The Edge of the Center

It’s a winter evening a couple of years ago and Virgil Abloh is challenging an SRO crowd of aspiring designers at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture to get their collective asses in gear. “Your practice already started,” he exhorts, “it started when you were seventeen years old!” This sense of urgency is not lost on a room that, in stark contrast to the gaggle of cloistered graduate students that typically attend Ivy League architecture lectures, is packed with amped kids from every corner of the city. Abloh is speaking from experience. The work he is sharing traces a clear path from his own origins as a youthful architecture student dabbling in graphic t-shirts to full-blown fashion collections on the runway in Paris. He doesn’t shy from hold­ing himself up as a model, in fact, it almost seems as if his own trajectory is the object of design we’re there to consider. The next ninety minutes reveals the remarkably intimate relationship between the speaker and his dedicated followers—to use a social media term that evokes the messianic—who seem transfixed in his presence and fully immersed in his mythology.

As if to underscore his call to teenage arms, at the end of the talk a stylishly dressed kid, maybe seventeen max, pushes through the throng of well-wish­ers and announces “I’m a creative director too,” presenting an elab­orate card in the manner that in another time and place a budding musician would have pressed a cassette tape into the hands of an idol. “You really inspired me to get my brand up and running. I’d love to show what I am up to.” (Since when did kids start think­ing: I want to be a creative director when I grow up?) I have the sud­den realization that the Abloh phenomenon might be more than the prerogative of a meteoric celebrity, it just might represent a fundamental shift in the position the designer holds in the public imagination. It also draws on this very contemporary, very personal idea of brand and the way in which a teenage aspirant from Brooklyn might now strategize ways to articu­late, value, broadcast, and leverage a public identity in a bid for fame and fortune.

Abloh’s trajectory from the son of Ghanaian immigrants in Chicago to engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison to architecture at IIT to a top creative position with the hip-hop star Kanye West is well documented. That he has an uncommon vision and the discipline to pur­sue it is self-evident. That he is successful is easily measured by any number of metrics: Instagram followers (now close to four million), press mentions (innumerable), compen­sation (undisclosed), professional acclaim (astronomical), gaudy positions—welcome to Louis Vuitton, Mr. Abloh—and even retrospectives at important museums. He’s been called a “clever social anthropologist,” a “millennial whisperer,” “the perfect renaissance man,” and the “crown prince of collabo.” But despite all of the frenzied attention—and the aptly named buzz, a word that captures the miasma of chatter that wafts around a lot of serious work nowadays—it is fair to ask what, exactly, Abloh does to warrant such breathless attention.

The answer is multivalent. Abloh seems to do a little, or a lot, of everything. He’s a DJ at the head of a humongous fashion label with his own wildly popular and luxuriously priced clothing line collaborating with Jenny Holzer on philanthropic endeavors while designing rugs for IKEA and simultaneously concocting gallery installations with Takashi Murakami, opening a string of retail spaces, main­taining a burgeoning social media profile, and composing lectures for elite architecture students. (A scroll through a single month of Instagram posts reveals scores of dif­ferent projects in the works.) But while all that may seem impossibly eclectic, it is exactly the kind of cross-platform capa­bility that is demanded of the contemporary creative director. While designers are traditionally imagined as a more or less invisible hand that imbues objects with recognizable formal values—the forty-year career of Dieter Rams at Braun being the quintessential example—creative directors are expected to weave and broadcast very visible and coherent public nar­ratives both for themselves and the brands they represent. Their stock-in-trade is vision. They don’t deal in things, or not only things, but in the stories that surround commodities that have become the essential grease in the machinery of today’s social media–fueled form of commerce.

This directorial function that invests an imperial power in the heretofore faceless designer is an emerging phenomenon. The word design itself, as theorist Bruno Latour has demonstrated, has migrated over time from desig­nating an activity positioned at the end of a process, adding visual flair or stylishness to the cold world of production, to suggesting a strategy or plan at the very incep­tion. Design described “a surface feature in the hands of a not-so-serious profession that added features in the purview of much-more-serious professionals (engineers, accountants, scientists)…” In this light, design could be perceived as a kind of aesthetic value-added: a magazine art director dressed up copy in the form of layouts, a car designer shaped new tailfins on a basic frame, a packaging designer rewrapped standard-issue toothpaste in an updated tube. Since then, “[d]esign has been spreading continuously,” Latour asserts, “so that it increasingly matters to the very substance of pro­duction. What is more, design has been extended from the details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes, and … to nature itself.”[1]

