Creating Coincidence: Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh and Emily Segal in conversation


Emily Segal (co-founder of Nemesis Global, a think tank for cultural research) engages artist and fashion designer Virgil Abloh (artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear and founder of Off-White) in a vibrant exchange of ideas and anecdotes about the roles of art, trends, and the Internet in cultural developments, and especially how Abloh’s professional path allows him to question creative processes and the possibilities of personal success in the contemporary mediascape. 


EMILY SEGAL: Tell me what you’re planning for your upcoming show at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

VIRGIL ABLOH: It’s about carving out and underlining the themes that have inspired the last fifteen years of my multidisciplinary tornado fueled by the social climate. My career has waltzed through art, architecture, pop culture, niche culture. The exhibition is about the epiphanies I’ve arrived at while doing that. I’m basically trying to present the hidden idea, what the research has all culminated in, in my eyes. The museum is a safe haven for more potent ideas compared to a commercial space.

ES: Definitely. What are some of your epiphanies? 

VA: It’s a lot about deciphering what’s messaged in the real world that I grew up believing in. I’m the type of kid who believed the advertisements. I don’t know if it’s the timing—the opposite phrase is “don’t believe what you read,” and that’s an obvious thing. Well, I believed what I read, because what else are you supposed to believe in? I figured, I’m not a designer, I’m not an artist, because I didn’t see anyone doing those things who looked like me. Whereas when I got older, the Internet came into play, delinking me from the previous generation who believed in the nine-to-five and a domesticated lifestyle as the end goal. I figured, I can unwire-rewire things to make my own reality. So, one of the epiphanies has been in being a maker of things that have a halo. I guess it’s my obsession with working with big brands and making things that message themselves. Like Nike shoes, “Just do it.” It’s a message, but it also rings true. The big epiphany is, “I can make media.” That’s the biggest thing the exhibit represents.

ES: And then maybe showing other people not only that they can do that, but that they are already doing that.

VA: One hundred percent. For instance, look at someone’s Instagram page. They’re making as much content as what they might have seen and believed in a Vogue magazine they grew up with. They might have wanted to work at Vogue, and now they happen to have an Instagram and they’re managing and editing content, have a consumer base, might be getting paid for advertising. All in our short lifetime, that’s happened. You know, an influencer can be more influential than Vogue, sell more product. They could be an advertiser. While this was all organically happening, I (for a long time) have been on a straight path from nowhere-obscurity to where I am now. And that’s what the exhibit is. I’ve been doing this exact thing for fifteen years, but people don’t know where I come from or any of the work from year zero to year twelve—they only know the last three years.

ES: It’s funny that you bring up working at Vogue, because I totally wanted to work at Vogue [laughs].

VA: Was it a carrot in front of you, Vogue?

ES: I used to go to the Barnes and Noble and sit on the floor and stack up all the magazines. We’re not even talking cool magazines, we’re talking Marie Claire and whatever. I just devoured them. And some of those Condé Nast magazines at different points were also cool, of course. Even Lucky in the beginning.

VA: You had Lucky! Wow!

ES: It had weird stickers and new formats, and obviously various experiments that then got totally deleted because they were really random.

VA: Lucky was amazing. We’ve got to do something around them. Do they still exist?

ES: The last time I remember seeing it was in a psycho-pharmacologist’s office in Midtown.

VA: Yeah, that sounds about right.

ES: But I wanted to work at Vogue. I graduated from school in 2010, when publishing was disintegrating, and I was watching these really brilliant people go out into the world and get clobbered. People that you’d assume would be veni vidi vici in the publishing world. I’d already started a little fashion magazine in Berlin when I was studying—I worked for 032c as an assistant, and then I started my own magazine. So by the time I graduated from school, I figured, I’ve already made my own magazine; I don’t want to be an intern in an accessories closet somewhere, that’s going to be really depressing. So I started working on K-HOLE on gchat with a group of friends while I was working my day job, trying to make money. It came out of the collapse of that fantasy that you have to go work in one of these structures and make meaning exclusively through that.

