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Looking at Virgil Abloh's Sneaker Style Before Off-White

Date: September 30 2018

By: Rob Marfell

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What influenced Virgil Abloh to refashion air quotes and zip-ties into visual shorthand for today’s hype? Psychologically, the answer is probably rooted in his fascinations, social circles, and desktops obscured by legions of JPEGs. You can watch any of Abloh’s keynotes or university lectures to hear more on that. Stylistically, the answer more likely comes from trial and error.

To quote style writer Jian DeLeon — whose copy was appropriated by Abloh himself for his Off-White rugs — one’s style is often ‘built on a foundation of expensive mistakes.’ Or, you could say that Virgil’s Air Yeezys walked so his Zoom Flys could run.

Virgil Abloh turns 37 today, so to celebrate his special day, we’re looking at what he was laced in before Off-White, highlighting the footwear that carried him down the path to hype-culture saturation.

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The Ice Cream Boardflip II

''THAT PHOTO''

Perhaps the most iconic image of Virgil Abloh on the internet is this posse shot from 2009. Taken by Tommy Ton, the shot shows Abloh standing with Kanye, Taz Arnold, Fonzworth Bentley, Don C and Chris Julien.

Virgil looks nothing like the man tearing up today’s fashion blogs. His prime-coloured get-up is about as far from current Off-White as possible, and features footwear in scorching canary yellow. At first the shoe looks like a Stan Smith, but adidas were drying the market of the model in 2009, and it wasn’t until Autumn 2010 that Phoebe Philo popularised them in fashion spheres. What Abloh’s most likely wearing is a Reebok colab with BBC — the Ice Cream Board Flip II from 2007 — maybe even the same pair Kanye spotlighted when he stood on a stool to parade his outfit on a 2008 episode of The Friday Night Project.

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''RED AND BLACK JAYS''

As a Chicagoan who came of age when Michael Jordan was doing his most memorable work with the Bulls, Abloh was bred to be a Jordan head. Tearing through 470 pages and eight years of his Pyrex Vision Tumblr, it becomes obvious he thought anything close to a Bulls colour scheme was a must-cop. ‘Metallic’ Air Jordan 5s  and ‘Bred’ Air Jordan 4s were in high rotation from 2009–2010, but he also rocked ‘Red Suede’ 5s, ‘Banned’ 1s, and, like any mortal, was partial to Cement 3s. 

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''BIG-UPPING BALENCIAGA''

While Kanye was selling out arenas, Virgil was wearing them. When not sharing on-foots of his Jays, he was big-upping his Balenciagas — namely the Arena model. He skated in them, rocked them at airports and fashion shows, and modelled them as ‘the right shoes’ in a 2011 feature on his RSVP store. At this time, Abloh had moved on from being a Fendi intern with Kanye and was on the cusp of launching his streetwear label, Pyrex Vision. He was mixing high and low culture on a small scale compared to today, and might have seen Balenciaga’s versatile mid-cut as a model for bridging the gap.

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''ALL-ROUND CULTURAL PARTICIPANT''

When Virgil Abloh was interviewed for a documentary Air Yeezy: Beyond the Hype, he introduced himself an ‘all-round cultural participant’. And while his detractors love to say he focusses on one style, his early footwear choices show his sweeping tastes. He wore Mars Yards before Tom Sachs had to remind us that’s what they were meant for, went high-brow with Christian Louboutin Spike sneakers, laced up Lanvin, but still rock oddities Nike ACG’s Air Talaria Boot. He even wandered to basics like adidas Busenitz and Vans Authentics.

At 37, Virgil Abloh has mastered the art of broadly appealing hype. And while we're becoming used to that perfection, it’s important to recognise all the styles he trialled to get there.  

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