With such an expanded dominion, it is almost impossi­ble now to imagine starting any project of any scale without a design in place. And as corporations, universities, muse­ums, political parties, nations, i.e., any public-facing entity, slowly come to recognize that in an increasingly competitive, efficient, deregulated global market a coherent platform that unifies products, services, experiences, and public utterances is essential to their survival, the management of that public image becomes a mission-critical concern. Creating and maintaining what has come to be called brand equity—the value accrued from history, reputation, and regard—requires vision management. And so this gradual migration of design from the end of the process, adding style, to the front, shaping vision, demands a new skill set. Designer becomes Director.

The creative director, then, is expected not only to imag- ine products, but also to represent them, create media around them, tweet about them, theorize them, and ultimately sell them to the public. Thus this transition from lowly decora- tor to an imperial creative mastermind demands a working methodology flexible enough to apply to an ever-expanding basket of conditions. But it also requires anthropomorphism: the values of the corporate are woven into the corporeal. Creative directors not only guide the work that happens under their command, they also stand as an embodiment of the brand itself. In the most advanced cases, the brand is inseparable from the identity of the creative director: think Martha Stewart, Karl Lagerfeld, Steve Jobs—l’état, c’est moi.

If you ask Abloh to reveal a methodology for how he copes with this bifurcated role and the complexity and diversity of the issues in which he engages, he often resorts to the dialectic: “Do opposites, it just feels better.”[2] When explaining the meaning of Off-White, the name of his label, he evokes a vague synthesis: “It’s a conundrum. It’s not a color. But it is a color.”[3] The dialectic is manifest in his fanatic attachment to visual tension. Even in the early days of his career, when he was first experimenting with designing graphic merchandise, he told me: “I’m obsessed with juxtaposition … I find those connections motivating: hip-hop kids wearing a Caravaggio painting with a Chicago Bulls number all set to a song from 1979.”[4]

This oppositional thinking sets up a frisson that amounts to an ideology—“The space in between,” he proposes, “gives you a new experience that you can apply and problem solve”[5] —and he has occupied the interstitial areas between pop art, music, fashion, and product in a remarkable way. But that always outside strategy embedded in the OFF title also reveals the delicate line he toes. The enthusiasm and animosity his emergence has engendered—some fashion insiders have huffily questioned his meteoric rise—illuminate the conflicted space into which he has stepped. The high-stakes world of global fashion design and branding is in a moment of radical realignment, and Abloh stands at the center of a perfect storm, a locus of opposing forces. And if the dialectic, then, is not a formula but a method of study, the simple fact of Abloh becomes a way to understand the interrelationships and contradictions that face contemporary design.

 

Singular vs. Plural

Sometime in the mid-1990s, Nick and Paul, a young London- based advertising agency, coined the term “Brand DNA” to define a set of codes that inhabited the deep structure of an enterprise. The biological metaphor was employed to move beyond the superficiality of what was then known as Corporate Identity and suggest that a brand was the genetic code that gave rise to the corporate being in all its manifestations, however contradictory those manifestations may be. In the fashion industry, the business of producing the accoutrements of identity, the suggestion of an independent corporate self, replete with genetic material, finds expression in the form of the creative director: a human, statistically male, with his own DNA, established public persona, and often significant fan base. The DNA of the creative director and the DNA of the brand must be recombinant.

Yet as corporations become obsessed with defining and presenting their genetically unified selves, top creative directors are increasingly independent actors floating between brands, often managing several at once: Lagerfeld simultaneously headed Chanel, Fendi, and his eponymous label; in the course of five years, Raf Simons moved from leading Jil Sander to Christian Dior to Calvin Klein, all the while maintaining his own signature line; photographer-cum-designer Hedi Slimane moved from Dior Homme to Yves Saint Laurent to Céline, as he nurtured a distinc­tive personal style. Add onto that any number of special collections and collaborations, the kind Abloh has been adept at creating and promoting, and it can seem like the personal eclipses the public platform in a global game of musical chairs. The result is a hybrid—half corporate, half private—wherein the creative director becomes a frame through which the brand is understood and vice versa. The hybrid raises, however, an essential question: if the point of branding is clear differentiation from competitors, doesn’t the peripatetic creative director undermine those crafted distinctions?

