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The Interview

Career Advice From Off-White’s Mr Virgil Abloh

The designer on how to succeed in the workplace

  • Mr Virgil Abloh at the Off-White AW19 show, Paris, 16 January 2019. Photograph by Mr Victor Virgile/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

It’s well-documented that Mr Virgil Abloh is a workaholic. Four hours of sleep at night and, give or take, 300 flights per year (depending on what you read). This is all second nature to a designer that, perhaps more than any other at the moment, is a symbol of the new mood in fashion: fast, witty, multi-channel, always on.

Of course, it’s no huge surprise that Mr Abloh is a busy man. As if it wasn’t enough to be at the helm of Off-White – the streetwear-meets-luxury brand he launched in 2013 that’s now one of the most coveted labels in the world – he’s also been serving as artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton since March 2018. And then there are the other projects. As Mr Abloh admitted in his 2017 lecture to students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, he seldom says “no” to an interesting collaboration opportunity. So that’s why 2018 alone had (deep breath): Off-White x Jimmy Choo; Off-White x Sunglass Hut; Off-White x Chrome Hearts; Off White x Timberland – you get the picture.

Far from fatigued, though, Mr Abloh has decided to begin 2019 with one more collaboration, an exclusive capsule collection for MR PORTER entitled “Modern Office”. Launched on site this week, the collection comprises outerwear, shirting, sneakersaccessories and the brand’s trademark printed sweats and T-shirts. It also introduces two new signatures: a tiled, scribble logo design and a handwritten “Class of 2013” print that refers to Mr Abloh’s very first Off-White collection and, implicitly, the meteoric rise he has achieved in the fashion world since then.

“Modern Office” is something of a fantasy concept, a range of clothes inspired by a desk-filled workplace that Mr Abloh, as an engineering graduate and former architect, once imagined he might have ended up occupying. Of course, his life took another direction – interning at Fendi, meeting Mr Kanye West, launching Pyrex Vision and, well, you know the rest. But the collection isn’t the first time that Mr Abloh has seen clothing as a lens through which to contemplate the evolving nature of the contemporary professional life; his AW18 menswear collection had the subtitle “Business Casual”. Clearly, then, “work” is something that’s always on Mr Abloh’s mind, as well as his calendar. “I think it’s a reaction to the idea of casual streetwear,” he says, over the phone (while giving instructions for a million different things, as he goes).

Given this, we thought the launch of the capsule a good time to pick his brains for some advice, tips and career hacks. After all, the only thing separating us mortals from a high-flying career in fashion design is a few shortcuts. Right?

Don’t call it work

Mr Abloh refers to himself as many different things, often not simply a “designer”. Last summer, he referred to himself as an “assistant” to Hypebeast magazine, to explain the fact that he feels his work is merely extending a lineage of artistic innovation in the tradition of Mr Andy Warhol and Mr Jean-Michel Basquiat. What’s clear about what he does, though, whatever he calls it, is that he makes work his life and his life his work. That, he says, is the only way he can manage the hectic schedule.

You’re clearly a driven person. Where do you think it all comes from?

I think it’s in my DNA, it’s in the way I was raised. I’ve always followed my passion. And if you follow your passion, your passion becomes your occupation, then you never work a day in your life. When I was working as an architect, I was also working in music, designing album covers for friends. I never think of things as one thing or the other. It’s like “do both”. And that’s how I ended up where I am now. I believe in multitasking at core.

Work hard, but take shortcuts

In Mr Abloh’s 2017 presentation to the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, he included some slides in red, asking crucial questions and directives that, in his opinion, every designer should consider (eg, “What’s Your Signature?”, “Personal Design Language”). He called these “cheat codes”, things you can do to get on in life that little bit quicker.

Should you always be looking for shortcuts?

For sure. A shortcut only happens by chance, you can’t bank on it. But that’s sort of how life works. There are shortcuts for everyone. It all just depends on whether you can recognise it enough. I believe that coincidence is key, but coincidence is energies coming towards each other. You have to be moving to meet it. There’s a natural coincidence of life. But I think that all things help; I think the only factor is that when you work hard, things naturally advance. Of course, it becomes a traffic jam at points, but I think that’s when I operate at my best. Under a deadline, or under the pressure to complete, or to come up with a narrative.

Make everywhere your office

Mr Abloh is always on the move. For the most part, that means he’s available solely on WhatsApp. According to the man himself, he has a separate WhatsApp chat group open for every different project he’s currently working on. At the time of this interview, that number was about 30.

You’re famously always on your phone. Why is the smartphone such a great working tool?

Well, because it’s built to multitask. It removes you from being plugged in to an ironically corporate desk-like place. All of a sudden, everywhere is an office. If I have a fully charged phone, I can do anything.

EMBRACE CHAOS

Of course, the flipside of being available anywhere, at any time, is that, well, you’re available anywhere, anytime. As we speak to Mr Abloh, he’s pausing to deliver instructions to assistants, advise on the placement of details and, as he admits at one point, beavering away on his phone in the background.

A lot of the rhetoric around phones is that they’re a distraction. Do you welcome distractions?

For me, in a way, yes. There are different types of distraction, some productive and some not. But again, I do believe that, sometimes, when I’m distracted is when I think of a good idea. So, you can’t always call it a distraction. It’s the chaos of life.

Does anything about work make you anxious?

Almost everything. I might be driven by anxiety. As a creative, you’re always fighting against not having any ideas. That might be the driver.

Work with the right people

Mr Abloh’s career history is one of collaboration. It was his partnership with Mr West and, in particular, his work on the rapper’s Watch The Throne album cover and tour merchandise in the early 2010s that made him a household name. Since then, he’s also teamed up with Messrs Heron PrestonMatthew Williams and more to form the fashion collective Been Trill and sought meetings with other heroes and mentors, including graphic designer Mr Peter Saville. For Mr Abloh, clearly, it’s not just about what you do, but whom you do it with.

What do you look for in the people you work with?

For starters, someone that I identify with, someone that I think is authentic. “Two heads are better than one” is something I firmly believe in. Collaboration is what happens with everyone in my offices and I believe in extending that outwards. I look for someone that has an authentic voice that, together, we could make something that we couldn’t make individually.

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