VA: From that collapse, you ended up finding the new express lane, basically, to participate in culture. From a pile of magazines to K-HOLE to—you’re on the global, Hans Ulrich Obrist-level speed lane of talks and probing culture. Prodding it, rather. That’s the same narrative that I came up in as a consumer. I consumed the Michael Jordan advertisements; he was my Superman. Then I veered, to things like magazines at the time—you know the term “metrosexual,” right? Me and my roommate, we thought, “Oh shit, is that us? We’re men, and we care about clothing.” I was interested in fashion and things that were anywhere from super-masculine to feminine, and pop culture.And then I got to the forefront of the early iterations of streetwear as just a thing that a teenager does, which lands me in a place where I’m making stuff—clothing brands and branding—and obviously, brands compete. A new brand that’s three years old can compete with a brand that’s a hundred years old. This museum exhibition is following up on the logic that started from the same place that you were talking about. The ashes of the crushed dream of working at Vogue set us up in the right direction.

ES: I’m interested in this idea of fashion as media, which of course is an academic idea that’s been around for a long time, but is now the truth of the matter, in a new way. I imagine that what you’ll put in the exhibition will speak to that?

VA: Yes. 

ES: I had friends who were working at Calvin Klein—this was five or six years ago—and they were getting copied by Zara in a way they couldn’t understand. It seemed like they were getting copied before the ideas existed, if you know what I mean, like the timeline was all fucked up. There was this urban legend at Calvin Klein that the Zara people were in the shipping container—

VA: [laughing] In the sewing machine! 

ES: —that for me was fascinating. I started to look at the High Street stores. If you walk down Broadway in Soho in New York for example, and go up to every single one of them in one afternoon, it is basically the internet in real life. There are so many renderings in fabric that you can touch, all strung up on hangers. Realizing that shifted my perception of fashion from garments to information.

VA: Yeah. I’ve been in the new 2.0 space after Louis Vuitton, in the concept of the overarching thing. I go from obscurity, thinking like a consumer, not like I can make things, to learning my own vocabulary to make things. And now I land at Louis Vuitton. Obviously, at the root of it is a love of fashion. What is fashion, really? Probably two percent is high-end fashion, a group of people who dictate a very influential but small piece of the pie. And then there’s the rest of the real world, who wear clothing because they actually need to. But what it is, is a recording system of a whole lot of things: culture, tastes, trends. It is the internet. A physical internet—a whole sea of information.

ES: This relates to many conversations we’ve had around fashion. What you and I have been calling “fashion AI” is an emerging consensus, where people like us end up having what feels like a telepathic experience, where one day, a certain thing gets called out from the background to the foreground for us both and there’s no real way to know why. It’s a little bit like what you said once about a kid seeing someone do a skateboard trick on YouTube and then all of a sudden, that trick is being done by hundreds of kids around the world in the blink of an eye. Is it specifically because someone saw it? Or is it a spookier, more emergent principle at work?

VA: Here’s a question for you to unpack quickly, with respect to art as a whole premise and genre of culture—Art with a capital A and Fashion with a capital F. Do you think that they intersect? Can Fashion be Art? I mean, this is a seven-hour conversation, but what’s your gut reaction, without thinking about it too hard?

ES: My gut reaction is that fashion and art definitely intersect. They are doomed bedfellows, best friends, and worst enemies. There’s something to be said in how the Costume Institute shows at the Met are the biggest draw ever. And there’s certain garments that have an auratic quality and higher level of craftsmanship than what might be reasonably considered a work of art in the form of, say, a contemporary sculpture.At the same time, I think the mandate of art and the mandate of fashion are fundamentally different. For fashion to become art, it needs to get torn out of a context and put into something else in an intentional way. I don’t think that just looking around at people’s bodies on the street is necessarily art in and of itself, because fashion is a much smaller range of objects. Even when people get wild, fashion is still tied to the body and weather and physical reality. With art, I truly believe in my heart that anything goes.