This is the situation in which Abloh finds himself as he assumes the lead of Louis Vuitton Men. His carefully culti­vated personal image, now a sophisticated brand in itself with millions of ardent adherents, is grafted onto a storied French powerhouse. It is this public persona, and his cache of ded­icated advocates, as much as his skill as a clothing designer, that Abloh brings to the table. (This ties back to that sev­enteen-year-old actively composing a personal brand.) If an individual brand can be developed independently from typically affirming structures—i.e., jobs, schools, institutions—especially through a social media channel such as Instagram with clearly defined audience metrics, that brand can be leveraged. It has value.

 

Inside vs. Outside

The shared biology between the creative director and the brand spills over into the external function as figurehead versus the internal role of creative management. Brand DNA promises coherence—all the pieces will not be identical, but like offspring will share traits—driven by both tradition (this is the way we do it here) and executive fiat (do it the way I want it). To the internal team, the creative director acts as emperor, issuing dictates, casting his eyes over all processes to ensure that the collective output—which may span from clothing to lipstick to music to advertising to store architecture—stays “on brand,” and anointing various collaborators and co-contributors based on their allegiance to his vision. By aggregating power in one body, coherence between products, communications, and services can be efficiently achieved. Again, the Jobs example is instructive in that a vast global ethos can be attributed to the taste and proclivities of one human.

At the same time, for the external audience, the creative director performs what poststructuralists might call an author-function. All material output, the work of perhaps hundreds or thousands of individuals, is attributed to his superhuman creativity. In that divine role, diverse, often contradictory, threads are gathered up and presented as an integrated whole. For the brand, then, the creative director can be seen, to borrow from Foucault, as “the ideological figure by which one marks the manner in which we fear the proliferation of meaning.”[6] The proliferation of meaning, in this case, encompasses the possibility of misreading the brand’s own discourse. As the messy plurality of collaborative creative output coalesces into the singular “ideological figure,” the creative director becomes, to the external world, the absolute authority, and author, of the corporate message.

 

Deep vs. Wide

That bifurcated role, both inward and outward facing, and the multidisciplinary portfolio of projects under management require a complex skill set. The demand that the contemporary creative director be everywhere and make pronouncements about everything defies specialization. So unlike his two predecessors at Louis Vuitton Men, Paul Helbers (Royal College of Art) and Kim Jones (Central Saint Martins), Abloh assumes control of one of the most venerable French fashion houses never having studied apparel design nor having apprenticed in an important atelier but with a decided perspicacity gained from building his own brands as well as extensive and eclectic experience in architecture, spectacles, publications, graphic design, and deejaying.

It’s significant that Abloh was trained as an engineer and an architect, as both professions demand a rational approach to complexity, and he often cites his engineering background as essential to his methodology. But can one person be really good at designing men’s and women’s clothes, shoes, bags, buildings, scents, furniture, graphic tees, art installations, music, and whatever else might come along? Abloh refers to this protean approach and insatiable curiosity as “tangential” thinking: glancing off one idea into the territory of the next. This shift from the craftsman to director, from tactician to strategist, speaks to the corporate expectation of the designer’s executive function. Returning to the example of Dieter Rams: an industrial designer by education and practice, he worked in relative obscurity, shaping the objects produced by consumer product giant Braun to ensure every product reflected a certain corporate sensibility. (Until he obtained a kind of cult status late in his career, the message was always Braun, never Rams.)

Now imagine he also was called on to manage the Braun Instagram account, develop the Braun perfume line, commission the music for the Braun showrooms, and comment on the canapés for the Braun cocktail parties. That job requires a shift from craftsmanship to methodology. By focusing on process, Abloh can apply his methodology in areas where he remains a total naïf. Some may critique a lack of depth in pattern-making, construction, or tailoring, or decry both an overly conceptual and an overly graphic take on fashion, but the fact is that in the contemporary information-driven market, the focus has shifted from the vertical to the lateral, from depth of investigation to breadth of communication.

