September 30, 1980 – November 28, 2021
In Memory of Virgil Abloh
The news that Virgil Abloh passed away overnight after losing his battle with cancer was a crushing and unexpected blow. Like many, I’d heard whispers following his sabbatical several years ago, but from afar he seemed rejuvenated and once again working impossible hours as he hatched plans, music and art all over the globe. I guess we now know why Virgil was always hellbent on moving at speed.
To mark Virgil’s untimely passing, we have finally published our epic magazine feature from Issue 44. Conversation with Virgil was a curious, thought-provoking and elliptical experience that stayed with me for a long time afterwards. And as you’re about to read, he also had a very personal connection to the earliest days of the magazine.
Vale to the late, great, Virgil Abloh. Just 41-years-old, but what an amazing and enduring creative legacy he leaves behind across so many disciplines. More importantly, he dragged the Street to the front doors of the European establishment and kicked them in, busting barriers that had previously excluded Black designers from the highest echelons.
On behalf of everyone at Sneaker Freaker, our condolences.
Rest in peace.
This interview was first published in Sneaker Freaker Issue 44, released in December 2020.
From architecture student to Kanye off-sider to founding Off-White and becoming the most prolific Nike collaborator of all time, Virgil Abloh’s ascension to the throne at one of Europe’s oldest fashion houses is a unique journey. Ensconced at Louis Vuitton since 2018, Virgil’s freewheeling brief to disrupt the brand’s antiquated mindset has seen him deliver OTT NBA-themed luggage capsules and fashion events laced with evocative videoclip aesthetics. The LV footwear department was long overdue for a radical overhaul, which Virgil tackled with his usual nostalgic gusto. Basketball in all its forms is a recurring motif. The new LV Trainer X408 was conceived as a ‘show piece’ for a catwalk event. Riffing on Billie Jean, L.A. Gear and ,Converse Fastbreaks, the towering high tops were installed with a throbbing rainbow light show. Just 300 units were made, though accessibility remains a mystery. While Virgil is adamant that ‘gimmicks are not my thing’ the incongruous mash-up of luxury styling and playful fibre-optics certainly ruffled a few feathers in the boutique footwear world. Take some time to soak up this masterclass of creativity from the Don of hovering quotation marks and ‘run-on sentences.’ The conversation runs thick and fast as Virgil tackles everything from his controversial LA riots comments to explaining why he signed Lucien Clark to a skate deal. And to think... Virgil caught his first big break when he entered a colouring-in competition back in Sneaker Freaker Issue 2.
I guess you’ve been watching the election results closely. How do you feel after four years of chaos?
I always have an esoteric answer for everything, so I think ultimately, it’s such an incredible learning moment. In a weird way it feels like a reminder that we’re alive and we’re all in this together. As much as individualism exists in moments like this, you can’t help but remember we’re part of a larger ecosystem than ourselves.
What have you learned about yourself, about business and about creativity, after being cooped up all year?
COVID upended things that I enjoyed, but it’s been a learning experience all the same. I think it’s important to note that if this type of thing doesn’t change you or shape you, then you might have to look in the mirror. There’s ‘new upsides’, ‘the new normal’, all those catchphrases. Ultimately it has left me inspired. It’s left me not having to zigzag around the world to get things done, so I’m optimistic on how it’s going to jumpstart the human race to think and move differently.
Have you had time to enter any colouring-in competitions?
No, I wish. You still have that entry of mine from Sneaker Freaker?
I’m glad you remember. That question wouldn’t have made any sense if you didn’t.
No. I remember! I used to get Sneaker Freaker at Barnes & Noble. The magazine is such an integral part about me and my story. Barnes & Noble is where I was getting books in the suburbs, it wasn’t some fancy downtown New York spot. I got my copy of Subway Art, which is all about New York graffiti, and regular magazines like Transworld and Thrasher.
