Just over ten years have passed since Virgil Abloh and Takashi Murakami launched the Dropout Bear into orbit for Kanye West’s record breaking ‘Graduation’ album release. Since those early days as Kanye’s creative director, Abloh has undergone a transformation, having not so much become a part of the fashion industry, as one of the most coveted and influential designers shaping its transformation. Physically and artistically, he is rarely in one place for long. The majority of his time is spent airborne, traversing the globe as CEO, designer, architect and DJ, pollinating an ever growing list of collaborations with the likes of Nike, Levis and IKEA, while also heading his own hugely successful Off-White label.
When we catch up with him over the phone, he’s just finished showing his latest Off-White collection in Paris, a show swarmed by his devout tribe of followers. It’s not normal to have police corral the fashion press, but then, Virgil Abloh is no normal ‘designer’- he’s redefining the word, defying convention and categorisation as he flits between fashion, contemporary art, furniture design, architecture and music. This, his latest venture with the renowned Japanese artist on ‘Future History’, an exhibition at London’s Gagosian, is evidence of that. Like Abloh, Murakami has long straddled genre in his own work, constantly blurring the boundary between high art and commercialism, east and west, Hollywood and hip-hop. The pair are kindred spirits, and this exhibition is just another example of their unbridled curiosity, sense of fun and refusal to be confined.
Hey Virgil! Congratulations on the show – we heard there was quite a ruckus to get in. Does that level of hype ever become a problem for you?
I mean what’s weird is that, never in my wildest dreams did I ever think that was a problem. One of the most poignant things about me and fashion is that I was ingrained as an underdog – I didn’t necessarily know how my voice fitted in, I was just determined to do it, but I was shy because I actually thought that I couldn’t fill a room. I didn’t think I should make a show that had seats, because they would be empty. So my first shows here were just in a gallery that were standing only, inviting only a few people.
How did you first became involved with Takashi- this wasn’t the first time you collaborated, was it?
Yeah, Takashi and I, we’ve been acquaintances for maybe eight years, I did a project as creative director for Kanye West for the Graduation album cover, which was a layout I did with Murakami- that was so long ago and I was very new, but that was our first interaction. Then, throughout the years and even more recently, we came to reconnect and this project came after an idea I had for a ComplexCon in the Fall of last year where we both took part in a performative art piece, screen printing t-shirts.
What was it about him that attracted you to work with him?
I think we share a voice, a figurative ‘same thing’ of contemporary art as it exists today. Pop culture is a springboard for us both, we ask the question ‘what does contemporary art look like?’ He’s speaking from a whole life of experience though, he’s a legend and I’m…nothing. But he’s speaking on it from the perspective of a Japanese artist, speaking to the sacred contemporary art world, whereas I’m a young polymath that doesn’t sit in any genre, who’s beginning a dialogue with that same contemporary art monolith. That’s what I think the innovation of this show is, we were both without any reservations and executed it immediately with a sense of urgency, using the tools that we had to make a monument to sit next to this monolith, just so it exists. Unless something actually exists, then you’re not finding any data. So, that’s what that show is to me.
Both you and Murakami seem to share the fact that you’re both cultural synthesisers, merging different genres and styles.
Yeah, I think you’re right- I hadn’t really thought about it, but Murakami mentioned his feeling as a Japanese artist, that his work was always looked at in a particular way when it comes to ‘high’ contemporary art. But because he was at one with that difference, he wasn’t frustrated by it, he just knew that it was a hurdle, I think it was very similar to how I looked at fashion. I can’t re-program myself to be born in a different place, studying fashion and coming through a different door, I grew up with hip-hop and skateboarding and street wear graphic tees from skateboard brands. I learned a particular style of fashion which I continued with and I didn’t look at that as a disadvantage, more as ‘it can be my voice’, and the work that I do now is having a dialogue with the history of fashion, just doing something that I believe in and not being limited. Takashi’s spirit in coming up in art and mine in my industry, that’s probably the reason why. It takes a certain type of personality to weather that, and it also takes a personality that works at an extreme rate- Takashi is one of the few people I’ve met that works more than me, although he thinks I work more than him which is insane.
