Virgil Abloh and Kanye West: Walking the Streets Extended to the Internet

20 Jan, 2022

The original text was written in Japanese and published on FASHIONSNAP.COM on January 20, 2022. This post is translated from the original article.

Virgil Abloh has passed away. At the age of 41, he passed away in the midst of his glory days as the men’s artistic director of “LOUIS VUITTON. He emerged in the mid-2010s as the creative director of OFF-WHITE c/o VIRGIL ABLOH™. Numerous reviews have been written about Virgil in various countries and forms. However, I would like to revisit his achievements and progress again, considering what hints for the future can be gleaned from his rapid emergence in the mid-2010s and the phenomena surrounding him for the year 2022.

Image of “African” Designer
When people talk about Virgil Abloh, the first thing that comes to mind is the following two facts. The first one: He is an “African American” designer, and secondly, his relationship with the “Street Culture.”
Firstly, let us look back at the keyword “African”. What kind of black designers of African descent has existed in the past? The first ones that come to mind are Ozwald Boateng, Joe Casely-Hayford, a UK-based designer, and Andre Walker, an American who has been widely supported by American fashion insiders.

Andre Walker of the United States was active in the 80s and 90s. Although he did not climb the mainstream, he was “a cult figure who has influenced those in the mainstream. As he sometimes says in interviews that he has never been conscious of being black American, his design orientation is marked by its avant-garde nature. Indeed, when I met him, he was a soft-spoken, open, and charming person who spoke without distinction. He was supported by the likes of Kim Jones and Marc Jacobs from different generations. After a hiatus, he resumed his brand when “DOVER STREET MARKET NEWYORK” opened in January 2013. You may remember his name from his collaboration with Off-White. 1)Virgil Abloh often chose creators from the past who had strongly influenced him as collaboration partners. NIGO is the one too. Virgil and Kanye West had deeply studied NIGO’s achievement. He also became major collaboration partner for Louis Vuitton.

 

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Two British designers, Oswald Boateng and Joe Casely-Hayford have attracted attention for their reinterpretation of Savile Row-derived traditions with their own African descent backgrounds at a time when the world is in the throes of street and avant-garde trends. Hayford is of Black Elite descent in the U.K., and his relatives include prominent politicians and academics. He himself was originally a designer with attributes closer to traditional British establishment tastes rather than a white designer active in the public eye at the time.

Oswald Boateng, who mixed Africanism with British traditions, is not to be missed and the most critical. He was the most influential African designer of the 2000s. When Virgil was chosen as Creative Director of Louis Vuitton, it was widely said that “a luxury brand finally had a Creative Director from African descent for the first time,” but this was not true. Boateng was actually the first. When the GIVENCHY launched its Men’s Wear in 2003, he was the first creative director, then played this role until 2007.

 

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“Tribal Traditionalism” 2002 by Ozwald Boateng

In addition to fashion designers, black people’s success existed in fashion journalism. At Vogue, André Leon Talley (1948-2022) was an outstanding at Vogue U.S. for many years, There are Teri Agins, who is known as the writer of “The End of Fashion: How Marketing Changed the Clothing Business Forever”, the most insightful monograph on contemporary American fashion. However, it wasn’t until Virgil, and Kanye West burst onto the fashion scene that African-Americans were appointed to the helm of the mainstream. Edward Enninful was tapped as editor-in-chief of Vogue U.K. in 2017, and also in 2021, Ibrahim Kamara became the chief editor of DAZED UK. Nonetheless, given the presence of African descent in pop culture and sports for decades, I would say it took a long, long time.

Team Kanye West’s Influence
Virgil came onto the fashion scene when he began working as part of Kanye’s team. His relationship with Kanye is said to have started around 2002, then continued for 20 years.
At the time, Kanye was already a celebrity, but he had always had a strong interest in fashion. In 2004, he assembled a team to launch his own brand, “Pastelle.” Unfortunately, although this project was unsuccessful, on the other hand, the team assembled here, including Virgil, would later become a strong influence in the fashion world. 2)In retrospect, it was a project that brought together a splendid array of people, including Emma Hedlund and Saif Bakir, who founded CMMN SWDN, Kim Jones as an advisor, and KAWS for the logo design. You can see more details here on hypebeast https://hypebeast.com/jp/2018/7/kanye-west-pastelle-clothing-line-untold-story

Kanye has many anecdote-like stories; the most famous story is that he applied directly to Raf Simons for an internship and was turned down. Apparently, he literally “waited out” Raf Simons in front of his office in Antwerp. Furthermore, he was denied admission to Central Saint Martins. Unlike other celebrities, Kanye attempts to learn from scratch through school and apprenticeships, no matter how famous he may be, representing his virtue and a source of creativity. Finally, he got an internship position at FENDI with Virgil in 2009. This became a turning point that changed the fashion scene in 2010 and beyond.