Then there was Sneaker Freaker, which always had these compelling covers that jumped out. I was like, ‘Oh, these are the shoes that me and my friends are wearing!’ This was long before blogs like HYPEBEAST and SlamXhype and all that stuff. So yeah, I’ve been paying attention to the magazine from issue number one.Virgil Abloh
It’s funny looking back at those old issues, they are not the most sophisticated, but they are fun. It was all one big unknown what the scene was going to turn into.
That was what... 16 or 17 years ago? Which issue was the Air Max 95 in green?
Issue 2, which was released in 2003.
Yeah, that was a powerful cover. I remember seeing that on the shelf.
You’ve always been a prolific social commentator. This year you had some comments about the looting during the George Floyd protests blow up. What did you learn from that experience?
Well, there’s so many ways to look at it. Obviously there are upsides, where we can self-police each other, but I think that the things that ail us in the world are usually the ones that are hiding and lurking in the corners, like the systems in play. Whatever, it’s all part of human nature. I can see the organic side of how it happens. I just more often see how much great intellectual thought we’re missing, and how much creativity, by a whole community of people that aren’t willing to speak or share simply because it’s too easy to take something out of context and stab somebody with it. Ultimately, what do you get at the end of the day? You get more measured and more calculated media outputs because people are adapting to make sure that they stay safe. I think I’m fortunate. My voice isn’t just my little voice. It’s the thing that I create and it’s the body of work that I have built. I’ve personally rationalised it and I can see how we’re evolving. In terms of sneaker culture, even in the last 10 years, we can see how it has evolved and whose voices now dictate things versus how it was originally. I think it’s all parallel. It’s all interrelated. I was just reading a post yesterday on a sneaker account that I thought was interesting. Do you follow @PGknows? He does a lot of vintage Air Force 1 content.
I don’t follow him. Let me look him up…
PG is a part of that pure ‘Air Force 1, New York, deadstock’ crew and now he resells shoes. He did a post yesterday where kids in his comments are telling him he’s ruined sneaker culture. He’s like, ‘I’ve actually been collecting and fostering this community before all you newcomers and now you are telling me I’m ruining sneaker culture?’ It’s chicken and the egg. I think that’s a metaphor for the world. You could apply that to art, music, politics, racism… it’s a stance and then that stance measures over time. Who points the finger at who for how it evolves? More than anything, it’s just a mirror looking back at ourselves. Is this how we want to progress?
When the Dior Jordan raffle reached 5 million entries I wondered how much more ludicrous and insane things can get. Sneaker culture – and I hate to use the term – has become a gambler’s game. I don’t know who’s happy anymore because you ask any kid who’s into shoes and raffles suck. It just feels like the hustlers have won at the end of the day.
Yeah, that’s the thing. Like I said, it’s all askance, and then it evolves over time and allows someone to point the finger. The thing that’s important about my trajectory and sneakers, is that the very first sneaker I designed was in Sneaker Freaker and it was a colouring-in competition. You have to understand, I was the last person that a sneaker company would have gone to. My first real project was with Umbro. I say that just to put it into context. I came in through a designer door, but I’ve been part of the culture for a long time. I was trying to get the Stash Air Max and Air Force 1s same as everyone else! Then there was the era when I was working with Kanye and designing the first Nike Air Yeezys, which was a much slower moment. Brands weren’t doing many collaborations then so I was just waiting for my shot. I was crossing my fingers that one day I would get to design a shoe. ‘The Ten’ was my opportunity at Nike. It started with a t-shirt and I extended that to do a shoe for Fraser Cooke. And then of course, it evolved fast.
Back in 2017, when ‘The Ten’ came out, Nike was not exactly crushing the competition the way they are now. They let you do things with the logo that had never been done before and that creative freedom more than paid off. Are you conscious of how many Off-White shoes have come out since then? I don’t think we’re at a point of diminishing returns yet, but the office nerds tallied it up and they figure Off-White is now the most prolific Nike collaborator of all time.
Yeah, it’s weird. I’m just a kid from Rockford, Illinois, which basically means nowhere near anything cool. I was closer to 100 Foot Lockers than Alife or any sneaker boutiques.
