Chasing Abloh

The hunt for UW-Madison’s most elusive designer.

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Photos courtesy of Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh shows his Wisconsin colors at the Coach show during New York Fashion Week this past September. He’s wearing The Red Shirt ™, Limited Edition by Virgil Abloh, a special T-shirt he created to help raise money for UW scholarships (Getty Images, Brad Barket). The models at right are wearing clothes from his Off-White Spring/Summer 2014 and 2015 collections.

Some months ago — never mind how long, exactly — having little to no expectations, and nothing in particular to lose, I thought to do a story on Virgil Abloh.

Haven’t heard of Abloh? You will. Since graduating from UW-Madison in 2003, he has thrown caution and his engineering degree to the wind to build an empire of music, fashion, and celebrity connections.

The music world knows him as DJ Flat White, famous for playing the hottest London dance clubs. Recently, he and French DJ Guillaume Berg formed a group under the Bromance record label called Paris, IL — which, if you haven’t heard, had an A-list crowd surfer during its set at the Coachella music festival. It was rapper and cultural icon Kanye West, who also showed up during Abloh’s set at the Bromance after-party. For more than a decade, Abloh has served as Kanye’s creative director, a role that he described to New York Magazine as “basically just [helping] him see his vision through.”

But more than his music career, and perhaps even more than working as Kanye’s “all-purpose cultural guru,” as the New York Times called him, Abloh is known for his clothing line, Off-White.

“OFF-WHITE c/o VIRGIL ABLOH is a fashion label,” reads the brand’s website, “rooted in current culture at a taste-level particular to now.”

The now is achieved by a “real-world, feet-on-the-ground type of design approach,” Abloh told GQ. It’s an approach that has earned him the honor of being the only American finalist for the prestigious Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH) Prize. This past May, Abloh flew to Paris to present his collection, along with seven other designers.

So Abloh is a busy man. Trying to find a sliver of time in his star-crossed schedule seemed nothing short of impossible until, finally, a breakthrough. Following a flurry of last-minute emails and several international text messages, Off-White’s PR manager said Abloh could spare an hour to meet with me in person. Less than twenty-four hours later, I jumped in my car to make the 250-mile round-trip to Chicago.

My 2005 Pontiac Vibe clunks down North Green Street, which is lined with gastropubs and artisanal pizzerias. To my left is an alleyway lit with hanging Edison bulbs — the entrance to a restaurant specializing in smoked meats. To my right, slightly hidden by a line of discarded Lincoln MKTs awaiting their valets, is our meeting spot: Soho House.

The interior of Soho House, Chicago’s newest members-only hotel/spa/club “for creative souls,” looks like somebody raided a log cabin and your grandmother’s house to furnish an old factory. And yet, it’s easily the chicest place I’ve ever been. I perch on the edge of a pheasant-patterned beige-and-blue couch and place my recorder on the gold rim of a glass table — moving in slow motion. The slightest dent could cost me the value of my aforementioned clunker.

Abloh texts me: he’s running behind schedule. That’s understandable, as the clock is ticking down on his LVMH presentation. He’ll let me know when he’s twenty minutes away.

I review my notes. Abloh is from Chicago’s Lincoln Park, two neighborhoods north of the Fulton Market District and Soho House. But it’s in this area that he’ll launch his latest venture: a restaurant, co-owned with several of his buddies. Perhaps he’s following in the footsteps of New York City restaurateur Gabe Stulman ’03. The two were roommates for five years while at UW-Madison and were known for hosting sophisticated dinner parties rather than throwing pre-game keggers.

As I read, a well-dressed young man places an Afternoon Tea menu on the table in front of me. He asks if I’d like to order a drink. “No, thank you,” I respond. “I’m waiting for someone.”

Forty minutes later, he comes back. He compliments my necklace, stalling. “Sorry, I’m still waiting,” I explain. “Really, he should be here any second.”

Through several rounds of awkward encounters, the waiter and I proceed from small talk to microscopic. He stops checking on me. I peruse the Afternoon Tea placard, glancing up each time a Porsche or Lincoln passes the floor-to-ceiling window. A tall blonde woman wordlessly swaps out the Afternoon Tea menu for the evening’s Small Plates offerings. I debate ordering the mini truffle grilled cheese for ten dollars, but decide against it. It would be rude to be eating when Abloh arrives.

One hundred and fifty minutes later, I get a call. Too many things have come up, and Abloh won’t be able to make it. We agree to speak over the phone on Thursday — he’ll be en route to Manhattan in the morning but will give me a call in the afternoon. I shell out half a day’s paycheck in the parking ramp and head for home.

Thursday passes into Friday. At 11:30 a.m., Off-White’s manager says Abloh could call me at 12:30, for one hour only. The LVMH awards are less than a week away, and Abloh is the type of man you drop everything for. So I sit in an empty conference room, glancing at my phone, waiting for Abloh. At 12:50, the phone rings. Amid a symphony of Manhattan traffic, Abloh’s tenor cuts through the phone.

He is a fan of long pauses and big words. He expounds on simple questions by instead answering others that you had never planned to ask — not unlike Kanye, his mentor. Perhaps it’s a trait that’s rubbed off in the thirteen years the two have spent working together. They were first introduced after Abloh received his master’s in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, which he completed immediately following his undergraduate education.

At the UW, Abloh studied civil engineering at the advice of his father. Though he was “sort of irreverent” toward the major, he doesn’t regret it. “Everything I did, in some way, made this result happen,” Abloh explains. In studying engineering, he learned how to multitask and problem-solve — the basis of his career. “I have a philosophy on problem-solving, I guess,” he says.

A pause. I ask what that philosophy is.

“There’s … remnants of juxtaposition,” Abloh posits. He expatiates on the idea that functionality and modern humor are part of his approach to design, and that each solution should serve a purpose. “Sort of vague answers,” he concludes, “but that’s, like, a vague question.”

But then Abloh is vague, particularly when it comes to discussing his upcoming LVMH presentation. “It’s a little bit theoretical,” he begins. Fashion critics have characterized Off-White as a high-minded streetwear line, but for Abloh, the term streetwear has yet to be formally defined. This lack of definition is what his award presentation aims to rectify. “My attempt is to add layers of sophistication to it and bolster up the reason why it’s important for now,” he says. (The LVMH Prize was ultimately awarded to Marques’Almeida, a British label.)

Focused on the now, he is reluctant to chart a plan for his future. “I’ll just hopefully have a long career doing what excites me,” he says. And as Abloh’s empire continues to grow — from music to fashion to restaurants — I’m guessing he will.

When he finds the time.

Chelsea Schlecht ’13 is a writer for On Wisconsin and is working on her vague questions.

Published in the Winter 2015 issue

Tags: Alumni, Badger, fashion, Humanities, International, Students

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