On Virgil Abloh
Hey, thanks for reading. This week’s issue is a collection of my thoughts and takeaways from some of Virgil Abloh’s greatest insights. I wrote this to serve as a reminder for myself, of how Virgil approached his craft, as something I could strive for – if you find it useful, consider subscribing!
You may have heard Virgil's, famous phrase "Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself". While on the surface, this may seem like hyperbole, it couldn't be more true. Virgil was a 17-year-old black kid in Chicago, watching Mike, DJing, and finding his love for fashion. Everything he does now is the dream of a 17-year-old who wanted to change the world, something he most certainly achieved.
Virgil thought a lot about the legends that came before him, people with the "one-word names". People like Margiela, Warhol, or Jobs. People that when you say their name, you know who they are, and far more importantly, what they meant to the world. Taking from Virgil's own words, those people dedicated their lives to their work, and that's not for everybody, "but that's definitely the path I'm on".
I think Virgil could rest easy being successful in that regard. His name carries weight, more than just in fashion, or culture. He was an icon – still is an icon – and a shining light for Black kids on the corner in Chicago, confirming that anything is possible.
This essay isn't meant to be a tribute, or an overview of Virgil's life, but rather the cliff notes of his message, how he lived his life, and what he stood for. And arguably the most interesting aspect, how he approached his work. Virgil gifted us with a multitude of interviews, lectures, and insights that we can use as fuel, or a compass to get us to our creative goals.
So thank you, Virgil, for not only the countless pieces of advice but for showing us what is possible.
There are countless themes, through-lines, and commonalities to be found when looking at how Virgil approached his craft, but 3 stand out to me the most. The domino effect, intentionality, and mentorship resonate the most and will be what I cover here. You'll probably see that all of these overlap in multiple ways so if you find insight or inspiration, credit Virgil, and if you find misrepresentations, credit me.
The Domino Effect
Virgil believed that putting your work out into the world set things off in motion and would accredit exact moments of his journey as "the domino effect". The first project that set his career in motion was when he threw "FORTHOME" in the only script font in Adobe on the back of a T-shirt. When he sent it to be printed, his files were crafted so well the shop offered him a job, but Virgil just wanted to leave the clothes behind for people to stumble upon. That action of leaving it behind, but more importantly creating something with craft in the first place, led to getting noticed at the print shop, and later, Kanye's manager finding it and introducing the two future best friends and collaborators.
His next creation (and possibly most important) to set off the domino effect, was a video he made for Pyrex Vision, his second clothing line. A 10-minute video, full of A$AP Mob, and artist Jim Joe, is what put him on the map. After that he began to hit the scene, his famous friends would be seen wearing his artistic line of Champion clothes with Caravaggio on the front and "Pyrex 23 Vision" plastered on the back like a jersey. He was on his way to becoming a household name.
Pyrex gave him the motivation, the experience, and the inspiration to start the next brand. A small clothing line known as "OFF-WHITE". I think we all know how the rest of that story turns out.
What can we take away from this?
Virgil believed in creating things. Putting things out into the world. He's quoted giving advice to students as "Make or do something the people you want to work with will find value in". This advice alone is enough to get you started. But it's up to us at the end of the day to make things, as much as we can, and share them with the world.
"You know what will happen if you don't, but you don't know what will happen if you do". We should all embrace that uncertainty.
It's one thing to make things, but it's another to be intentional with what we make. Virgil wanted everything he made to "have a reason for existing". When working with IKEA, he would question the need for the standard items in our lives and would strive to make something unique, but also still Virgil.
Not only having clarity behind his inspirations, Virgil also had immense intentionality in his craft. He wanted to design things that "had a long shelf-life". After Pyrex, everything he did he wanted to last, he didn't want to be held down by trends, he wanted to create the inspiration behind the future trends.
As seen with IKEA, when starting new projects he went back-to-basics, like questioning a Nike shoe's purpose before even starting. When deciding what to do for his collaboration with Nike, he thought back to their history and where they innovated and remembered their air-bubble technology that made their shoes unique. When looking at the Jordan 1, you can't see the Air Bubble, so he took a knife and stabbed the sole to see if one was there, and of course, there was. He immediately thought to write the word "AIR" in quotes on the sole, to signify the importance of that innovation in the shoe.
The words on his "OFF-WHITE" shoes aren't there for flair or style, they have a purpose. They signify things and were done with the utmost intentionality – which is why we resonate with them.
Every project Virgil did he attacked with vigor, saying "I always swing as hard as I can". He knew that any project he did could be the first, and only, time someone saw his work. But it was more than just making good impressions, he wanted to look back on his work from his career and see the through-line and be proud of everything because he knew he gave it his all.
The takeaways here are profound. It's more than just quantity, it's about quality. Virgil was driven enough to spike on both, something most of us can only aspire to do. Regardless, we can approach our work with intentionality and passion, going back to first principles, and having big aspirations for our projects. We can aim to design things that never need to be redesigned. The outcome doesn't matter as long as you gave it your all, and were intentional about every decision you made.
Virgil attributes a lot of his success to mentors, dead or alive. Instead of just studying their work, he would look back to legendary artists to find what made them tick. Trying to uncover what makes their work resonate, or last. Questioning himself until he found what would end up being his own point of view.
"When you say Margiela, it evokes a whole thought process. That's what you should strive for...".
Replace "Margiela" with any of your legends or inspirations. For designers it could be "Ive" or "Jobs", but the point holds the same. When you think of those people, you can begin to feel the weight and emotion that comes with their name and body of work. Virgil wanted us to strive to create that feeling instead of superficial success.
One of the most important takeaways we can pull from Virgil's thoughts on mentorship highlights that he truly believed nothing is unique and everything is a mix of everything else. He wanted us to connect with someone we look up to's body of work or someone with an aesthetic we admire and build our own upon that. Look to our idols for the starting point, and run with it until the steps begin to feel like our own.
Virgil had a profound point of view that was shaped by his mentors and approach to work and life, going as far as to say "it's not even work, it's just living for me". He strived to leave a legacy, an imprint on the world. He wanted us to find our own too. Prompting us to find our own DNA, our own through-line to what made us who we are. He believed if we could find that, we would know where we're going next.
He gave all of himself to his work, and later in his life, began to give us a peek into the why behind it.
His work & craft speaks for itself, through sheer confidence as the result of an insane amount of passion and work that went into the craft. Virgil was always working, always making things, looking forward -- creating his next domino effect. You never will know what project will be "the project" that gets you noticed – but none of them will if they're never finished.
In the spirit of Virgil and what he stood for, go make something for the 17-year-old version of yourself.
Quotes, stories, and anecdotes were pulled directly from his lectures at Harvard, Columbia, and RISD, Interviews with GQ, HYPEBEAST, and more. Any errors are my own.