Most people came to know him when he was announced as the new artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear collection in March 2018. Virgil started his journey into the fashion industry by screen printing on ready made shirts. Virgil’s original inspirations were formed around streetwear. If you have ever seen a shirt with PYREX written on it, that was Virgil’s creation. Virgil was born in Chicago by parents of African decent. Both his mom and dad are from Ghana. Coming from an African home, getting a university degree was important for his family so Virgil went on to get an undergraduate degree in civil engineering then a masters degree in architecture.
Wanting to do more in fashion, Virgil asked the manager of the company that printed Kanye Wests’ tour merchandise to introduce him to Kanye and Kanye immediately hired him to work under his creative agency DONDA. In 2009, Kanye was able to secure an internship for both Virgil and himself at FENDI in Rome, Italy. In 2009, Virgil was appointed creative director for DONDA by Kanye. In the same year, he flew out some of his friends including Abloh to attend Paris Fashion Week uninvited. Meanwhile nobody paid them no mind, they decided to pose for one photographer who reluctantly took a photo of them. The photo went viral when it hit the internet. The pair went on to become great friends and partners till today.
Virgil has proven that his creativity spans across many genres. He is a Dj and goes by name DJ Flat White. He served as artistic director for Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne Album cover and Ni55as in Paris Video. He has designed furniture for the famous Swedish furniture maker IKEA and has done numerous collaborative projects with NIKE. His signature Brand OFF WHITE was founded in 2013 and has stores in many countries over the world including Greece and Japan. The first store was actually opened in Tokyo.
Abloh is a polymath (a person of wide knowledge or learning) and he is very well aware of the backlash that always comes when you seem to being ‘too much;’ The fact that people might consider you to be a poser. On that, he had this to say:-
“I have this undying motivation to work and think hard [because] it’s what I do with everything. I nicknamed this [way of thinking] ‘the Scorpion.’ It’s a metaphor for potential death. A scorpion can potentially kill you at all times. You have that in the back of your brain. It’s the ability to self critique yourself. What can haters say? What holes can they poke in this?”
So what lessons can you learn from Abloh?
DON’T LET YOUR DEGREE GET IN THE WAY OF YOUR DREAMS
Like most of us, Virgil probably got a degree just to please his African parents who had immigrated from Ghana and sacrificed a lot to get him better life options. After acquiring a degree in civil engineering and and masters degree in architecture, that did not stop him from putting them behind him and choosing something else. Most of us are being held back by our degrees. Degrees we did not acquire because we were particularly passionate about the subjects but for some just because those were the fields of study their GCE A/L performances pointed to.
Because we did accounting, we can only be satisfied by a position in a bank even when we can be making more money rearing and selling snails. I’m sure you can give me a thousand examples here. Point is, you need to learn to follow your intuition more than your qualifications on paper.
CONNECT WITH PEOPLE WHO SHARE YOUR STRUGGLE
Going against the grain and into an industry where black men were not expected to be in certain positions, Virgil knew the one man that could relate was Kanye. While everyone else was calling out Kanye for his incessant complaining about the absence of black high end fashion designers and asking him to focus on the music he was making, Virgil decided to draw close to him and together they broke the glass ceiling. Virgil confessed that he expected kanye to become the head of LVMH before him and what he is living now is the dream he had for Kanye. Kanye was there front row at his first runway show with Louis Vuitton – all smiles because somehow someone h=that came under him made it to the top of LVMH.
WORK FOR FREE IF YOU ARE LEARNING SOMETHING
As interns for FENDI, both Virgil and Kanye earned $500 a month. Mind you that was the Kanye West after his critically acclaimed platinum selling album Graduation. Him and his friend Kanye who is widely considered an egomaniac had to work in the same place like other normal people who had done nothing of such magnitude – respecting all office rules and hours just so they could learn something that will benefit them in the future. Off White is mightily successful, so is Kanye’s Yeezus Brand worth about $1.8Billion.
This might not sit well with many of us because I guess Kanye and Virgil did not actually have to live on $500 a month while in Italy but the lesson stands. If you are ever wondering whether you should stay on a job when you are not getting paid or paid enough, just answer the question – Am I learning any skill which I can use to better myself as an individual? As soon as you are no longer learning anything, don’t spend a second working for someone for free.
BE YOUR OWN CRITIC
I see a lot of parallels between Virgil and myself and getting to know him was both inspiring and heartbreaking for me. It was a relief to see that there was someone out there doing all the things I wanted to do, the things that my own life chances have never permitted me to do on that level. It was sad knowing that my environment is not equipped to allow for that level of creative expressions. However, I’m finding joy doing the most out of the little I have right now as opportunities.
I am also a polymath and I suffer sometimes from people who don’t understand or accept that someone can be A level good in many things. The truth is, you have to be true to yourself and be your own judge. If you spend the hours honing a craft or multiple crafts, only you knows how much effort you have put in to master the skillsets you have. You cannot let what people say stop you from expressing all the knowledge you painstakingly acquired. To do that, you actually have to be your own hardest critic and work extra hard to cover the holes that people can use to poke in to the validity of your craft.
DON’T GET CARRIED AWAY BY CURRENT SUCCESS.
Virgil bought $40 Ralph Lauren shirts, screen printed PYREX on them and sold them for $550. He was very successful doing that but he had started it as a experiment so he discontinued the brand because it had served it’s purpose.
Many people do not have the courage to walk away from certain things that look like opportunities to go and do what they really want to be doing. Maybe you want to be a fashion designer and you decide to take a job at the telephone company just to foot the bills. You get there and the pay seems so comfortable that you end sacrificing your dream for that. I don’t know how that will end for you but learn to walk away from things you have never wanted no matter how tempting the financial gains might seem in the short run.