How Virgil Abloh Became the Prophetic Force of Coveted 'COOL'

Yes, he really did break down the barrier between streetwear and the runway. As hip-hop and its style become our lingua franca, a report from the former border, as part of the B/R POWER 50 Boss Up list.
photo of Jasmine SandersJasmine SandersContributor IJuly 23, 2018

In some ways, it was always going to be Virgil Abloh. He had been creative director of Kanye West's DONDA, then Michael Burke's mentee before establishing his own cult clothing label, Off-White.

Virgil is an idol of referent power, or the power of an individual, perceived as cool or attractive, to influence others who wish to emulate him. As a celebrity cum haute designer, he comes imbued with his own legion, millions who literally and digitally follow him.

What he lacks in pedigree or craft, he makes up in influence. To that effect, Virgil's appointment in March as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear—the first black designer to occupy the role in the brand's 164-year history—felt inevitable.

Virgil, famously loquacious, with the hauteur's tendency to proclaim his ambitions, is a natural self-mythologist. In an interview with Business of Fashion in 2016, he made his objective bare: "The end goal is to modernize fashion and steer a [fashion] house, because I believe in the modernization of these storied brands," he said.

As a cover letter, his words couldn't be more ideal: There's the clear statement of his objective (to "steer a fashion house"), a compliment sufficient to communicate reverence without slipping into bootlicking ("storied brands"), and finally, Virgil posits himself as uniquely capable of addressing a long-standing concern within his industry ("modernizing fashion"). Two years later, his words ring with prophetic force.

It's enticing to think of him as a fashion Moirai, capable of willing a future which should have been unavailable to someone like him—black, Midwestern, of immigrant parentage. But Virgil, a youth-obsessed social media titan, is also capable of alchemizing ambient cool into capital success like few others. "Only one Paris designer had fans rioting in the streets," Robin Givhan, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fashion critic, noted in March in the Washington Post.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 06: Designer Virgil Abloh attends the 2016 CFDA Fashion Awards at the Hammerstein Ballroom on June 6, 2016 in New York City.  (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images

Critics are frequently ambivalent toward his many collaborative projects—ranging from Levi's to IKEA—but consumers are always ravenous. As such, his ascent feels thrillingly democratizing.

Last year, Virgil teamed with Nike for The Ten, his reinterpretation of 10 classic Nike kicks. His deconstructed designs expose the shoe's interior, along with his signature Magritte-esque irony. "AIR" floats across the sole of one design. "SHOELACES," read the laces of another. Michael Jordan himself demanded a pair. The rare cosign rendered the project a cultural sensation.

The barriers between streetwear and high fashion have slowly elided, in part because clothing has grown increasingly casual. A generation came of age knowing the uniform of the tech visionary or billionaire mogul to be turtlenecks, T-shirts and jeans. Also, hip-hop and its attendant style are no longer subcultural; they're the American lingua franca. Louis Vuitton's appointment of Virgil, a streetwear stalwart, signifies the industry's full embrace of a subsect it had previously antagonized. 

Virgil was born to Ghanaian immigrant parents and raised in Rockford, a city two hours from Chicago.

His father managed a paint factory. His mother worked as a seamstress, impressing upon her son the skill and importance of clothes-making. His hometown boasted a notable punk music scene, which was likely responsible for Virgil's early introduction to skateboarding and the lusty appeal of counterculture. He earned degrees in engineering, then architecture before going to work with Kanye.

Virgil's first official fashion venture, Pyrex Vision, came in 2012. He screenprinted "PYREX 23" on the back of deadstock Rugby flannels, then resold the garments for a 700 percent markup. In printing his insignia onto the apparel of an established designer, Virgil had stated his own design ethos. The shirts sold out. He established Off-White in Milan, Italy, in 2013.

His designs have remained almost overwhelmingly derivative. His first Vuitton show in June held discernible elements of Helmut Lang's 1999 Fall menswear collection, Raf Simons (a perennial influence) and Virgil's Vuitton predecessor, Kim Jones. Whether this is homage, plain laziness or "ironic detachment," as Virgil claims, remains contested.

He effusively cites his inspirations, which include Caravaggio, Warhol, Leonardo da Vinci, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, James Dean, Dondi White, Takashi Murakami and the type of New York City woman who "lives in West Village and soul cycles on weekdays & rides horses in Westchester weekend."

If he can be charged with baldly cribbing from a melange of disparate influences or kowtowing to popular culture, he wouldn't be alone. Balenciaga's Demna Gvasalia recently designed accessories bearing a remixed Bernie Sanders logo.

Virgil's designs can be described as streetwear ultra—familiar silhouettes and staples reimagined in luxe textiles. Sneakers, T-shirts, hoodies, trousers with the lax fit of sweatpants—all the aesthetic language of working class black and Latinx urban youth.

"My internal tool for digesting the word 'luxury' is to determine whether or not something is coveted. If you covet it, it's luxurious to you," Virgil said last year to Vogue. So he co-opts articles native to urbane, kids of color and reconfigures them in italianate materials. The items are then legitimized and "coveted" by kids of more genteel social classes.

Still, Virgil's stronghold over The Youth is understandable. He's a designer, entrenched in hip-hop, who speaks their language and features people who look like some of them in his fashion shows. Virgil's maintained the allure of a populist dissenter among the stodgy white aristocracy, even as he is ushered among the fashion elite.

Referent power can be surmised as charisma. It's the ability to make others wish to be like you, to wear what you wear and do as you've done. Is Virgil Abloh's trajectory one which can be replicated? No, not likely. But it feels like it could be.

Jasmine Sanders is a writer from the South Side of Chicago. She can be found on Twitter @JasMoneyRecords.

Check out more ballers on the B/R POWER 50 Boss Up list:

1. Jimmy Garoppolo
2. Becky Hammon
3. Virgil Abloh
4. Supreme
5. Martellus Bennett
6. Sean Wotherspoon
7. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
8. Chiney Ogwumike
9. Filayyyy
10. LaVar Ball

Explore the B/R POWER 50, a list of the most influential people in sports culture right now >>