August 30, 2017

Material Matters: Deconstructing Virgil Abloh’s Off-White x Nike Colab

We’ve been getting flooded with collaborative announcements lately (Skepta’s 97, Kendrick’s switch to Nike, a new Kanye shoe) but perhaps the most important is Nike’s ten-piece colab with Off-White’s Virgil Abloh. His deconstructed designs for the Swoosh have been created using simple techniques that offer a complex aesthetic and a whole new perspective. There’s no doubt that Virgil has a Material Matters mind inside that head, so it’s time we picked at the stitching to see just what’s gone into making this mammoth collection.

Virgil Abloh didn’t start out as a sneaker designer. In fact, he didn’t even start out as a fashion designer. Initially, the Chicago-born creative completed a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, before studying some more and eventually working as an architect. It might seem like an odd path to take, but let’s not forget that Tinker Hatfield – arguably Nike’s most influential designer – entered the business as an architect himself. After his days on the draft board, Abloh worked with Nike to help design the first ever Yeezy sneakers, before going on to launch his own labels Pyrex Vision and Off-White.

The latest project with Nike has seen Abloh reinterpret ten of the brand’s most iconic silhouettes – an intimidating task no matter how much clout you’ve built up over the years, not simply for the fact that the new designs have to do justice to the legacy of each model, but because a lot of them have been collaborated on so many times already, meaning that only something truly original will do. Add to that the constant assertions that Abloh’s image has been partially built on ‘The Kanye effect’ (thanks to his early work as West’s creative director, as well as Nike’s need to top the mammoth adidas Yeezy franchise) and it’s safe to assume Virgil Abloh loves a challenge.

Luckily, the 36-year old stepped up to the plate and knocked any doubters flat on their BOOST-bolstered bums. Rather than envisioning an end product and then reverse engineering a shoe to get the desired effect, the architectural mind immediately zeroed in on how the shoes are being manufactured. Over the passed few decades, these ten Nike styles have blurred the lines between fashion and performance and this was something that needed to be at the centre of the designs. The collection was split into two groups of five, one titled ‘Revealing’ and the other ‘Ghosting’ – both focussed on celebrating the elements of each shoe that make them what they are.

The ‘Revealing’ styles have been taken through a process of deconstruction and rebuilding. Abloh cites his main tool, in the early stages of this process, as the humble X-ACTO knife. It was used to remove various elements, slash open tongues to expose their foamy guts, and relocate pieces. Though the foundational panels of the silhouettes themselves remain unchanged, no other parts of the shoes were safe from modification.

Each silhouette was then built back up, using construction detailing to create focal points within the design. On a normal Nike shoe, the panels are almost always stitched using a uniform straight stitch. This is for a handful of reasons – most importantly, because it’s both strong and economical. It might not seem like much of a consideration, but when you’re producing as many shoes as the Swoosh, an extra stitch here and there can add up to a lot of time and money. The zig-zag stitch seen on the Off-White shoes would usually be used to close seams and stop wovens from fraying; however, Abloh uses it to draw attention to certain areas and to emphasise the construction as an element of the design. While overcast stitches have been used on edges that don’t need to be bound, conversely, some edges have been intentionally left raw to expose the materials used. The Jordan 1 shows its foam padding around the collar, while the heel strap has been left with a rough edge.

Within the ‘Ghosting’ collection, the shoes’ inner workings have been revealed in a different way, using transparent materials to expose the structure of each design – like the overlapping waves on the side of the Air Max 97. Each shoe’s structure has been laid bare, almost like turning a pair of jeans inside out to reveal the awkward intersections between panels and their unsightly over-locked seams. For example, you can see where the stitches run off into the vulcanised sole for the Chuck Taylor, or note that the taping on the toe of the VaporFly conceals a zig-zag stitched join.

In the spirit of full disclosure, parts of the shoe that were hard to expose in the production phase have simply been labelled, like annotations on an architect’s cross section drawing. Using a Letraset style Helvetica text, the shoes have been marked with statements of technology or material, such as ‘Air’ and ‘Vulcanized’. It’s impossible to look at the shoes without being confronted by some element of how they’ve been made.

While the current landscape of hyped footwear focuses on design for design’s sake, and has begun overcapitalising on the same old designs with an endless stream of colourways, it’s refreshing to see the technology, materials and construction methods take centre stage. The hype will probably obscure the facts as the releases are snapped up by streetwear drones, but let’s hope that at least some part of what Virgil Abloh is trying to say sinks in. Shoes should be fun and your style should reflect your own creativity. It’s time to start exploring what that means for each of us on a personal level. That’s right, pull out your mum’s sewing kit and go nuts.

Material Matters is our weekly tech section where we peek behind the mesh curtain and examine the building blocks of the industry. Recently, we’ve looked at Reservations on Elevation,  Fables of The Forgotten and A Brief History of Yeezy.

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