When the host of Virgil Abloh’s recent lecture at Columbia University introduced the Off-White creative director and general polymath, she described him as “the ultimate synthesizer.” Which was weird. Because Virgil Abloh is not an electronic musical instrument, typically operated by a keyboard, producing a wide variety of sounds by generating and combining signals of different frequencies, he is a human.
He is, however, a master of synthesis. Much like the man who first set him on his course from small-time stylist to a place on the official Paris Fashion Week schedule – Kanye West – Abloh is incredibly adept at sampling, often drawing together a broad range of ideas, reference points and aesthetics in order to make something new. This particularly unique design style – for the world of fashion, at least – has seen him labelled as unoriginal both by his critics and his peers. It is a criticism Abloh has come to wear as a badge of honor, rather than reject – Abloh’s work as a designer isn’t original, that’s the whole point, it’s a bricolage of pre-existing concepts and aesthetics.
Sometimes he does it as a way of subverting the tropes of luxury fashion from his own outsider standpoint. As he has previously stated, “I don’t look like what a designer’s supposed to look like, I don’t come from where a designer’s supposed to come from.” At other times, this approach of Abloh has been employed as more of an educational tool for his followers – before his recent menswear showing in Florence, he said that “in a way unless there’s someone doing it now in this generation, can it exist in a way that they can understand it. It’s very hard to be a young person and know the history of a Yohji.”
The whole premise of the brand, he argues, isn’t even to buy Off-White. It is a brand conceived to provoke, challenge and ultimately prove that ‘streetwear’ is a valid design theory – the idea that this particular brand of juxtaposing existing reference points and off the cuff borrowing has some sort of intellectual value.
All of which is a particularly long-winded way of saying: Recently Virgil Abloh collaborated with sportswear giant Nike on a number of yet-to-be-released sneakers, which drew upon a host of entirely unoriginal ideas to not create shoes that looked decidedly fresh and interesting – no mean feat in a hyper-saturated footwear market. This is precisely Abloh’s charm as a designer.
Here, we break down the various references that Abloh has drawn upon for his recent Nike collaboration.
Despite having exited his own eponymous label almost a decade ago, Martin Margiela’s impressive oeuvre has an enduring relevance in the landscape of fashion in 2017. For Abloh, it is no secret that the Belgian’s work has been a major influence on his design outlook, citing that Margiela’s legacy helps him to “prove Off-White is valid” during his recent Columbia University lecture.
The Belgian iconoclast, however, has influenced Abloh on an aesthetic level, too. Throughout the 90s and early 2000s, Margiela’s designs were decidedly anti-fashion, in a traditional sense, and often saw him breaking down or reimagining garments. This deconstructionist approach was arguably most pronounced in his artisanal line, which saw him create couture-like garments from all manner of unwanted items, such as discarded leather gloves or long-forgotten wedding dresses. While Margiela the person was an incredibly mysterious figure, his clothes were quite the opposite, often celebrating imperfection and exposing how it was made.
For the recent Air Max 90 designed by Abloh, he drew upon the kind of deconstructionist methods for which Margiela was renowned, with a foam tongue, an exposed upper and a swoosh with exaggerated stitching. The collaborative Air Jordan 1 also incorporated similar elements, in highlighting the stitching that secured the swoosh to the shoe’s upper.
To both designers, a certain charm lies in embracing imperfections, particularly within the context of the pristine world of fashion. And, in many ways, it was a fitting design concept to apply to the Air Max 90, a sneaker inspired by Paris’s Pompidou Centre — a building that bears all of its pipes and mechanisms on its facade, instead of concealing them like most traditional buildings.
“Tom Sachs, to me, is streetwear,” Abloh told Dazed last year. “It’s an art version of a kid who’s making a bootleg Chanel T-shirt. It’s the same thing, but one has a reference point.”
When images of Abloh’s Nike collaboration first surfaced this year, the inclusion of the brand’s Beavertown address, printed on the upper of each sneaker, felt decidedly Sachs-esque.
Like Abloh, Sachs’ brand of art regularly borrows from elements of pop culture and branding, often juxtaposing this with everyday, banal or unusual items. Think Hermes branded McDonald’s packaging, or a Nasa emblazoned chair. In adding the address of one of the world’s largest brands was a deliberately kitsch move, very much in the vein of the New York conceptual artist.
In addition, the tongue label on Abloh’s Air Force 1 low, deliberately oversized and with off-centre placement, seems to toy with the idea of authenticity, borrowing its aesthetic from bootlegged Nike products. Sachs has regularly explored such notions in his work, as well as in his own Nike ‘Space Program’ collaboration, which saw each shoebox adorned with a hand-scrawled Nike swoosh.
Abloh has also taken to customising many of his Nike designs with a sharpie marker, applying slogans or impromptu branding to the midsole of his friends’ pairs. The week before, Sachs could be seen doing the same, at an event for his own Nike collaboration, ‘Space Program 2.0.’
On Abloh’s Jordan 1 model, the Nike swoosh wasn’t fully stitched onto the upper, and its placement looked ever so slightly off. Perhaps that should come as no surprise from a designer whose brand is about “defining the grey area between black and white,” which has led to the Chicago-born designer creating several products that revel in being slightly off-kilter.
But it’s also possible that he was inspired by John Geiger’s custom Air Force 1 High creations, entitled “Misplaced Checks,” which saw multiple swooshes applied to the silhouette, each one slightly and deliberately misplaced. One could even draw comparisons between Virgil’s taste in industrial text details with the famous gold branding found on all Common Projects shoes, denoting the color and size with a numeric code.
Whether you like or loathe Off-White, it’s hard to escape just how well it is branded. From Abloh’s co-opting of construction stripes – a universal symbol that now makes you think of the brand nearly anytime you see it, in the same way you think of Vetements every time you see a DHL truck – to the brand’s hyper-stylized Instagram posts, everything is considered.
Recently, Abloh has taken this one step further, labelling many design features in a rather obtuse manner. On all of his Nike sneakers, the shoelaces bare the brand “shoelaces”, in quotations, similarly the midsole read “AIR”, a reference to Nike Air. Outside of his Nike collaboration, Abloh released other branded products like a pair of knee-high boots reading “FOR WALKING.”
There are, however, plenty who have taken this approach prior to Abloh – sans quotation marks, however. Vetements’ hoodie, which was emblazoned with “Hoodie” and a long description of the garment, is just one example of this seemingly elemental, but nonetheless striking approach. Vetements’ turtleneck sweater with “Collar” branding is another early instance.
And beyond the world of fashion, you can look to the likes of post-punk band Public Image Ltd., whose 1986 album Album was equally to the point. In turn, it took aesthetic inspiration from US supermarket chain Ralph’s, which had a number of own-brand products labelled in a similar way at the time. Or maybe the inspiration was something else altogether. As a designer, Abloh borrows so freely and so widely that, at times, it becomes difficult to pinpoint exactly where it all came from.
The ideas may not always be original, but the end product often is.