If you aren’t familiar with Virgil Abloh, think of him as the human amalgamation of the zeitgeist. He’s an undefinable creative force, with work spanning the worlds of fashion design, architecture, and various creative direction for projects ranging from rap music videos to Ikea. Celebrities and hypebeasts alike can be seen in his streetwear-meets-high fashion line, Off-White, and earlier this year he was appointed Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear line. Not bad for a guy with a degree in civil engineering.
You’ve likely seen his work before, each piece for every collaboration emblazoned with an all-caps descriptor in quotes (e.g. “AIR” on a pair of Nikes, “SCULPTURE” on a structured handbag). What you may not have been able to identify is why anyone would be interested in purchasing those items at designer prices. Esoteric as he may seem, Abloh offers learnings for brands in any category who want to do a better job of connecting with consumers.
While speaking at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Abloh broke down his “PERSONAL DESIGN LANGUAGE”--the seven core principles that guide his thinking and work. What quickly becomes clear is that he’s on a constant quest to understand himself within the broader context of the cultural and societal shifts happening around him. Off-White, itself, can be interpreted as a play on meme culture, or on the millennial penchant for irony, or even a takedown of the concept of “luxury” altogether. Whatever it is, it’s unmistakably Abloh, and consumers and brands can’t seem to get enough.
Ultimately, what Abloh knows is that identifying trends or movements is one thing, but what’s more important is understanding why those patterns are occurring--what’s motivating consumer behavior. In turn, those insights inform how he engages and creates. Brands who take the time to dissect human complexities will be able to more authentically speak to consumers in a way that sets them apart from the competition.
In the talk, Abloh stakes his claim as an optimist: “I believe that [this] is the best time for design, art and culture because it’s the most democratic it has ever been. Us as designers, it’s now the time for us to input the most pure forms of our ideas into this ecosystem of culture, to see new things come about.”
In other words, Virgil Abloh doesn't relate to the legions of folks who take to Facebook to lament the horrible state of the world. He sees a more level playing field as an idea meritocracy rather than a competitive threat, and he doesn’t feel pressured to reinvent the wheel; instead, he identifies others’ work that resonates and infuses it with elements from his personal design language.
Brands in any category can benefit from this sense of positivity when it comes to the era of disruption. By borrowing brilliance, brands can come up with better solutions for consumers.
Abloh never claimed to be a fashion designer, per se. According to him, “I have this brand Off-White, only to tell stories. I don’t have it to do traditional fashion, because I don’t know that.”
He’s not claiming to be something he isn’t. Virgil Abloh is not a fashionista; rather, he understands the power of storytelling in any medium, whether it’s sneakers, ballgowns, or stylish yet affordable furniture. The story behind the product (or the “why” behind the “what”) is what engages people and helps to form lasting emotional bonds.
At Hyperquake, we have a saying: to move product, you have to move people. And biologically, humans are hardwired to connect with and respond to story in a way that compels them to act. The popular blog Humans of New York has proven this time and time again--its readers have raised millions of dollars for individuals who have encountered tough obstacles in their lives, all because they connected with a story. Abloh does the same thing with physical goods, inspiring consumers to buy the narrative he’s carefully crafted.
Brands today would be wise to follow Virgil Abloh’s work and continued success. By looking for the rationale behind his decisions, they can apply his next-level genius to their own work. And according to Virgil, that’s the smart thing to do.