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I Spent a Day at Design School with Virgil Abloh

Virgil Abloh

Abloh takes a bow after the Off-White spring/summer 2017 show.

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As a freelance writer, it’s rare that I will schedule something that will put me outside of my house before 10:30 a.m. But on the first Tuesday of May, I was to be at Penn Station — a 40-minute train ride from my apartment — for an 8 a.m. train the morning after the Met Gala. This early train would bring me to the Rhode Island School of Design to spend a day with the buzzy designer of Off-White and CFDA-Award nominee Virgil Abloh, who would be speaking that evening. Unlike me, he showed up a little late for class; though, it wasn’t without a good excuse.

“Going to nightclubs, that’s the class. Living. Brunch,” Abloh tells me with a laugh when I ask him what type of classes outside typical design curriculum would be helpful for business. “At a certain point, it’s not about a specific skill set or class or something like that.” When he didn’t get into RISD, Abloh attended University of Wisconsin where he got a degree in engineering; while in school, in addition to his studies, he and his roommate threw parties. “I was doing engineering, but me and my roommate spent equal amount of effort throwing parties and making fliers and putting on nights,” he says. Abloh’s then-roommate, Gabriel Stulman — a political science and history major — now owns eight restaurants in the West Village. “We were roommates and our output was high, and it was all based on farmers market dinner parties and DJing and bartending,” he says.

Virgil Abloh

Abloh DJing at a Jimmy Choo New York fashion week event in September, 2016. 

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Is he advising students to party and blow off school? Absolutely not. He’s saying do it all, so long as you do it well. And Abloh clearly takes his own advice. The previous evening was the Met Gala, and the night before that, Abloh spun and did the merch for Travis Scott’s birthday-night performance at Webster Hall (the one where people willfully jumped off balconies into the crowd), which followed his residency in Vegas the night before that. “There’s never like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go chill today,'” he says of his busy schedule.

In addition to making your social life work-friendly and your work social, Abloh puts emphasis on being multi-disciplinary, something that’s facilitated for students at RISD via its Co-Works school. “I think I could be up there with king multi-tasker; I believe in doing multiple things at once,” he explains. “That’s how you actually do those things with a breath of fresh air. That’s why I promote that, being busy and doing all your passions at once — one thing will feed off another. That’s what I’ve found.” Later, during his lecture, he told RISD students, “My brain only works one way: Work an insane amount.”

Virgil Abloh

Abloh at this year’s Met Gala. 

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He goes on to discuss the importance of collaboration after telling everyone the story of how his deconstructed RISD crew neck came to be with limited time and the help of sophomore apparel students. “These are things you don’t learn in school: Collaboration is the essence at which good work comes about,” he says. Abloh’s top three inspirations as of late: “Instagram. Nightclubs. Friends.” He’s mentioned in the past how much time he spends looking at memes and their importance; indeed, he spends a lot of time on Instagram. “More than memes particularly, I like just scrolling and mindlessly looking at what everyone is looking at.” 

Abloh sat down with RISD President Roseanne Somerson, who discussed his very social route of creativity, both online and in a collaborative sense. The designer is transparent about his influences — he calls out Margiela, Rem Koolhaus and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in particular — and prefers to further or elevate existing ideas, choosing evolution over reinvention.

Likening design to tech, he says, “We can offer a 2.0 to every idea. If we thought of creativity like tech, without the [original] iPod, would we have gotten to the iPhone 7?” It’s this view and cross-industry application of concepts that is the very backbone of Abloh’s output and how he successfully communicates to everyone, from hypebeasts to VIP ticket holders at Art Basel. If the clarity Abloh offers about his inspiration and process aren’t enough, what students should understand is the attitude he brings to every endeavor: Just do it. “It’s so simple. It’s three words. It’s not clever,” he says, echoing the age-old Nike adage.

“At the end of the day, it’s your body of work, and the amount of work, and the refinement of that work that will define who you are as a creative,” he says, urging students to try to stay away from striving to compare themselves to their idols. “As a creative and as a designer there’s no wrong way to go about the future of your career. The only failure is not to try.”

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