One of the exhibition works, ‘Glance Past The Future’, features the 17th century Italian architect and sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, another man who defied categorisation; painting, writing, directing and starring in his own plays, designing furniture and stage sets- do you see a little bit of yourself in Bernini?
Yeah, before I was working in the arts, I was working in practical things, like engineering, that’s what I studied and it was only when I had my first art history class at the end of college that I learned about the Italian Renaissance and the period of Enlightenment, so you can imagine how my brain exploded once I discovered the work of Bernini or Caravaggio. Those two artists in particular were cited under many different things and I think that’s where I was like, hey this feels like an enlightenment period, I have the internet now, I can book a flight by myself without a travel agent, go see the Pantheon in Rome or go to London and hang out and buy sneakers. I want to DJ, I want to be creative. That to me was an epiphany, and so he symbolises that.
Your collaborations are so diverse and are such a large part of what you do. What is it about that cross pollination that you think is so popular today?
Collaboration is a new way of making. It allows me to both make the product and access a DNA to communicate about a brand, so with Off-White – I look at it more like DuPont or an Intel Pentium chip, it’s inside a product, inside an Apple laptop. When I’m making a product with say Nike, I’m trying to find the DNA of the brand but also make it artful. So I used Off-White as my vehicle to do that.
Do you also think there’s something about the power of collaboration in introducing followers of your brand to areas they would otherwise not venture into, that bridges a void for them?
Exactly, that’s really my main ethos. I’m trying to speak to the 17-year old version of myself that didn’t have anyone. Then, I was into rock stars and skateboarders, I would learn from them, if they ate sushi, I would try sushi. It’s the same sense of responsibility that goes along with the gratification of my own work. I had Pharrell and Kanye West, and I was learning things from them, and I wanted to make my work about exactly that, about broadening horizons and opening doors, exchanging credibility to open the door. What was exciting for me, was that kids for the first time were going to Google Gagosian, where that gallery actually was, regardless of whether they were going or not. There were three hundred kids outside, and employees who worked at the gallery for 12 years were saying that they’ve never seen that many people for an exhibition.
You worked with Carsten Höller for your recent Byredo collaboration- he’s another synthesiser, can you tell me a little about the accompanying show?
The Byredo thing is the first of this new style where we’re synthesising three people in one room. We came up with the elevator music idea, it’s one of those classic phrases that I use as a design device. It’s background minimal design that gives an emotion, it’s just enough, not the full song, just thirty seconds until you get to your floor. But what me and Ben [Gorham] honed in on was maximum information with the least amount of design, it’s not just minimalism, it’s minimalism to equal emotion. Carsten was good friends with Ben and Carsten mentioned he’d done this piece that gives the sensation of an elevator using only the peripheral vision, because that’s what controls your sense of motion. So we were able to make this new version of an installation based on previous work that he’d done, and that’s what I mean, it’s like, wait, we’ve mixed art, fashion and design seamlessly and we’re not doing it for financial gain, we’re doing it for freedom.
Finally, you’re on eight flights a week – how do you stay sane?
Well the benefit of the work I do is that it doesn’t feel like work. It’s beyond gratifying for a kid who didn’t ever know that he could make anything. I’m still in a state of shock that I’m allowed to make a fashion show in Paris, or I did this thing with Nike the other day- the stuff doesn’t even feel like it’s mine. It’s going to take me longer to digest that they exist in real life, until then, I’m just focused on making ideas come to life.
by Finn Blythe
Murakmaki & Virgil Abloh: Future History is on at London Gagosian, Davies Street until April 7th 2018
Photographs: ©︎ Virgil Abloh and ©︎ Takashi Murakami. Photo by Lucy Dawkins