VA: I agree. I mean, obviously someone like me, I’m rewiring. I’ll rewire until the day I die. What I found is that our generation has placed such importance on fashion. We have more shoes, jackets, jeans, bags than society might have had ever. We have multiples of the same thing. It’s completely past utility. Instagram is an indicator of this; it’s basically a big fashion website.

ES: It’s also manufacturing, right? H&M having 4 billion dollars worth of extra clothing they had to burn, all to keep things to the exact principle you’re describing. Continue!

VA: Right. So, from this platform, looking at art—I see art as the raw idea. It can manifest itself in a sculpture, painting, video, performance. There’s an idea at the crux of it. And how it’s articulated, to me, scores art points or something like that. That, plus managing an artist’s career. And I think that fashion is our generation’s art media, if you will. It’s our app to express our ideas. Especially where I came from in streetwear: it’s very readymade, not in the vein of high fashion. Societally, it came into this new language. It’s like a new update to the fashion AI.

ES: Definitely. 

VA: You can pack in ideas that previously would’ve existed in an art space because art was the landscape that was for the select few to dialogue about their “now.” That’s part of my exhibition, too.

ES: What I love about fashion is that every single person who gets dressed every day changes what fashion is. Period. Whereas way fewer agents are changing what art means on the daily, even though I think people sometimes overstate how elitist art is—there is still tons of art in everyday life, and tons of art outside the art world. However, “art” will never be as big as the sheer fact of billions of humans putting on clothes every day.

VA: What you just said underscores my mission in life and my ultimate goal: to rewire and give context to something new. I got in the door through fashion—of all the doors and all the keys I had in my pocket, that’s the key that opened that door. But the idea of the exhibition is to use that to draw links between all these other offshoots that relate to our now. You and I find obviously find ourselves in the circles of architects; they might build buildings in the traditional sense, but they also think about buildings, which might be more important. The filmmaker, the musical artist, the tech guy—I’m organizing this exhibit to poetically, and through adjacency, make four walls in a museum speak to a contemporary art career. Part of that is through traction that people know; the rest is to be determined.

ES: Kids go wild for your work. I wonder what you think in terms of how very much younger people are going to evolve or mutate some of the principles that you’ve been laying out. If we were to spitball and fantasize about what these discourses of fashion and art and design and architecture will look like in a couple of generations, what would they be if we pushed these principles to the max?

VA: If we go back to what I was originally saying, I felt a disconnect between media, makers, and me. And that was a good trick because it created desire; that’s why I was such a steadfast consumer. Gradually, I decided to shift my focus in a different way. I turned my back on the establishment, and that’s why people often call me a disrupter. The Art world with a capital A, and Fashion with a capital F, are having a dialogue. My work doesn’t have the standoffishness that was traditionally a way to get further. I hope the essence is: let me open-source this thing. Take a: piece of this and build on it because the piece I’m standing on is going to float away, anyway.

ES: I love the idea that ideas just come out of nowhere and float away. A friend of mine said that real art is like wild mushroom spores. You can’t plant a truffle. It’s not something you can contrive, no matter how much capital or effort you put behind it. There’s always some spark of random, organic emergence happening. And one contemporary gesture that you and I have had an opportunity to bring to light is putting that at the forefront and not making it a dirty secret. I see elements of camp and randomness and sharing and things coming out of fucking nowhere environmentally.

VA: I call it creating coincidence. Kanye West and I have these long-winded talks about design and culture, and that’s something we talk about a lot. To use your mushroom analogy: the things that I can control are the humidity, the darkness, the weather, instead of the actual idea. So, as my career has been evolving, I’ve been focusing on creating something in the ecosystem, and that is the kids, the consumer, the atmosphere, and where these ideas land. And the ideas come from sparks. A friend the other day observed: say what you want about art, but it’s not good unless people understand it. Art fails if no one gets it. And I thought that was also an interesting point about kids now. I want to find that intersection between highbrow and lowbrow. I want to make things that a person can understand, and then make a decision about whether it’s worthy or not (I love that mushroom analogy) versus being misunderstood and then a select few claiming it’s valuable.