 

Street vs. Elite

As it turns out, the fact that Abloh lacks the imprimatur of an elite fashion academy or fabled atelier is both signif­icant and empowering. His presence in the core of the luxury market suggests the radical shift underway and the change in focus from knowledge and experience to authenticity. The success of “street,” which can be read as a euphemism for other—read: darker, poorer, more glob­ally distributed than the lily-white, Euro-American luxury consumer—has not passed unnoticed by the CEOs of lux­ury brands. Growth in traditional high-end markets has been stagnant for years, and progressive designers crave wider significance. “When fashion was part of a small group of sophisticated people you could exaggerate,” notes the iconic fashion designer Miuccia Prada. “You knew that you were talking to mainly rich Western, either American or European, people … Now, of course, myself, I am inter­ested in a bigger world.”[7] All opportunity lies in exploiting markets previously outside the purview of the luxury sliver. The ubiquitous migration of luxury branding into popular culture, especially through hip-hop, is mirrored by the adap­tation of street-style gestures on fashion runways. Abloh brings that same crossover sensibility.

This shift is also an acknowledgment that the audience for high fashion has been transformed by who has access to the codes of class. Somewhere along the way, Raf Simons observes, “fashion became pop. I can’t make up my mind if that’s a good or a bad thing. The only thing I know is that it used to be elitist. And I don’t know if one should be ashamed or not to admit that maybe it was nicer when it was more elitist, not for everybody. Now high fashion is for every­body.”[8] In an era of escalating income disparity, the idea that $1,000 pumps and $3,000 bombers are “for everybody” is clearly absurd, but if you change the notion of consumption from object to image, Simons has a point. From the Oscars to the Met Costume Institute Gala to episodes of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, high fashion has become a spectator sport with competing teams and personali­ties, real-time color commentary, and uniforms as visibly logoed as a NASCAR driver. Fashion is as much an econ­omy of signification at this point, where the extravagant clothes are another medium through which to promote more ownable commodities with lower barriers to entry: perfume, sunglasses, and key chains. But ubiquitous media have pushed that formula even further. Success requires image domination, to be everywhere already. Rapper Lil Pump mentioning “Gucci” forty-eight times in a single song or Cardi B. waxing rhapsodic over her Balenciagas (“the ones that look like socks”) may now be far more valuable than a spread in French Vogue.

 

Molecule vs. Pixel

Perhaps the most significant development driving the shift from deep-to-wide and elite-to-street is the emergence of social media as the primary portal through which consumers reach brands and products. Instagram and Twitter provide a direct channel between creative director and audience (hence all those kids storming Columbia that night). But unlike old media, the communication now goes both ways: social media provides an instantaneous feedback loop wherein consumers are constantly responding to and validating design choices through likes, shares, and comments. That real-time dialogue comes with an additional path-to-purchase—link to the brand > follow the designer > study his process > ♥ the products > follow influencers wearing the products > share and comment > buy the products—all within the confines of a smartphone screen.

While fashion brands still have a commitment to, and an investment in, brick-and-mortar boutiques—LVMH is, after all, in large part a real-estate conglomerate—almost all growth in luxury fashion is from online sales. Distinct from the physical experience, however, where materials, texture, and craftsmanship can distinguish a product and create impact, the reduction to a digital image on the pocket-sized screen of a smartphone drains objects of aura. Details become immaterial when rendered in a palm-sized 1334 × 750 pixels.

As the virtual facade represented by an Instagram Grid view or Facebook page replaces the shop window and the magazine spread, products have to evolve to read at scale. At least part of the success of Off–White can be attributed to the fact that Abloh developed a series of easily identifiable marks that can be read on the small screen where the graphics serve the function of emoji. A bold set of hashed lines, ubiquitous quotation marks, blank Helvetica typography, and other graphic symbols immediately tag an object with a more or less universal code.

Having a start creating graphic t-shirts and branded “merch” is essential to understanding the logic of social media promotion because tagging allows almost anything to be subsumed into the oeuvre. Six years ago, just before things really took off for him, I asked Abloh about his meth­odology. “It’s a youth culture thing,” he responded. “Take a Yankee’s logo and flip it upside down and put your name on it. It’s quick, it’s fast, it’s emotive. That’s my niche.”[9 This method is formalized in the use of the quotation mark, a device that allows him to claim anything as his own—to put his name on it—in the most overt way possible.

