Virgil Abloh joins LCF for ‘Death of the Designer’
Virgil Abloh joined LCF research fellow Anja Aronowsky Cronberg for a talk, exclusively open to London College of Fashion students, where they discussed the truths and misconceptions of the fashion industry, and how to maximise your potential as a creative.
In an age of ubiquitous branding, the era of the designer is long gone, and the common titles ‘artistic/creative director’ imply this new order. Perhaps the most common criticism lobbied at Virgil Abloh by the fashion establishment, is that he’s not a ‘real’ designer. So what gives? What would fashion look like if it relied less on fantasy and more on reality as we know it?
“I picked ‘Death of the designer’ as a provocative title, and I was thinking about a text that I read as an art student by Roland Barthes, ‘Death of the Author’. In that work, he deposits that to really understand the work you have to separate the work from the author. The essential meaning of the work isn’t to be found with the Author or anything to do with their life, but the meaning comes from the impression of the reader. The work doesn’t belong to the Author, it belongs to the public.” - Anja Aronowsky Cronberg
What do you think underpins some of the criticism that you’ve received in the past as a designer?
V: This is a learning moment for students. I exist as one narrative as a designer, I think it’s more profound to stare at the question than respond to it. I exist as a minority voice that has a glaring difference, I design to my own cannon. They call it streetwear – I reject. Why does it have to have a sub name? Let’s look at it and understand it from each of our points of views. These collections are a fact, yet I’ve worked thousands of hours in a studio, 10,000 hours as a DJ, an author, an interviewee in my life, yet a single narrative can just come out and disregard it all.
Is it really worth studying fashion?
V: One hundred percent it’s the most valuable thing you can do. The reason why, is not the most obvious - there are a million people that think ‘I can do what you do without it’ but the advantage is being in spaces and hearing the conversations like this whilst honing in on fashion. I studied architecture and engineering but I just metaphorically applied that to fashion. I looked at school as a very practical thing. It taught me how to multitask, otherwise I wouldn’t know how to do other things. Achieving things on time, communicating your ideas is all huge. Remove the degree; simply taking an input from a Professor and outputting whatever you think but also being able to rationalise what’s in your head in comparison to what they’re looking for is a metaphor for life. That’s my job with everything I plug into whether it be Nike, Louis Vuitton, my own team, or my own self. Education is for me, exactly that. Look at it through the metaphorical frame not just the ‘all of a sudden I get this degree and I’m on the front pages of Vogue.’ I wish when I was in school someone would have given me this exact same premise instead of ‘hey, look at my runway shows and let’s discuss look number 23.’ I just wanted to know how practical learning and study can equate to having a career that looks like the fairy-tale. Understanding the world is the X-Factor.
What made you the designer that you are today?
V: Being the outcast. On one hand it can be damaging to hear someone you look up to, to say ‘you’re not a real designer’. That’s a twist. As sensational and unexpected as that might be, it proved to someone twisted like me, that I was on the exact right path. I was coming to the party with a different bag. I was obsessed about my subcultures such as hip hop, black culture growing up. Fashion doesn’t recognise fashion design from a different cannon and I knew from that moment I had a lot to offer. Skateboarding, DJ’ing, all the things I did outside of school; in a weird twist of turn, that is my value as a designer. These things are often never encouraged but having a world view and life experience taught me everything I apply into my practice.
What do you think is the most disruptive way to network and break into the industry in terms of exposure?
To me, I call it a zigzag. Put the pencil down and make a generalisation of where everyone else is going and then, do the opposite and do it loudly - with purpose and conviction. The rationale behind something as simple as a t-shirt can be more complex than something like a dress that takes 10,000 hours to sew. You have to think about how it’s going to hit Instagram, or the webpage, or how your friend is going to write a text about it.
When you hire interns or team members, what do you look for?
V: The door is always open. I’m easy to find. As my profile is what it is, it’s not hard to find someone that knows me personally. If you message me on Instagram with the right tagged image, I will see it. If it’s a creative idea and someone tagged me in it, if it’s great I’ll share it. Everyone in my eco-system is self-motivated. That’s the trait. They can give themselves a brief and develop an idea. No one I work with needs me to generate the inspiration. There is always an influx of ideas coming from the bottom up and that’s the studio I run. Everyone is a do-er.
What do you think about the way that luxury brands communicate with young consumers today?
V: Remove the middle layer. Remove the brand and the corporate way of thinking out of the chain and look directly at culture, the consumer, the person. We’re in the middle ages of the internet, therefore now we speak to the masses. In the generation of these students, someone is going to come and re-write the whole thing. The luxury fashion consumer today versus the ones that built the brands, they’ve aged. If you compare, consumers might be spending 6-10 times more on a seasonal basis today which means they consume the advertising in a different way. They feel at one with the brand. So many things are different that I think you have to remove the metric of success and look at it in plain sight.
When I’m creating collections, I have freedom that is of a different era. My freedom comes from me from my long trajectory throughout my time. I create collections which are purely talking to the 17 year old version of myself, who is the customer and culture of today. There is no ‘should I do this or that?’ There is no rationale. The factor in this equation is time and someday my ideals will be out of frame but that’s okay. I value myself on the lucid thinking from a-z and seeing it go out into the world. That’s why I’m talking to students. The message I’m delivering is to you as a designer, writer, educator; don’t get bogged down into who/what you like and don’t. Then you’ve already put one foot into the slippery world. We’ve been given an opportunity through the world of 2020 – we made our own Vogue, our own media, our own Shopify. You can now choose to opt for sustainable fabrics that don’t contribute to the detriment of the earth and these possibilities were not readily accessible when I was in school. Don’t get distracted by trying to be like someone else or being allergic to criticism.