For anyone who knows fashion, it’s no mystery who Virgil Abloh is. Though he is now the creator of Off-White, Abloh’s journey to this position was certainly less than linear. In college, Abloh studied structural engineering at the University of Wisconsin—Madison before realizing his interest in building design. He then went to the Illinois Institute of Technology to receive his master’s degree in architecture. From there, he would soon become a creative director for Kanye West’s creative think tank, DONDA. He would go on to receive a GRAMMY nomination for best recording package for the album Watch The Throne. Most recently, and probably most notably, however, Abloh has collaborated with Nike. Called “The Ten,” Abloh selected ten popular Nike shoes and added in some of his own design ethos.
While Abloh’s accomplishments and projects are difficult to count and keep track of, Abloh gave a lecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design on October 26, titled “Program Organization, Sequencing Experiences,” an allusion to the well-known branding of many Off-White garments. Abloh was introduced by Harvard GSA design critic Oana Stanescu, whom Abloh has worked with on various projects, including Kanye West’s Yeezus tour set design and Off-White’s Hong Kong flagship store. Stanescu describes Abloh as “an architect of a different scale,” continuing “[his] work centers around the core of creative freedom.”
Abloh spent much of the lecture talking about the characteristics that define his signature and how these values are manifested in his designs and work. These component pieces ranged from his love of ready-made art and his desire to insert humanity through conversation to his actual design code. He mentioned his three-percent approach, in which he never edits something more than three-percent from its original form. He has other values that are important to him, such as the beauty of a work in progress or making sure that a design has a reason to exist. He points to his ability to know that enough is enough and that things don’t have to be perfect the first time.
In his words, the desire behind the lecture was not for attendees to see how far Abloh has come in his 37 years (in fact, Abloh attributes a lot of his success to dumb luck and knowing the right people). Instead, Abloh’s goal was for the audience to imagine themselves in his shoes and to put questions to themselves: What is your list of values? What makes you excited, and how can you make that thing happen?
Abloh also spent some time during the lecture talking about his mentors. He was quick to admit that he has a ton of mentors: old and young, dead and alive. During the Q&A after the lecture, someone asked Abloh about his relationship with his mentors who have passed. Abloh responded by discussing the value of understanding what their reasoning was for making certain design choices and how to apply that same rationale back into his own design.
From my perspective, the most interesting aspect of the lecture was the way in which Abloh was able to put himself in the shoes of the students that sat before him. Abloh tells his own story of how he was able to take a background of engineering and architecture and turn it into a career in fashion without entirely abandoning the things that he learned in school. That was what made it special. Abloh even did his best to try and distill what he has learned over the years into what he called his “cheat codes,” which were aimed to help people find their personal creative DNA.
Through this entire presentation, it became quite clear that Virgil Abloh is not an ordinary person. Sometimes, that manifests itself in his desire to constantly be innovating and doing cool, new things. Other times, it manifests itself by the fact that it constantly seems like he is doing half-dozen things at once. From collaborations with IKEA, where he’s looking to design the millennial’s apartment, and his collaborations with Nike to the constant output of designs for Off-White, it’s clear that Abloh is quick to draw inspiration from others and is often looking to push the envelope on what he’s allowed to do as a designer. In the past, I’ve considered some of Abloh’s designs to be uninspired, but learning about the thought process behind his designs has helped me learn that this isn’t quite the case.
Abloh said himself that he isn’t a big deal, even acting confused as to why he was at the front of the lecture hall giving a talk. But that all seemed to fade away as he was rushed by a mob of kids looking for him to sign their sneakers. Along with the rest of Abloh’s designs, these sneakers show the years of hard work and commitment to improving his own eye for design, incorporating things that he learned in the classroom along with things that he’s learned in the real world.
You can find the lecture on Harvard’s website, here.