Invited on Oct. 26th to speak about his many hats that bring him to interact with leading brands—designer, DJ and founder of his own apparel brand, Off-White—Virgil Abloh urged Harvard’s Graduate School of Design students and other guests to find their unique creative voices in an hour-long talk that ended with audience members tossing their sneakers towards the podium.
His lively lecture, called “Insert Complex Title Here,” attracted a packed audience. It was his second visit to Harvard, following a talk with Kanye West, with whom he worked as art director.
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Abloh presented a seven-point manifesto called “Personal Design Language,” encouraging designers to take an open approach that appeals to “the tourist and purist simultaneously” in a “3 percent approach.”
“Things are intriguing to me when they’re slightly edited, like these shoes,” he said, removing one of his limited edition Nike Air Force 1 shoes that he designed. “I was only interested in restraining myself, and only editing it, 3 percent.”
Eric Howeler, associate professor of architecture told The Harvard Gazette, “He’s a contemporary young voice who can disrupt. Architecture needs some disruption. Design has never been as well-regarded as it is today. He’s connecting to people, to clients, to fashion. It’s great for people to think big about design, not just architecture.”
Abloh explained in his talk (well worth watching; above) how and why he works with global brands such as IKEA, where he collaborated on a millennial-focused furniture line.
“My idea is that humans don’t make things by themselves,” Abloh said during a live Q&A session with IKEA creative leader Henrik Most at an event in Milan. “Collaboration is not a punchline… I only collaborate with the best in each category.”
Abloh aims to provide “new solutions for a millennial’s first home. I don’t have the patience to be a non-creator,” he continued, adding that IKEA let him put his “opinion on a classic.” The collection is projected to drop in 2019 but a prototype of his rug was shown in Milan.
“Surreal” was his initial reaction to being contacted by IKEA. “Architecture, I used to think, was building buildings, but me navigating my way into this institution that provides furniture to real people — if I can bring an ounce of an idea, that’s already an idea,” he said at Harvard.
Abloh’s collaboration with Nike actually began when he was a teenager and sketched shoe ideas with his friends that they sent to the brand. “We were enamored with Air Jordans. Michael Jordan was larger than life — he was Superman to me. My entire design background and ethos came from the ‘90s.”
“By the time I made my first trip to Beaverton, I immediately wanted to make something,” Abloh says. “I didn’t wait all those years just to have meetings at Nike.”
On that first visit, he rebuilt a pair of triple-black Air Force 1 Low shoes with an X-ACTO knife, drew on them with markers, and created one-offs for his staff to wear at that December’s Design Miami where he presented OFF-WHITE furniture.
Abloh’s recreation of design language led to The Ten, a collaborative exploration of 10 Nike footwear silhouettes. “These 10 shoes have broken barriers in performance and style,” he said. “To me, they are on the same level as a sculpture of David or the Mona Lisa. You can debate it all you want, but they mean something. And that’s what’s important.”
He divided the 10 shoes into “REVEALING,” hand-cut, open-source and reconstructed including Air Jordan I, Nike Air Max 90, Nike Air Presto, Nike Air VaporMax and Nike Blazer Mid; and “GHOSTING,” with translucent uppers revealing and uniting the second set of silhouettes through common material and including Converse Chuck Taylor, Nike Zoom Fly SP, Nike Air Force 1 Low, Nike React Hyperdunk 2017 and Nike Air Max 97.
“My high school years were made up of playing soccer, skateboarding and biking year-round,” says Abloh. “What I’ve learned from playing sports and also being obsessed with design is that there is an inherent style and focus that exists amongst athletes and designers alike: What propels them to be the best comes from deep within.”
Abloh earned a master’s degree in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology, and was nominated for a Grammy for art direction for his work on the Jay Z-Kanye West album “Watch the Throne” in 2011. He founded Milan-based fashion label Off-White in 2013, inspired by Diana, Princess of Wales. Now Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art is planning a retrospective of Abloh’s work for 2019.
The iconoclastic designer credits Rem Koolhaas, Donald Judd, Jim Joe, among others as inspirations. “I have mentors who are dead. I have mentors 30 years older than me. I have mentors 10 years younger,” he said at Harvard.
He ended his GSD talk by suggesting a new title, “Insert Yourself Here,” and telling the audience, “Put yourself in my shoes,” he said. “I’m not that special.” How they responded? By throwing their sneakers, by the dozen, to the front of the hall by the podium for him to doodle on—something even Kanye wasn’t asked to do.