Nike Chose Virgil Abloh

The sneaker giant isn’t the only one who’s got the enterprising designer of streetwear line Off-White on speed dial. He’s also collaborating with Ikea, John Mayer, Dave Chappelle and Sarah Jessica Parker

HOLEY ROLLER Virgil Abloh in his Milan design studio.
HOLEY ROLLER Virgil Abloh in his Milan design studio.

For a man with a lot going on, Virgil Abloh sure takes an unconventional approach to communication. “I’ve stopped reading emails, I’ve given up,” said the 36-year-old designer, who now runs his four-year-old fashion label, Off-White, through WhatsApp, an instant messaging service that lets him chat instantaneously with his production team in Milan. It’s a thoroughly modern way to operate as a thoroughly provocative streetwear designer who turns graphic hoodies into $511 statement pieces and sells tailoring-averse millennials on big-and-bold-plaid topcoats.

In doing so, Mr. Abloh, an architect by trade, has become a fast-rising force in men’s and women’s fashion and elsewhere: IKEA’s creative leader, Henrik Most, signed him up for a line of starter-apartment furniture to launch in 2019. Sarah Jessica Parker, who chairs the New York City Ballet’s Fall gala, tapped him to do costumes for choreographer Gianna Reisen’s ballet premiering at the fête. And, last April, Mr. Abloh partnered with John Mayer and Dave Chappelle on a concert T-shirt, now fetching nearly $400 on eBay .

Then there’s “The Ten,” a collection for Nike , which starts its rollout on Sept. 6 in New York. The Illinois native reimagined 10 iconic Nike sneakers, including the Air Jordan 1 and the Converse Chuck Taylor, with his all-caps nameplates, zigzag stitching and bold color schemes. “I look at Off-White like a sandbox where I can make anything,” said Mr. Abloh. A few weeks shy of his women’s show in Paris, he talked about what influences his vision, from BBC radio and Ryan Gosling to the 4,000-plus folks on his Instagram feed.

1. ‘Electric Circus’ by Common; 2. Pilot V7 pen; 3. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood; 4. The Ten: Air Jordan I Sneaker; 5. Passport; 6. Goyard card holder; 7. A Tom Sachs sculpture
1. ‘Electric Circus’ by Common; 2. Pilot V7 pen; 3. Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood; 4. The Ten: Air Jordan I Sneaker; 5. Passport; 6. Goyard card holder; 7. A Tom Sachs sculpture PHOTO: CHARLIE KLOSS © TOM SACHS. COURTESY OF THE ARTIST, SPERONE WESTWATER, NEW YORK, AND GAGOSIAN (SCULPTURE); GETTY IMAGES (WESTWOOD & MCLAREN); F. MARTIN RAMIN/THE WALL STREET JOURNAL (PASSPORT, CARD HOLDER, SNEAKER, ALBUM)

My earliest fashion memory is: wanting this pair of jeans from Droors, a skate brand in the 1990s. Streetwear is my foundation, so back then I was wearing Alien Workshop tees and Vision Street Wear berets.

The first shoes I really obsessed over were: Jordan 5s. Those were the first pair of shoes I put at the end of my bed, so that when I woke up, I could see them.

My clothing archive is full of: Vivienne Westwood Seditionaries’ pieces. I think her earlier work with Malcolm McLaren and the Sex shop in ’70s-era London bridged the gap between streetwear and high fashion.

I think everyone should own a: passport. My last one got stolen out of a trunk in Coachella. It had four inserts of new pages in it, so it was really thick. It was my favorite—I collect those stamps.

I’m looking forward to going back to: Moscow. It’s so foreign to me and so outside of the typical worlds of Europe or Asia I’ve seen. I’m opening up a shop-in-a-shop at this Moscow store called KM20, and when I was there, I realized the local youth culture moved at such a different pace than here.

I can’t leave the house without: my Goyard card holder. I never carry cash.

One of my shortcomings is: I don’t draw well. I can vaguely illustrate an idea. I sketch on printer paper with a Pilot V7 pen.

I find myself re-listening to: Common’s 2002 Electric Circus album, which I listened to in my teenage years, along with the Roots and Kanye West. It was a progressive album—futuristic and kind of unpopular. I still like it now.

I’m actively buying: more art than clothes. I recently bought Tom Sachs’ sculpture “Gun.” I want to be around anything that inspires me.

My favorite artist is: [Canadian street artist] Jim Joe. He does exhibitions in vacant spaces and invites his friends, so it’s kind of a communal thing. I think he is the Basquiat or Warhol for our times.

I would tell my 20-year-old self to: stay optimistic. I’ve noticed that looking at a glass half empty will always lead to a negative result—whereas blind optimism is a helpful tool in design, or anything really.

If I could work with anyone in the world it would be: Ryan Gosling. I have this short film I wrote a really long time ago and haven’t been able to nudge it any further. He’s perfect for it.

I’ve often said that: Michael Jordan was our Superman, doing nearly impossible feats like flying through the air.

I usually wear: the same thing. Levi’s, black T-shirt and dirty Nike’s [Tom Sachs Mars Yard 2.0] sneakers. Ironically, I’m not a sneakerhead. I don’t wear them to be precious. They’re tools, not trophies.

On Instagram, I follow: 4,100 people—an insane amount. If I see something interesting, I follow it, so if I go to refresh [the app], I’m seeing everything happening at once.

I deejay to relax because: that’s the one time when I’m not mindlessly doing two things at once.

Right now I’m tuned into: a song called “Scottie Pippen” by a singer in New York named Swoosh. I also listen to British DJs Gilles Peterson and Benji B on BBC Radio for new music.

My ideal dinner would be with: Sarah Jessica Parker, Martha Stewart, Pharrell Williams, artists Tom Sachs and David Hammons, and rapper Tyler the Creator. When you see someone’s work and it resonates with you, you’re like “we can have a cool conversation.”

I wish I worked on: the team that invented the iPhone, to witness Steve Jobs at work. He left us with a tangible innovation that opened up the world and changed our thinking.

Nothing is more valuable than: space. If money were no object, I would buy a mountain or some absurd piece of land in Switzerland.

If I had a motto it would be: Just do it.

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