I only had one mission and that was to honour the brand that made me who I am. I’m not even talking about Pyrex or Off-White or fashion or anything like that. From the Wovens to Hiroshi to KAWS to Stash to Futura… I specifically walked in there and I was like, ‘Hey, if you’re going to give me a shot, I’m going to try to bring that feeling that I grew up with and extend it.’Virgil Abloh
I was trying to pay homage to the brand, but also trying to push them forward and it’s been nothing but a great partnership. We’re doing it for the culture. And of course, the market has gotten bigger. The whole resonance of Off-White shoes, of course they sell out, but that’s not simply what we’re designing. We’re redesigning the understanding of the shoe. If you look at all the shoes from 100 feet away, you might think they’re classics. You might not even see the Off-White part of it, but when you hold it and you look at the details, it reminds me of the shoes before they were retros. I classify shoes in a couple of ways. Some shoes are like Disneyland, which is cool. You can have a literal explosion of colours, materials, something that you’ve never seen. That’s one route. But my volume of work is literally just paying homage to the Nike Kitchen, HTM, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Mark Parker, Marc Newson, Tom Sachs. These people did amazing work. I look at them as art objects. With Off-White, it’s really all part of one conversation. As you can see, I do a lot of run-on sentences. Imagine when I’m in the design studio!
It’ll all come out in the edit.
Actually I just launched a website called Public Domain, which is crazy as it’s only since 2017. I don’t think people think of Off-White as one collection. In the noise and tornado of this industry, we might lose focus about the true heart and soul of this thing called sneaker culture. I’m trying to build within Nike a sort of platform to say, ‘Hey, these things are still appreciated despite the new formats for auctioning or raffling shoes.’ I’m making a little think-tank to keep that dream alive and keep the products flowing.
It sounds to me like you’re still quite hands-on.
Yeah. I’m OCD with it, I do it like it’s the last thing I’ll ever do. I’m that kid. I grew up in Chicago and ,Michael Jordan was basketball to me. I have a very granular, specific connection between hip hop culture, skate culture and shoes. So in a lot of ways, Nike is the coach that believed in me and allowed me to play. They allowed me to craft my voice in sneaker design. The role at Louis Vuitton allows me to sit in a very different but specific position. I’ll give you the exclusive, I have a book coming out at the end of this year.
With TASCHEN? I was going to ask you about that.
Yeah. Did someone tell you about that?
I heard. [laughs]
Might have. The Ultimate Sneaker Book was published by TASCHEN.
Cool! Well, I’m sure kids who know about Off-White sneakers know how hands-on I am and how deep I get. I do everything here in my studio. I don’t have a team of designers doing the Off-White Nike colabs. This is me, one person. I do all the shoes with the Nike team but it’s not like we just churn them out. Each one is a long conversation. I’m trying to tell a story. The book is important because I realised that the sneaker community was way bigger than me. Most people don’t even know who I am. I don’t even know what they think. I realised in 2020 that my following has literally detached from my story. And that might be the most profound insight. I sit in my studio and I do my work. I never thought that the work could get so big that it becomes detached from who I am. And of course, that’s not a lesson that you learn at school. In my book, I talk with Hiroshi Fujiwara and we did that same calculation. I didn’t realise I had the most amount of Nike collaborative shoes until I talked to him for the foreword of that book, which he wrote. Previously, he had the most.
As a figure in design, Hiroshi [Fujiwara] paved the way for me to exist so I’m completely paying homage.Virgil Abloh
For a lot of kids in this generation, you are the new Hiroshi, but you’re also ‘one of us’ who made it. I love the fact you’re still hands-on because I imagine the pressures on your time and energy would be immense. Rockford, Illinois is not exactly Lower East Side, but let’s call it the street. Now, you’re in Paris. Are you conscious of losing that instinctive knowledge of what the street wants?