Since then, numerous designers have emerged from Team Kanye West’s influence. In addition to Virgil, There are Matthew M. Williams, founder of 1017 ALYX 9SM and Creative Director of Givenchy, and Heron Preston, who is playing the role of the creative director of Calvin Klein. Jerry Lorenzo of “Fear of God”, is also under Kanye’s influence. He is now expected to become a director of a big house in the future. Former big-Maison designers tend to make headlines on WWD when they launch their own brands, but “the-Former-Team-Kanye-West” sounds more destructive in comparison. Now, the team itself is like a big fashion Maison.

Creators who send a direct message to the masses
The characteristic of Virgil is the way to delivers messages to their customers. He sends a direct message to the masses. The major difference between fashion before 2010 and after is Instagram 3)Fashion up to around 2010 was previously mentioned in our previous post. “THE END OF “HEISEI” AND THE BEGINNING OF “REIWA”. THE BIRTH OF “CONTEMPORARY FASHION” AND “MACROSCOPIC FASHION DESIGN” (1st May 2019)”. Instagram was created in October 2010 and had one million users as of December of that year, but by 2012, when Off-White was born, the number of users had increased 50-fold to 50 million. By 2016, when the Trump administration took office, the platform was used by 600 million people, which corresponds to 10% of more or less the global population.4)The graph shows the growth in the number of Instagram users. Almost 10% of the world’s population began using it in 2016. Fashion professionals started using it around 2012-2013. Instagram was also the reason for the reinstatement of celebrity influence, and as a result of the U.S. presidential election, counterculture and the street became a massive boom. This was mentioned in a previous series of articles, “POST-TRUMP SOCIETY AND THE FUTURE OF DIVERSITY IN FASHION

Before Instagram, it was more difficult for brands to get their message directly to buyers and consumers than it is today. The only way to get your voice heard was to be featured in a magazine, on a high-traffic website, or pay to place an ad. Furthermore, the way the voice was heard was strongly influenced by the industry’s reputation, and the inner circle fixers who influenced it had centralized power.
As a result, the design of seasonal collections and products often emphasized gimmicks to please the media and the cognoscenti. However, no matter how well-favored by critics and editors and how well known within the industry, commercial success was not guaranteed. There are many brands and designers (Andre Walker may be one of them) that have disappeared while still being well-favored by the industry. Reputation in the industry was a necessary but not sufficient condition for success.

Critics are not always customers. This situation underwent an evident change with Instagram. A phenomenon occurred in which personal influence transcended media influence. Kanye and his team of new creators, led by Virgil, rode this social wave to the offensive. Their message attracts actual consumers who buy things.” Defining the gray area between black and white as the color off-white” is a concept written on the Off-White label5)The project started out under the name Pyrex Vision and eventually became Off-White.. Still, the intent is solid, crystal clear, and easily accessible to those new to fashion, even for non-native English-speaking audiences. It is also easy to understand, even for those new to fashion.

It was also synchronized with the focus on minority and gender issues after the birth of the Trump administration. In turbulent times, creators who can deliver simple messages directly to the masses become stronger. On the other hand, that is the main reason Virgil’s creations always caused controversy in the industry. In fact, he has a considerable number of detractors. From the point of view of fashion industry experts, there is the criticism that his creations are simply reproductions of other brands’ past archives and copying ideas. In some parts, he even calls his creations remixes, just like HIPHOP6)As an aside, Kanye West has said in interviews that he studied fashion by surfing blogs such as Style.com and The Sartolialist, and by actually buying and looking at products. Menswear, especially the archives of Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, began to soar after Kanye and others started wearing them, and studying the archives and considering context is an important part of fashion design today. They also studied the Japanese Uraharajuku culture more deeply. In fact, many methods and ideas were strongly influenced by NIGO.
“Luckily, I was rich enough to make mistakes and learn by like just being a fashion victim – which I definitely have been. fashion victim – and to flip it from fashion victim to maybe a fashion icon,” https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/celebrity-news/kanye-west-is-too-famous-to-study-at-st-martins-109608.

