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Op-ed: Virgil Abloh dissolved ‘barriers of entry’ with joy and optimism

Written by Dr Samuel Ross

Dr Samuel Ross is a fashion and product designer and the founder of a A-Cold-Wall*. He was Virgil Abloh’s first design assistant. Here, Ross writes about the late designer’s role as a mentor. Abloh, head of menswear for Louis Vuitton, founder of Off-White and a recently appointed visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, died of a rare form of cancer on November 28, 2021. He was 41. All opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

I first met Virgil Abloh in the summer of 2012. Our relationship began with a series of Instagram interactions and a rapid email follow up from Virgil asking to review the totality of my design portfolio — all disciplines.

Barely two years out of graduating from design school, I was living in Leicester, in the middle of England, working full time at an industrial and product design company while engaging in graffiti, streetwear concepts and video art during the later hours of each day.

In typical Virgil style, a quick decision was made on the day that I sent him my work, I’ll never forget the decisiveness that followed. He asked me to work with him; I was to be his first design assistant.

So, I canceled my studio-flat lease, quit my job, left Leicester, and moved back to South London (I was born in Brixton) to help build out Virgil’s vision. At this point, we had yet to meet in person — all of our work together was done online. We operated across multiple time zones and relished in the freedom of not being pinned down by a fixed office or location.

Designer and founder of A Cold Wall* Samuel Ross

Designer and founder of A Cold Wall* Samuel Ross Credit: Courtesy Oliver Matich/Friedman Benda/Samuel Ross

Our work relationship began far more formally than one would expect now, there was a respect and seriousness for the objectives at hand. In the earlier years, Virgil was my boss first — he emanated direction and leadership, emphasizing accuracy and open-thought in equal measure.

Our working dynamic was comparative to a Rubik’s cube. There were many moving parts and we worked across a multitude of disciplines, in particular, fashion, moving image, graphic design and stage design — focusing mostly on Virgil’s first fashion brand Pyrex Vision and Kanye West’s creative agency Donda, for which Virgil was artistic director — this was all before Off-White came into fruition.

Energized by the pace and scope of the work we were doing, I’d often ask for more projects and work to oversee, or contribute towards. Virgil would oblige these requests, often encouraging me to experiment and step outside my comfort zone. This is around the time that I developed my habit of traveling to every function, breakfast or social event with a MacBook.

As Virgil became more successful and his momentum increased, my job was to ensure that his ideas would continue to take shape as renders, sketches, paintings, prototypes, and material sourcing — done with efficiency and always good taste, refinement and nuance. The reference points were incalculable, we simply knew and spoke the same visual language. Across these endeavors a spirit of play was always present — no idea was fixed. Projects were complete only when time had stopped. This is where I learned the skill of constant iteration — a key part of my own design studio’s way of thinking now.

The late designer Virgil Abloh.

The late designer Virgil Abloh. Credit: Fabien Montique for Louis Vuitton

Then came the launch of Off-White: Radical and subversive, the brand put the Black protagonist at its center point.

Built from the ground up with Andrea Grill and Davide de Giglio of New Guards Group (a Milan-based company that has backed a number of brands including Heron Preston and Opening Ceremony), fine materials and experimental prints, evocative architecture and bleeding edge communication methods came together to form the cult label recently acquired by LVMH.

Strategic thinking, commercial prowess and creative entrepreneurship came together as one during the launch of Off-White. For me, at 22 years of age, this way of working was completely ground-breaking.

Shortly after, I would begin to write and explore ways that I could apply this approach to a fashion brand of my own — I wanted to see if a British archetype could fit intelligently into the dialogue of subculture, architecture, political commentary and material exploration.

I eventually founded my own label, A-Cold-Wall*, in 2015 in London, and as it began to grow globally and develop its permanence within streetwear and luxury fashion, Virgil continued to spirit-guide and support me. We remained in constant dialogue. Meeting in person when schedules allowed, we maintained our idea-sharing dynamic until the end.

In 2018, Virgil’s made his debut as the newly appointed head of menswear for Louis Vuitton. He was the first Black American to hold such a position at a French luxury house and this watershed moment etched possibility into a once crystallized industry.

For me, the moment marked an exciting reality distortion, the optics and mirrored surfaces had been repositioned through design-thinking to illuminate a pathway all could see, and possibly partake in. His position at Louis Vuitton signaled possibility and hope for many who couldn’t see themselves in such a role.

Virgil’s application of emotional intelligence and haptic communication resulted in a new composite of sorts, one that had not yet formed in luxury nor traditional streetwear, yet one that now flourishes, trading in the tradition model of heritage as an aspirational moniker for radical iteration and elasticity.

As a result, the development of brand behaviors across multiple industries and sectors moved forward. Today, for example, values like diversity and inclusion sit at the top of the fashion industry’s agenda and consumers now know to demand more from the brands they choose to lend their loyalty to.

Virgil was a guiding force to many people around him. Earlier this year, his role as a teacher was further formalized when he was made a visiting professor at London’s Royal College of Art. Jony Ive, the school’s chancellor and legendary Apple alumnus, called Virgil “a true force of change,” at the time, adding that his “experience and mentorship will undoubtedly inspire a new generation of creative innovators to realise the full value of their potential.” Having experienced this power first-hand, I’m sure he would have done.

Much has been written about Virgil’s impact on the design, fashion and music worlds — his legacy will be rich and layered, no doubt.

But he will also be remembered for his ability to help others visualize their success, to imagine their ability to bring about change. He did this by being visible, relatable and accessible — dissolving all barriers of entry into a world that isn’t always welcoming and, in doing so, he created possibilities for those who might have been excluded before.

This was all delivered, communicated and achieved with joy, optimism, grace and intelligence.

It is our duty to carry forward such a way of being.

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