The short answer is no, because, like I said, I’m OCD with it. I literally don’t sleep. It’s literally like asking Michael Jordan if he will lose his competitive nature. As you can see in The Last Dance documentary, there was never a switch to turn it off. It just gradually got honed. And that’s how I approach design. I live and breathe it. And I think it’s apparent. It’s my purpose. If I showed you my office and turned my camera around, there’s probably one year of Nike shoes here. It’s almost a therapeutic process to tell their stories. And I always feel like someone is going to tap on my shoulder and be like, ‘Okay, your time’s up!’ So, I’m like, ‘Let me get one more shoe!’ Right now, there’s so many different chambers of the 90s that still haven’t been touched. I won’t mention the shoes because then someone will do them before I finish the thought. But the fact there’s so many pockets left to me is the exciting part.
Does travelling help with that process?
I guess that’s a good point. When I was travelling hardcore, I was doing that to keep my feet to the ground. I was in London when Bond Street, the t-shirt shop near Carnaby Street was there. Maharishi and BAPE and... what’s the store?
Michael Kopelman! Then the Lower East Side from Prohibit to Orchard Street and Staple and all that. Then to Harajuku and Berlin. I was reading Beinghunted. Early, formative, important sources. Fraser Cooke, Nigo from BAPE.
When you see me flying around, I’m either in a nightclub DJing to 18-year-olds, tuned in to what’s happening, or at daytime meetings with OGs retelling stories. And so, of course, there’s going to be some day when I’m out of touch. It’s just not now.Virgil Abloh
I do miss the old Harajuku when there were 20 stores with shrink-wrapped Nikes that you’d never seen before. Walking down Omotesando was so exciting because I had no idea what I was about to encounter. Flight Club and vintage stores are the only places you can shop for shoes these days and have no idea what you’ll find. Do you ever think about that lack of ‘retail randomness’ nowadays?
I feel like I’m a journalist exploring creativity, trying to write things down and put it in the culture through the SNKRS app or my Instagram. It’s not like my generation was better than today. That’s fundamentally what fucks up the world. It’s just that there are some elements I want to keep alive. I think if I was 17 now – instead of being 17 in 1997 – I would be used to StockX and the SNKRS app. Off-White Jordan 5s are the first time these kids have seen the Jordan 5. The Air Force 1 in all-white doesn’t have any connotations to Roc-A-Fella, Jay-Z and Dame Dash. It’s just a cool white shoe at Foot Locker. Our generation has to be fundamentally OK with that. That’s just how it is.
Sorry to break in, but I do want to defend the Air Force 1 because Nike have tarnished Bruce Kilgore’s design by plastering pointless crap all over it. I might not go all the way back to 1982, but the purist is still in me.
The Air Force 1 has all that history, of course. And when you put money into anything, things get haywire, which is a good transition to talk about the work at Louis Vuitton. Again, I came up from a Champion-printed t-shirt streetwear brand launched in New York. That’s how I got my start. I developed that into Off-White. Thankfully, that hard work was able to translate over to a brand like LV, one of the most historic and long-running luxury outposts. It’s a whole different landscape now. The luxury market’s acknowledgement of sneakers is a very short-term thing, if you think about the history of high fashion and footwear design. Think about Paris, then think about sneakers and the American pop culture infusion that has made sneakers an accessory that outsells handbags, which are a staple in luxury goods. And then you enter me. I have the wherewithal to know the culture and what’s appropriate for a luxury house to build with a completely different sensibility. It’s funny you bring up the true sneaker world, which is, in my mind, an athletic shoe that you find at an athletic supply store. Shoes that you find in luxury stores come from a different DNA.
It was amazing news when you were appointed to LV, not least because you’re a streetwear dude going up into their world, but also because you are a Black designer, one of the first to be admitted. What was that like walking in the door at Louis Vuitton for the first time? You moved in some pretty high circles before so it wasn’t a total shock, but was there a part of you thinking, ‘I’m here now. I got to where I’m supposed to be. What do I do now?’