Ironically, however, it is the “current era” that can win fans every time blown in flames due to controversial issues. Virgil is a creator who has built his position by speaking out to the masses rather than to fashion experts. Designers, whose voices are directly heard, are the most important “sales and profit” generators for the brand and its investors. Virgil is that type of designer. During the pandemic, Louis Vuitton transported containers and held shows in the port of Shanghai, China, a city at odds with the United States.
The show had a budget that no other fashion brand could have afforded, but the way he used his capital to generate returns appears to be very much a modern American and post-Instagram designer. What is most commendable about him (and Kanye) in the context of fashion is that he used his own and others’ influence to simplify a fashion game that had become complicated.

After the withdrawal of the Pastelle project, Kanye launched a collection in 2010 under the name “DW Kanye West,” but the collection was heavily criticized by the media and was not a commercial success. However, his subsequent success with Yeezy is well known. If the timing of the collection had been around 2015, just before the birth of the Trump administration, when the focus was post-Instagram and on minorities, the result would have been completely different and could have been a huge success7)News about DW Kanye West: The Gurdian UK https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/gallery/2011/oct/02/kanye-west-paris-fashion-week

Defying Stereotypes and Typecasting
When one sees the brand names Virgil and Off-White, the immediate topic of conversation is their relationship to the street. When you hear the words “black people and streetwear,” you may immediately think of street kids achieving the American dream. Of course, in some ways, Virgil is making good use of this image, but in reality, this simple association is the social pathology and status quo that Virgil, Kanye, and his friends were fighting against.
Virgil has been in and out of the club scene since he was a teenager. That sounds like a street kid to us, but it is only a fragment of his image. He studied architecture and civil engineering in graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology. This figure, who has received more higher education than the white people of the past, is not the image of the so-called “street”8)Illinois Institute of Technology is famous for the Rem Koolhaas building, but it is also a prestigious school of design and architecture, originally founded by Moholy-Nagy László, who fled the Nazis and founded The New Bauhaus of Chicago. It is also known as the home of the family that owns the Hyatt Group, which established the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize in architecture..
Kanye West, whom we met in school, is not the so-called stereotypical street kid. He has an art education, studying painting at The American Academy of Art in Chicago. His mother was a college teacher and lived in Nanjing, China. When we think of African-American musicians, we think of natural-born showbiz talent like Michael Jackson, whom Kanye professes to respect, or “street kids” who were raised in the criminal and sleazy world of gangsta rap, such as N.W.A. However, if we forget that Virgil and Kanye are from a different social background than the traditional stereotypical type-casted African American creator image, we miss the source of their wide range of interests.

Stereotypical tagging of race is deeply rooted. When Asian or Japanese-Americans appear in American movies or dramas, keywords such as karate, ninja, geisha, sushi, and kimono are immediately associated with them. We see scenes in U.S. fashion magazines where visuals that sometimes spur stereotypical and false images of Japan come under blown fire. However, African-Americans have been subjected to even stronger prejudice in the U.S. for even longer than this. The roles played by actors of African descent in Hollywood films have been organized gangsters and maverick criminals when it comes to villains, and they have rarely appeared in characters such as spies and intelligent criminals, which are often played by white actors. Rather than appearing as highly educated entrepreneurs, writers, or Wall Street financial experts, they often appeared as rappers, jazzmen, basketball athletes, or military commandos. When Virgil and Kanye are perceived as of African descent, the creations that are talked about are rebellions against “assigned roles and typecasting”9)In 2020, during the presidential campaign, a black man, George Floyd, was killed by police violence, which led to Black Lives Matter (BLM) filling news headlines. At that time, a video aired on Japan’s NHK caught fire. It was an animation of a black man in a muscular tank top who looked like he had “grown up on the streets,” and a funk man who looked like funky James Brown holding a protest placard and shouting. The Huffington Post documented this issue: https://www.huffingtonpost.jp/entry/story_jp_5ee0a01bc5b6faafc92b76de.


The message “YOU’RE OBVIOUSLY IN THE WRONG PLACE” in the “Figures of Speech” exhibition is a condensed message of Virgil’s activities.

