Virgil Abloh: 'Streetwear Lives And Dies'

Nineties skate culture. Noughties hip-hop. And luxury fashion. A three-part series on the designers redefining streetwear now

'The thing people have to understand is that streetwear lives and dies,' says Off-White Creative Director Virgil Abloh. 'It flares up and then it goes away because streetwear is so of its time.'

We're discussing how clothing rooted in skate and hip-hop culture – the puffer coats, the hoodies, the oversized logos and the baggy silhouettes – has risen from the outskirts of fashion to the luxury big leagues.

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There's a streetwear explosion happening in fashion right now. When was the last time you saw so many puffer jackets on a Balenciaga runway? Or so many logo hoodies (that politically fraught linchpin of teenage boys' wardrobes) ruling the womenswear floors of Topshop, Zara and the like?

ELLE's Donna Wallace in Off-White by Virgil Abloh

And while this new casual moment is most often credited to Vêtements designer and Balenciaga Creative Director Demna Gvasalia – the man behind those aforementioned puffer jackets – Abloh, who last year was the only American finalist for the LVMH prize, is one of a handful of emerging designers driving it.

The 35-year-old is developing a name for himself as the man behind the buzzy womenswear label, Off-White, but is probably best known for his work as Kanye West's Creative Director for the past 14 years. Abloh has been at the centre of the streetwear movement's various waves and stages since the Nineties and during a phone call he talks me through it all in a manner that is part cultural critic, part historian.

'I was skateboarding in the Nineties, listening to hip-hop and buying $30 Vision Street Wear tees,' he tells me from Chicago, where he lives. 'That's where I started. The raw essence of it was Dogtown and Z-Boys, skate culture, print your own T-shirt with your crew name on it and wear it like a badge kind of thing,' he explains.

'The clothes became a thing to represent a sort of way of thinking,' he says while packing for an upcoming trip to Hong Kong. 'The second life cycle, proper streetwear, was the explosion that happened in New York's Lower East Side and California in the early Noughties. That was Supreme, Alife, Anything, Futura – it was a strong hip-hop thing. That scene lived and died.'

And now we have what Abloh calls the 'post-streetwear movement', which is entirely new and somewhat difficult to define. 'As culture changes, so does the landscape of streetwear. We're living in a time where we're seeing the breakdown of hierarchy, and that applies to fashion as well,' Abloh explains.

'Trends are trickling from the street up. Luxury no longer holds the same grip on consumers.' Abloh's success backs up his theory. He's part of the group leading the casualisation of fashion, alongside the likes of Gvasalia (who also worked for Kanye and was a 2015 LVMH prize finalist with Vêtements) and Hood By Air's Shayne Oliver (who was nominated for an LVMH prize in 2014).

If you haven't gathered this yet, there's a six-degrees of separation scenario happening in this scene, and the cornerstone of which seems to be Kanye. 'Kanye is a great conduit for that. My friends were all a part of a stream of consciousness,' Abloh explains before listing off his friends and peers – all of whom are integral to the post-streetwear movement and all, it seems, former Kanye collaborators.

There's Heron Preston – 'He's the Azzedine Alaïa of streetwear' – who is the New York-based creative with whom Abloh co-founded the cooler-than-cool collective, Been Trill. It also included Matthew Williams, yet another LVMH prize finalist who's behind the buzzy new womenswear label, Alyx. Sensing a theme here? The big fashion conglomerates are taking notice.

To be fair, this isn't the first time streetwear has surfaced on the runways, but it is arguably the first time it has had such a major impact on the entire landscape of high fashion. Perhaps this is partly due to the continual blurring of lines between gender (Off-White originated as a men's line before expanding into womenswear in 2014).

Virgil Abloh

The fashion world has grown increasingly partial to mixing women's and men's clothes, and streetwear has long been a space in which clothing was somewhat gender neutral. Influential retailers like Net-A-Porter, Matches and Harvey Nichols have all bought into Abloh's gender mixing take on street: sporty, boyish turtlenecks emblazoned with the word 'off', the statement denim jumpsuit with the jacket top flipped backward. Abloh sees the resurgence as more emblematic of a 'cultural and generational shift' in which those formerly viewed as outsiders are developing influence.

'The only way to be relevant is to be this new genre of fashion designer, where it's not just about the garment but the branding and principles.' For the record, Abloh, who shows his collections in Paris, did not study fashion – his degrees are in architecture and engineering. 'My approach to Off-White will always be architectural. Anyone like me who didn't go to fashion school always feels like they have to prove themselves,' he says. Not that this has dampened his ambition. 'My goal is to creative direct a big house at the Saint Laurent level. It's exciting for me to say that out loud.'

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