I still pinch myself every day. You never know when enough is enough. I just step on the gas. I’ve been working at this pace since I was 17. I don’t just sit with a pen and a piece of paper or on Photoshop and work on an idea and stop. I keep going. I never kick my feet up. Every time I walk through the door at LV, I’m thankful that I’m there because I’m able to apply a granular-level of thinking. I’m able to think of Dipset references and the first time I saw Cam’ron in pink Air Force 1s. I can sit at LV and tell a whole design team that came up in a traditional model that we need to do pink tennis shoes. That’s a shorthand vision of the opportunity I have. I love being able to write in their history books something that was marginalised like Black culture and Black design. I used to believe I wasn’t allowed in the store because I didn’t see other people like me. So, that’s why it was so emotional, that appointment, because ultimately my career is for one thing. It’s for people that don’t feel they’re in the centre, that they can also be in the middle of the conversation, whether that’s Black, white or even if you’re from a privileged background. My career has been one to lead by example to showcase that it’s possible to break down those barriers. I can’t tell you how many people told me to my face that ‘You will never be the designer at the head of a household!’ They would say it like it is endearing. ‘Hey, let me just give you some advice.’ Same thing about Nike. As a kid, I used to send drawings there and people said I’d never have the pedigree to work there.
Classic institutionalised racism. Those people may even say they’re simply being honest.
100 per cent. And this is from a messenger! When I speak on these sorts of things, it comes from firsthand experience. I’m swallowing it all to make sure that the next person under me doesn’t have to go through the same thing. That’s why I started my scholarship foundation after the last Off-White show with the ‘I Support Young Black Businesses’ t-shirt. That’s why I incorporate hip hop and give artists and kids that work on my design team the opportunity for collaboration. I’ve experienced systemic racism in the most nuanced way. I’ve experienced it in the way where, like you just said, you can literally say it out loud to a group of people and not use specific words, but marginalise people that have different backgrounds. I hope to be a part of a world that leaves that stuff behind with the old generation. If you zoom out of our conversation, sneakers are embedded in Black culture a la Michael Jordan and a la hip hop. They’re a fashion object that carries so much context. You can’t remove historic moments from the object itself.
As you said, the Air Force 1 was designed by Bruce Kilgore. He made the shoe, but then all these seminal moments happened in culture that pour into what that shoe means. It has all these historic Black cultural moments attached as well, like the ‘Puerto Rico’ Air Force 1. If Jordan hadn’t won all those championships, we wouldn’t feel that emotion in his shoes.,Virgil Abloh
How does that translate to Louis Vuitton then?
For me, the LV sneaker programme is about starting from scratch. The vision is almost like an Eastbay catalogue in the 90s centred around basketball shoes that players were wearing that weren’t Nike, such as Converse Fastbreaks. That was the mood board. That’s where the inspiration for the X408 came from. The shoe is a merger of 90s sneaker culture which we talked about – then boom! – the Louis Vuitton part is craftsmanship and the fact everything has to be made in Italy or France. We perfect it and craft it, but you can lose the essence of a sneaker by making it too perfect, making the leather too stiff and the sole doesn’t bend. These are the things that no one can see on the Internet. Design today is often reduced to images that look good on Instagram. After doing this work for 20 years, it’s all about the object. I have this firm belief that in 30 years time, the LV shoes will be the most coveted shoes I’ve made. For one thing, they’ll last that long. Imagine if Jordans were made in Italy out of the best leather and the plastic wouldn’t crack. After years of them being in the box, they still look like they’re fresh from the factory. Louis Vuitton doesn’t have to produce shoes at a mass scale for them to exist. So by nature, they’re limited. They don’t sell maybe immediately, but then they sell through. And I think that into the future, once sneaker culture cycles through itself over into the next generation, and we don’t know when that’ll be, the LV trainers will sit as some of my most important, nuanced work.
Of all Kanye’s shoes, the Louis Vuittons are arguably the most interesting. The colour combinations and details were beautiful. You’re right, they’re going up in value and probably exceed everything except perhaps the Red Octobers. Just going back to the X408. Nostalgia obviously is never far away with your work. You’ve mentioned the 90s several times. Is that where the ‘lights’ idea came from or was it just because you wanted to light up the catwalk?
