The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

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(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Over the summer, Chicago was ­transformed into a style nerve center—­Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus unveiled streetwear displays in their windows, an Apple store held a series of design labs, and the Museum of Streetwear opened a pop-up shop. The activity was all clustered around “Figures of Speech,” an exhibition about influential designer Virgil Abloh at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

More than 100,000 visitors, most of them young, have flocked to see a dress Abloh designed for Beyoncé, a belt he made for A$AP Rocky, and an embossing plate he created for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album Watch the Throne. Unreleased prototypes of other products are shown off near rainbow T-shirts designed for Louis Vuitton, where Abloh was named men’s artistic director a year ago.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

Outside the museum, he and Nike Inc. teamed up to christen a temporary space for creatives to host workshops. To the south, LVMH opened a store for a month devoted to Abloh’s new collection, a bright orange monument to the designer that local press described as “electric” and “traffic-­stopping.”

Abloh’s evolution from the son of a seamstress to one of the hottest names in fashion has brands clamoring to collaborate with him and earn his stamp of approval. This year alone he’s had a hand in at least eight brand partnerships. (By comparison, Louis Vuitton’s head of womenswear has done one in the same time frame.)

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

On June 27 he dropped a shoe with Nike; a week before that, a collection of furniture and home decor with Swiss company Vitra International AG made its debut at Art Basel. In May, Abloh released a set of rugs with Ikea of Sweden AB and a limited-­edition water bottle for Evian. In April he created a small collection for Saks, which featured yellow Gore-Tex separates and deconstructed denim.

“I view a great collaboration as a great conversation,” Abloh says. “To me it’s a metaphor and a modern way of working. New, unpredictable, constructive ideas come from conversation.”

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

The designer grew up outside Chicago in a middle-class neighborhood in Rockford, Ill., raised by Ghanaian immigrant parents. After earning degrees at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the Illinois Institute of Technology, he interned at Fendi in Rome, where he impressed Michael Burke, current chairman and chief executive officer of Louis Vuitton. Abloh introduced his first brand, Pyrex Vision, in 2012. It featured screen-printed T-shirts, but he shuttered the project after a year and rebranded it as Off-White, the label that would earn him international recognition.

Over the past six months, prices for Abloh’s products have skyrocketed on resale marketplace StockX. The 2017 Off-White Chicago Jordan 1 sneakers have increased in resale value by $900 and today sell for as much as $5,000; the 2018 Off-White Jordan 1s have risen $700. Items in the Virgil x MCA collection are reselling for 40% above their retail prices. Jesse Einhorn, StockX’s data content director, says the Chicago takeover has accelerated this surge in interest for Abloh’s goods. “Overall, demand for Virgil-associated products is stronger than ever,” he says.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

The sheer number of collaborations hasn’t damped enthusiasm. In the past two years, he’s released a see-through luggage collection with Rimowa, a bottle of rosé Champagne with Moët & Chandon, a sweatsuit that looks like medical scrubs for Equinox, and a series for Nike that reimagined 10 of its most famous shoes. He’s also designed a cafe for Le Bon Marché and costumes for the New York City Ballet. He’s made sunglasses for Warby Parker, fragrance and skin-care products for Byredo, boots for Timberland, sweatshirts for Champion, watches for Braun, weather gear for Gore-Tex, swimming trunks for Vilebrequin, shirts for Kith, and a black tutu for Serena Williams.

In August, global luxury marketplace Farfetch Ltd. acquired New Guards Group, the parent company of Off-White, for $675 million. Farfetch CEO José Neves called Off-White and other newly acquired labels, including Palm Angels and Heron Preston (which Abloh has also worked with), the “brands of the future.”

Abloh’s rise has been fueled at least in part by an uncanny ability to create bridges with fans. Jeff Carvalho, managing director of streetwear site Highsnobiety, says Abloh has allowed fashion consumers to be a part of his world, letting them in closer than anyone else before. He answers an inordinately high number of direct messages on Instagram and even responds to tagged photos.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

“I don’t think he’s become so much of a design celebrity as much as he’s become an important figure for young creatives that are looking to figure out how to make it,” Carvalho says. “He’s one of us.”

Abloh’s show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (on view until Sept. 22) is on track to set an attendance record, besting totals from the likes of Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol. And Chicago seems to be thirsty for more streetwear. Sneaker reseller Stadium Goods—which received a $250 million infusion from Farfetch in December—will open a store near the museum. The rapper Drake, too, will set up a Windy City shop for his own streetwear brand in the No. 9 Walton building, home to Citadel founder Ken Griffin.

Abloh’s new fall collection for Louis Vuitton features clothes in muted neutrals and bags with colorful stripes. Up next are three more shoes with Nike that are rumored to hit shelves in September.

One Year in the Life of the Ablohverse

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

LOUIS VUITTON
New this fall, Abloh added bright graphic elements, such as this $3,550 Keepall Bandoulière 50, to the brand’s signature silhouettes.

NIKE AIR ZOOM TERRA KIGER 5

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

In June, Abloh dropped this part of a collection dubbed Athletes in Progress, which featured sneakers tested by 800-meter champion Caster Semenya.

VITRA

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

This “hacked” version of Jean Prouvé’s Antony armchair in orange lacquer made its debut at Art Basel in June. Another collection will travel to the U.S. this fall.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

MCA CHICAGO
For his “Figures of Speech” exhibition, Abloh created two shirts. This one is reselling for more than 40% above its retail price on site StockX.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

VILEBREQUIN
The French brand’s $300 swimming trunks got a dose of the street in June with an Off-White collaboration that included floral prints and neon colors.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

IKEA
A collection of rugs for the Swedish furniture brand featured Abloh’s trademark text set off with quotation marks. Released in May, it’s sold out, but a new line is due this November in the U.S.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

EVIAN
After assuming the role of creative adviser for sustainable design at the bottled-water brand, Abloh dropped this collaboration with hydration startup Soma during New York Fashion Week in May.

The Designer Changing Fashion—and Rugs, Luggage, and Bottled Water, Too

NIKECOURT FLARE 2
Abloh has designed outfits for Serena Williams to wear at Grand Slam events, including the French Open. This shoe, from last year’s U.S. Open, has a built-in sock and an off-center Nike swoosh. 

—Additional reporting by Claire Ballentine

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Rovzar at crovzar@bloomberg.net, James Gaddy

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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