ES: With the original normcore idea with K-HOLE, part of what we were thinking about was looking at mutual misunderstanding as an opportunity for connection instead of proof of failure. And, of course, that idea itself was kind of misunderstood in culture.It had a meta effect. But it relates to what you’re talking about—that multiple meanings can coexist and bring people together. And then you can decide later if that’s what you want. Or maybe that was our original fantasy, and it ended up becoming something completely different.

VA: Normcore linked it to what was happening and packaged it up in real people. Maybe Marcel Duchamp’s greatest gift to contemporary art is a metaphor for how we put blocks together, what we decide is a room, what we bestow value on. He cracked it. And our generation is meant to expand on that, 2.0 and 3.0, in our lifetime. How we as humans behave naturally can be made into different niches and industries within art.

ES: And we can mirror that back to one another. And that’s why collaboration and friendship as the basis for practice are so important because friendships, in an unpretentious way, are often simply mirroring each other’s existences back at one another. That’s what being friends with someone is: I see you, I see you doing this, I appreciate this about you, or I’m making fun of you about it, or whatever. I tend to love the practices where I sense that principle being extended in a group of people. Not in a fake way, like I’m pretending all these people I don’t know online are my friends, but more like that principle of friendship where you’re really paying attention to the people around you and then giving it back to them.

VA: Our generation—delinked from previous dealings about prejudice, race, gender, sexual orientation, et cetera—I like to think that that is a new renaissance. There’s a new epiphany as a culture.

ES: I mean, the gesture that you make by how you cast your shows is so powerful, in terms of making a statement about race. Not to mention simply you holding the job that you have. You symbolize that to a lot of people in a beautiful way.

VA: The unwritten thing we’re talking about—how you got chosen to do this interview, how I got chosen to do this interview—has been this video game that we’ve been playing. With the normcore thing, you scored a thousand points, more than most people would in a lifetime. For me, it was probably, like, one T-shirt that got me to Nike, and then I scored a thousand points, and then Louis Vuitton scored me a million points. We both started from obscurity, right? And we started with a goal of getting through the front door.What I’m trying to do with this exhibit is have it be about a broader construct, a new way to score points that’s not based on the old method. I’m trying to unpack the word “clout.” Clout is the heart of the influencer, but also probably the way the world always worked. I’m in my “Kumbaya” moment: let the new kids in, let’s break down the hierarchy. But maybe the hierarchy is for the best, and maybe you have to score the points to make things.

ES: This is getting into way bigger questions about political philosophy. I think dismantling old hierarchies is dope and necessary. Trying to figure out ways to stoke productive competition in both culture and in fashion—it’s a new question that I’m also curious about. This “clout” is coming up faster and in greater proportions than ever, all over the place. What’s going to stick?

VA: Here’s something to end on: Do you think that the world will end up like that episode of Black Mirror?

ES: Which episode? 

VA: The one where you rate people based on points, so you behave physically because you know someone has a high or low ranking.

ES: I hope not, and I really don’t think so. Because as much as that tabulated points-giving/points-taking culture takes over our world, there’s a fundamental human backlash to that, which I find very inspiring. I think the human element is going to win in the end. That’s my prediction.

VA: Great answer. 


Emily Segal (1988, New York) is an artist, writer, and trend forecaster. Her multidisciplinary practice explores consumer culture, branding, and identity formation under latecapitalism. In 2011, she co-founded K-HOLE, the trend forecasting group and art collective. Currently, she is co-director of Nemesis, a think tank and consultancy based in Berlin, Helsinki, and NYC. 

Virgil Abloh (1980, Rockford, Illinois) is an artist, architect, engineer, creative director, and fashion designer. After earning a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he completed a Master’s degree in Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It was here that he learned not only about design principles but also crafted the principles of his art practice. He studied a curriculum devised by Mies van der Rohe on a campus he had designed. Currently, he is the Artistic Director of Menswear at Louis Vuitton and the Chief Creative Director and head designer of menswear and womenswear concepts titled Off-White.


Originally published on Mousse 65

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