The theme of that catwalk show was Michael Jackson and his music video with the sidewalk lighting up. I was very much into the magic! When I think about it now, it’s also a bit Michael J. Fox and Back to the Future. When you watch Terminator 2 now, it’s more emotional and exciting than the latest Marvel and Ironman film with all the CGI. The main point is that at Louis Vuitton, we have production capabilities that you can’t find anywhere else in the world. It’s like being at Apple, but it’s fashion. I have studios that can work on technical things that are far beyond just fashion and I appreciate that opportunity because it’s adding something to sneaker culture that’s not typical.
It’s interesting that you have this ‘power’ now, in terms of your influence, but also having the might of Louis Vuitton to bring your best ideas to fruition. Is that a blessing or a curse? Power must always be used wisely.
To me, the one thing I haven’t talked about is pressure. It goes without saying… every Nike release, every Jordan, every fashion collection, I basically put myself in front of the firing squad. I just think about trying to do something awesome. And so I guess that’s my coping mechanism that keeps me enjoying every day that I sit at my desk. I don’t look at it in ‘power’ terms. It all comes back to where I came from. I’m just running on the fumes of my childhood as a Black kid from Chicago. As I said in my book, I assumed that I was a consumer for life, that I would be the one buying shoes and telling my friends stories about Hiroshi and Jun Takahashi and how Nigo started a shop called Nowhere. Now I am that person!
Do you stay across the numbers? I don’t even know how many pairs are made. I don’t know how many are sold. I don’t look at numbers for my Louis Vuitton or Off-White collections. I’m just pure passion. And that, to me, is essential to the product, because I’m trying to bestow that 17-year-old feeling into the actual shoe.
When you see the X408 and you plug it in and you show your friends, that feeling is like you just walked in with the Back to the Future sneaker, but it’s Louis Vuitton. When I’m in my studio, that’s where the ideas come from.Virgil Abloh
I was just reading about Steve Albini, the producer of Nirvana’s In Utero record. Instead of taking a deal with points, where he could have made a lot of money, he took a fixed fee, because he didn’t want to have to think about making the record popular. I thought that was an interesting way to stay true to your craft. There’s a little bit of that in what you just said in terms of letting the machine take care of the business side.
Yeah. That’s how I create. It’s a very valuable lesson. One of the hardest things for any artist, I always say this when I do a lot of mentoring, as a creative person, is that it’s one of the riskiest careers. How do I word this? When I have an idea in my head, it can be a billion-dollar sneaker idea, but how do you charge for something that’s not proven? You’re probably going to take a deal for $1000 just to get it started but you’re never going to recoup the billion.
An hourly rate doesn’t cover value.
Exactly. I don’t operate that way. Like I said, I went on for three minutes about the Sneaker Freaker Issue 2 cover, which shows where my head’s at. As a designer, I’ve never been focused on success or money or recouping costs, because it’s such a loss leader. I love that story about the producer. We’re still talking about Nirvana so he’s probably happy knowing that Nirvana resonates because of how amazing that music still is. And if he had an extra few thousand dollars, the music might not have been that good.
When I pulled the X408s out of the box, my first sensation was the aroma, then the quality of the leather, which is sadly never seen at the major sports brands anymore. But it also brought to mind Troop and British Knights, because there’s a little bit of that flair with the styling and graphic call-outs. Did those brands mean anything to you?
Yeah. That’s why I call it the era. That’s what I love! For me, that’s my culture. I’m a Black designer. That’s just in my DNA. L.A. Gear was also big for me, which is in that same pocket. I don’t know if you remember, but Michael Jackson was into L.A. Gear.
The Unstoppable range ended in a massive lawsuit.
Oh yeah! But skate was also big for me. I remember rock and rollers wearing big Converse ball shoes.
Dave Mustaine (Megadeth) loved Nike high-tops. It’s incongruous in many ways but it makes sense when you see the complete package.
It’s all about style. Mind you, and you know this, we just brought it up, in Harajuku you would see Converse Fastbreaks and Avia and you’d be like, ’Damn!’ That feeling is missing. When you put the X408 in all black, so that the colours pop, the colourway immediately transfers the brain into a different mood. The black pair has this Terminator 2, L.A. Gear-type of feel, but the all-white with blue piping feels more collegiate, like it’s a basketball team.