Abloh has proved himself to be a master of a contem­porary dynamic in which representations of objects, not necessarily backed up by materiality, and easily manipu­lated logos and design motifs have become a currency in an independent economy. In this environment, notes Doreen St. Félix, “luxury goods are just that, memes, signifiers of money rather than the unmediated, vulgar thing itself.”[10] Boutiques, fashion shows, collection presentations, and other IRL events are organized primarily as backdrops for social media feeds: a series of scenographic, Instagrammable morsels instantly distributed through global channels. In this itera­tion of the world, pattern-drafting or tailoring is immaterial. The creative director acts as image arbitrageur, orchestrat­ing the ebb and flow of information from the brand. The ability to compose a coherent, globally comprehensible nar­rative made up of disparate, instantly recognizable, pixelized, digitally distributed content is the critical design problem.

 

Thesis vs. Antithesis

In my introduction to Abloh’s lecture at Columbia—the video of which has now been viewed almost 500,000 times on YouTube—I proposed: “To be OFF then is a kind of working philosophy. It means OFF-track, OFF-tune, OFF-message, OFF-balance, OFF-kilter. At the heart of it, to be OFF-White is to be OFF-center. And Virgil proves over and over, we should forget the center, the edge is where the action is.” Now as he moves from a niche brand catering to media-savvy hipsters to one of the most visible perches in high design, that methodology will be tested. Louis Vuitton is a lot of things, but off-center is not one of them.

When a brand takes on a new creative director, they are acting strategically, attempting to change their brand narrative. As former Teen Vogue editor Elaine Welteroth observes: “You can’t just change the image or the stories, you need to change the storytellers.”[11] The fascinating aspect of the Abloh phenomenon now that he is ON-center will be how he bridges the dichotomies he manifests. A dialectical method should lead to a new synthetic practice, the goal of which is not interpretation but change: resolv­ing of dialectic opposition results in tangible advancement. Quantitative change leads, over time, to qualitative change—changing things will eventually alter states of consciousness.

As his body of work progresses, it is useful to apply the other two laws of the dialectic. Interpenetrating opposites suggests that he exists in a system of flux, both contribut­ing and reacting to dynamic cultural conditions. And the negation of the negation deems that the system always move forward, never reverting to a previous state. Thus the sim­ple fact that Abloh has vaulted himself from the edge to the center—regardless of what he does there—means the center will never be the same.

Abloh’s ascendancy fits perfectly into a cultural moment in which long-established social, economic, racial, and class categories are being vigorously interrogated and in some cases upended. At the same time, new spaces are opening in the interstitial areas between art, fashion, music, and social media. While he may refuse to put himself forward as a revolutionary class or race warrior, his emergence in itself suggests incremental steps forward. If not toward a more perfect system, maybe a more open one into which more—okay, why not be messianic—followers can step.

 

 

[1] Bruno Latour, “A Cautious Prometheus? A Few Steps Toward a Philosophy of Design,” in Networks of Design: Proceedings of the 2008 Annual International Conference of the Design History Society (UK), ed. Jonathan Glynne et al. (Boca Raton: Universal Publishers, 2009), p. 2.

[2] Virgil Abloh, Core Studio Public Lecture, Harvard University Graduate School of Design, October 26, 2017, at http://www.allreadable.com/6e1fT53I.

[3] “Kanye West collaborator Virgil Abloh: ‘My brand started in the alleys of the internet,’” The Guardian (March 2018), at https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2018/mar/10/interview-virgil-abloh-fashion-designer-off-white-princess-diana.

[4] Abloh, in conversation with the author.

[5] Abloh, Core Studio Public Lecture.

[6] Michel Foucault, “What Is an Author?” (1969), in The Book History Reader, ed. David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleery (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 230.

[7] “Miuccia Muses in Manhattan,” WWD, May 7, 2018, at https://wwd.com/fashion-news/fashion-features/miuccia-muses-in-manhattan-1202667477/.

[8] “Raf Simons Speaks to Cathy Horyn on the Speed of Fashion,” System, no. 6 (2015), at http://system-magazine.com/issue6/raf-simons/.

[9] Abloh, in conversation with the author.

[10] Doreen St. Félix, “The Prosperity Gospel of Rihanna,” Pitchfork, April 1, 2015, at https://pitchfork.com/thepitch/724-the-prosperity-gospel-of-rihanna/.

[11] “Elaine Welteroth, Who Shook Up Teen Vogue, Says Diverse Newsrooms Are Vital,” The New York Times, May 15, 2018, at https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/14/arts/elaine-welteroth-teen-vogue.html.