Street Extended to the Internet: Possibilities for the Future of Minority People
More than 20 years ago, when creators of African descent approached fashion, their role from the outside was to present Africanism as a contemporary ethnicity just like Ozwald and Hayford did. And many creators were stereotypically looked upon as “outsiders” or “old street kids (badasses)”. As mentioned above, Virgil and Kanye attempted intellectual rebellion through fashion, and in doing so created a new place in the center of fashion that had once been dominated by wealthy white men, just as Michael Jackson had once created a place in the realm of music and entertainment. The “street” they spoke of was a free territory that extended beyond the back streets of cities and onto the Internet, beyond race and borders.
From time to time, I see Japanese creators say, “I have never been conscious of being Japanese.” Whether or not this is their true intention is not clear.
However, it is inevitable that the global public will regard a person as Japanese or Asian, even if he or she intends to be. In all areas, Asian creators, with few exceptions, have been called upon to provide mystique and Orientalism in the same way that black Africans once did. Consequently, the fact is that they have succeeded by meeting and exceeding expectations in that role. The new trend that Virgil and Kanye have created since 2010 is no stranger to those of us in Asia. Through their fashion, they have demonstrated that when society is in a state of flux and new trends arise, it is possible to create change by playing a “new role” against typecasting, that is different from the role one is expected to play. It is important not only for designers and brand owners in Japan but for all players in the fashion industry to remain sensitive to the social atmosphere and ambiance. We must not miss the timing when the opportunity to create a new “different place” and “different role” arises.

1 Virgil Abloh often chose creators from the past who had strongly influenced him as collaboration partners. NIGO is the one too. Virgil and Kanye West had deeply studied NIGO’s achievement. He also became major collaboration partner for Louis Vuitton.
2 In retrospect, it was a project that brought together a splendid array of people, including Emma Hedlund and Saif Bakir, who founded CMMN SWDN, Kim Jones as an advisor, and KAWS for the logo design. You can see more details here on hypebeast https://hypebeast.com/jp/2018/7/kanye-west-pastelle-clothing-line-untold-story
3 Fashion up to around 2010 was previously mentioned in our previous post. “THE END OF “HEISEI” AND THE BEGINNING OF “REIWA”. THE BIRTH OF “CONTEMPORARY FASHION” AND “MACROSCOPIC FASHION DESIGN” (1st May 2019)”
4 The graph shows the growth in the number of Instagram users. Almost 10% of the world’s population began using it in 2016. Fashion professionals started using it around 2012-2013. Instagram was also the reason for the reinstatement of celebrity influence, and as a result of the U.S. presidential election, counterculture and the street became a massive boom. This was mentioned in a previous series of articles, “POST-TRUMP SOCIETY AND THE FUTURE OF DIVERSITY IN FASHION
5 The project started out under the name Pyrex Vision and eventually became Off-White.
6 As an aside, Kanye West has said in interviews that he studied fashion by surfing blogs such as Style.com and The Sartolialist, and by actually buying and looking at products. Menswear, especially the archives of Raf Simons and Helmut Lang, began to soar after Kanye and others started wearing them, and studying the archives and considering context is an important part of fashion design today. They also studied the Japanese Uraharajuku culture more deeply. In fact, many methods and ideas were strongly influenced by NIGO.
“Luckily, I was rich enough to make mistakes and learn by like just being a fashion victim – which I definitely have been. fashion victim – and to flip it from fashion victim to maybe a fashion icon,” https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/celebrity-news/kanye-west-is-too-famous-to-study-at-st-martins-109608.
7 News about DW Kanye West: The Gurdian UK https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/gallery/2011/oct/02/kanye-west-paris-fashion-week
8 Illinois Institute of Technology is famous for the Rem Koolhaas building, but it is also a prestigious school of design and architecture, originally founded by Moholy-Nagy László, who fled the Nazis and founded The New Bauhaus of Chicago. It is also known as the home of the family that owns the Hyatt Group, which established the Pritzker Prize, the Nobel Prize in architecture.
9 In 2020, during the presidential campaign, a black man, George Floyd, was killed by police violence, which led to Black Lives Matter (BLM) filling news headlines. At that time, a video aired on Japan’s NHK caught fire. It was an animation of a black man in a muscular tank top who looked like he had “grown up on the streets,” and a funk man who looked like funky James Brown holding a protest placard and shouting. The Huffington Post documented this issue: https://www.huffingtonpost.jp/entry/story_jp_5ee0a01bc5b6faafc92b76de