Adding lights to the shoes is obviously, aside from nostalgia, very playful. It’s gimmicky, like Reebok Pumps.
Or the Latrell Sprewell shoes with the spinning wheel.
Dada Spinners! It’s also at odds with the traditional Louis Vuitton consumer. How do you gel these two competing forces together? Is that older LV customer going to buy a light-up shoe? Or does he buy it for his grandchildren to geek out on?
Yeah, it’s kind of a gimmicky idea, but if you saw the context of how I released it, it was all for the show. So to me, the X408 is a show piece. These are artefacts of the whole set design. Gimmicks aren’t my thing. You won’t find too many things that I’ve made... well, maybe it depends what you define as a gimmick. I didn’t even think about it, but the beauty of Louis Vuitton is the micro units. Again, I don’t do numbers, so I actually don’t know, but I think there might be about 300 pairs of the X408s ever made. They will just go into people’s collections.
I’ve always thought the notion of products ‘selling out’ as a marker of success is corrupt.
LV doesn’t make things and use that as a metric. That’s the biggest part of Louis Vuitton DNA that I think is useful to understand. It’s a pure place for creativity. That’s what luxury is. It’s bespoke for one person that comes in and loves it. The customer could be a 30-year-old investment banker that doesn’t wear suits. He wears Jordans to work and knows about HYPEBEAST.
So we’re beyond cool?
Well, it’s a world where you can find everything anywhere. Those X408s might not even be on the Internet. Maybe I’m wrong but I haven’t seen a product shot on my Instagram feed yet. But I know that sales associates can talk to customers and…
If you wanted the Ferrari F12, you had to be someone. Same with the new Porsche GT3 RS. There’s an honour bestowed. You get made by the brand because you deserve that product. I like that even though it is, in effect, a class system.
It’s adding variety in the landscape. Like we talked about with sneaker culture. How do you keep some parts of it alive?
This is a random question to ask at this point, but I have been reading a lot about how the rise of China has influenced the way Hollywood makes films, the way they look, the scripts and everything. Does that change in geo-politics affect European fashion houses? I would say not directly. I’m glad we speak the same references. Even Australia, I know the difference between Melbourne and Sydney. I know the sneaker shops, the record shops. I just think about the regions and not in a city-specific way, but about how one influences the other. Japan and China are obviously different now than they were 10 years ago, but I don’t think of them singularly. American basketball is highly influential in China but then I also think about SoundCloud rappers, and how A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti dictate style in Milan where my Off-White studio is based. So I just focus on the overall ecosystem and how it’s shaped. Generic runners, like dad shoes, are the most popular thing in America right now. That will evolve into something else. I don’t think about China specifically. I think about the ecosystem of different trends and how they influence one another.
It’s been a couple of months since news of the first LV skate model was released online. The sneaker scene is tough but the skate world is brutally resistant to outsiders. When Nike started SB in 2002, I was told by so many insiders that it would destroy skate, when it arguably did the exact opposite. How cognisant of that were you when you decided to pitch Louis Vuitton into that world?
My perspective is to always keep firing. Even in 2020. I refuse to be complacent. I love the culture too much not to push it forward, even when it’s scary. Skate culture is probably the most protective of all.
This is a year where we have to recognise the lack of outlets that fashion gives to Black creatives. So I signed Lucien Clarke, one of the most influential contemporary Black skaters, because he didn’t have a sneaker deal! The power to change that was the impetus.Virgil Abloh
It was a perfect fit because he’s a creative and not just a skater. Oftentimes Black people are reduced to one thing like, ‘Oh, you’re an athlete!’ You can’t be whatever your college degree is, we never reference that, so you can understand my mentality. The conversation between me and Lucien that I’m having is bigger than the small-mindedness of saying, ‘You can’t do that!’ It reminds me of my own career when I started. They told me I wasn’t a designer because I didn’t go to fashion school, even though my Mom taught me to sew when I was 15. I can sew and cut a pattern to this day but because I don’t come from that background and my skin colour isn’t that, I somehow don’t qualify in the same way. Lucien designed the shoe which is another profound thing. We’re rolling it out very much as a homage to Black skating. That’s how granular I look at it. This whole operation is paying that forward to another young talent to be seen in the right context. If you understand it, well, it’s the same thing that happened to me. I’ve already passed it on to somebody else and now he’s allowed to go on his career and hopefully pay it off to another young Black kid that’s a photographer or a skater.
