cult-like status as an arbiter of what’s new and next. But Off-White founder Virgil Abloh recently admitted to Vanity Fair that the mantle of “designer” has been hard to accept.
Speaking with magazine the day after his successful Wizard of Oz-inspired runway debut as artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, Abloh tells interviewer K. Austin Collins, “I thought that a designer with a capital D never looked like me. I was like, I’m not a designer.”
For Abloh, the Rockford, Ill.-born son of Ghanaian immigrants, it’s an understandable statement. For decades, what we’ve known as the contemporary fashion industry has tended to exclude black and brown faces, preferring to see them on the catwalks rather than as the creative forces behind luxury labels.
Though not the first black man to rise to such heights (Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing holds that honor, as does former Calvin Klein creative director Patrick Robinson) Abloh’s ascension has proven an unparalleled anomaly for an African-American man in the Eurocentric realms of the fashion industry. His profile is unique in coinciding with a cultural zeitgeist that he helped create through multiple projects with Kanye West, enviable social media savvy and his work with Off-White.
Abloh is also unique in that, despite his fame and cultural cachet, he was an unlikely choice for a luxury French house; a choice that sparked much debate at the time of his appointment. As Vanity Fair reported, perhaps the criticism could best be summed up in a quote by Angelo Flaccavento, a critic at Business of Fashion:
“I think hiring creative directors on the basis of their social media following is very short-sighted. Success will ensue on the short term, but I think overlooking design for hype might be destructive on the long run,” adding: “Then again, I might be wrong.”
Flaccavento was wrong, because even if Abloh’s hiring was a calculated risk by Louis Vuitton to maintain relevancy, it paid off handsomely when Abloh’s first collection—for Fall-Winter 2019—was a runaway hit. About the confirmation that Abloh was a good investment, Vanity Fair notes:
If, like Abloh, you were a radical choice for the job in the first place—an outsider from the ground up, who studied engineering and architecture instead of fashion and got his start selling printed T-shirt markups and working for West rather than earning his path assisting on the floor of a major house—you’re treated to a little something extra. A twinge of something in the air, a low-frequency hum emitted by everyone else in the building: a sense of relief.
But how did that relief translate to Abloh, who moved his wife and two children to Paris after accepting the role in March? Did he finally consider himself a designer?
“Maybe yesterday afternoon [after the show] I wouldn’t have considered myself a designer,” he said. “Today I would, probably. But 98 percent.”