Is there a vision for the LV skate lineup and how those shoes will be sold?
I can’t give away too many details. I’m saving that for when we drop the shoes. Just know that we’re going to do something unique and that this is not just a one-off. We have ideas. We’re building it out as we go, but I’m not announcing too much at one time. I’ll just do this as the last reminder on that shoe. Skate shoes were not invented as skate shoes. They broke the rules by nature. Jordan 1s are the essence of a skate shoe, so you can skate in anything. Kids that I follow on Instagram skate in Timberlands, so I’m from that school of thought that everything is a skate shoe.
Whether it’s turning the Swoosh upside down or releasing skate shoes at LV, the unwritten rules in fashion have dissolved, which is a long way from Dapper Dan being crushed by the machine. It’s an interesting contrast between him and where you’re at today. Breaking down barriers inspires creativity, but it also creates complexities and some challenges.
Yeah. I think it’s just the price you pay. It’s the price of admission. You have to give and take. I have a lot of freedom with everything I put out but I’m often criticised by people who claim to have had my idea first. That’s just par for the course. At the end of the day, if you look closely at my work, I’m not playing into the game of the Internet. I want to inspire the next-generation version of me, and what will my body of work look like in 30 years? My book is 500 pages of work since I was 17. It’s literally like my hard drives were printed. It’s my rationale. It’s words. It’s the quotes. When you see me, people can just view it as the object or the graphic t-shirt or the phrase on a rug. But there’s a whole rationale behind it. And like I said, I’m not playing into the Internet now. It’s so shortsighted. It’s no wonder product looks the way it does. Because it almost looks like it could be only for the Internet. For me it’s about stories.
The pointy toe sneaker fad was definitely inspired by Instagram. adidas got heavy into that and it worked well for a time. I prefer it when brands dictate terms through product design rather than trying to figure out what kids want to wear and giving them shoes based on focus groups and trend forecasting.
A lot of my friends have been talking about when we used to go to stores and see the wall of sneakers. There was always one weird runner that wasn’t marketed towards you, but looked cool if you wore them in the right way, like in a TJ Maxx where the shoes were all 50 bucks, or at an outlet. You can find gold, even today. I’m still buying Nike samples for my archive on eBay, just regular old $60 shoes that are great, that people are sleeping on. Of course it’s COVID and the ironic thing is that I wear the same pair of shoes every day. I collect them but I wish I was more of a sneaker wearer. That’s just a fun fact.
It’s customary to finish an interview with, ‘So what’s next?’ That’s a redundant question with you, so how do we end up?
Well, it’s funny. In an interview like this with a friend of mine I was just riffing and I said that phrase, ‘Streetwear is dead.’ I didn’t know my voice carried that loud, but what I appreciated about that row was that like, don’t confuse me with just a guy that’s making sneakers and sitting back enjoying it. To me, it’s all critical thought. I’m a thinker and I put it into objects. These aren’t just sneakers that are devoid of thinking. To end the interview, the most important thing for me is that there are entities around like Sneaker Freaker. I’m all about critique and critical thought. You can say whatever is whatever, but you’re a media platform that has paid its dues over a long time. You are committed to telling the story and archiving the thought. That’s what helps the culture grow. We both have a duty to foster that process. You do that with the pages in your magazine and the books that you write. I’m attempting to do that with shoe design and my different jobs. Ultimately, we want to see the glory days continue, but I’m fine for it to take on new forms because the next generation deserves their own memories.
I want to talk about the cover too. We should go crazy with the cover! We should do a limited edition holographic cover. Just like a hundred issues where you turn it in the light and the colour shines. I’ll design it with you!