Virgil Abloh Just Wants to Make Meaningful Sneakers

An interview with Virgil Abloh discussing his upcoming 'Sail' Off-White x Air Jordan V collab, Michael Jordan, and more.

Virgil Abloh Off White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail'
Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

Virgil Abloh Off White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail'

On Feb. 12, Virgil Abloh shared a visual in celebration of his Air Jordan V collaboration, which was set to release three days later. It showed the multi-hyphenate striking the iconic Jumpman pose, Off-White x Air Jordan V laced on feet (white laces like Michael Jordan, of course), in front of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. It's an image that is already pretty amazing to behold with zero context, but one that becomes a bit more impressive when you realize what it represents. A kid who grew up in Rockford, Illinois, treating MJ like a real-life super hero, whose first pair of Air Jordans he bought at retail was a pair of "Metallic" Vs as a teen, was now wearing a pair that has his name stamped on them. And he was doing it in Paris, a city home to Louis Vuitton, the historic fashion house that now employs him as its men's artistic director.

Fittingly, the pair launched during NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago. It sold out quickly and had people lining up down Michigan Avenue in freezing temperatures despite its polarizing, Swiss-cheese-like upper. It still fetches over triple its retail value on the aftermarket. Some even consider it the best sneaker of the year.

Eight months later, a lot has happened. Abloh has held runway presentations in Japan, broken barriers by signing pro skaters to fashion houses, and released two additional Nike collaborations (a Rubber Dunk and Air Jordan IV). On a larger scale, the world entered a lockdown to curb the spread of a COVID-19 and also took to the streets to protest racial injustice and police brutality. Abloh's had his own pitfalls to navigate along the way, too, in the court of public opinion. 

With just a few weeks left in the rollercoaster of a year that is 2020, and after a slight delay at the hands of COVID-19, Abloh is set to launch the sequel to his popular Air Jordan V collaboration. This time, the designer takes cues from the original "Fire Red" colorway, and if you couldn't guess, the drop once again has people making phone calls and entering every raffle under the sun to get a pair. We got a chance to chat with Abloh via Zoom ahead of the upcoming "Sail" Off-White x Air Jordan V release to discuss the overall design, pushing the envelope with sneaker collaborations, why he refers to MJ as Superman, and more. Check out the full interview below. 

Off-White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail' (Pair)

This is your second iteration of the Air Jordan V. As a creative from Chicago, what does that mean to you to, to be able to even say that you have the ability to make your own Jordans?
It's really surreal. I think with the advent of TheLast Dance, it's kind of a reminder of how important that Jordan era was to contemporary culture now. And Michael Jordan was my local basketball player and it's so surreal. So doing my own Jordan is cool. It's essentially like a dream come true.

The first iteration was your take on the OG "Metallic" colorway. This is your take on "Fire Red." What is your personal connection to this specific color scheme?
This was the first pair of Jordans that I bought as a teenager, on release day. I distinctly remember the challenge of trying to convince my parents to pay however much they were. I remember them being over a hundred bucks. That shoe changed my life. I looked at it as beyond just an object of a sneaker, but it was almost a part of a superhero's cape. That was the black pair. So the black pair and this fire red scheme are sort of one homage to that Jordan for me. A lot of my career mentality and how I approach my craft is inspired by the role model that is Michael Jordan.

Earlier this year, when your rendition of the V was first revealed to the public, there were some people that were sort of confused by certain elements, the holes on the upper, for instance. Do you feel like there's still any confusion from the general marketplace on what your design was, and if so, is there anything that you feel like you want to make sure is clarified about the design?
Well, I think what's important to know, the stage that I am in my career, it's an extreme privilege that there's that much notoriety and attention to the things that I make. With that comes just a natural critique or an opinion—that's human. But my design practice comes from the kid from left field. I am the kid who normally wouldn't be even designing these products. So the sort of market response is never a deterrent on making a dream come true. That's just foundational logic. It's almost the shoes that I make, especially this one, are just me writing in a personal journal.

I'm thinking about the culture at large, but I'm also just completing a narrative as a kid that just dreamed of making product. Where I come from, a Black kid from Chicago, Illinois, isn't who you prototypically think of as a designer, let alone to be able to reimagine Jordan shoes or make high-fashion or something like that. So to me that's the most important narrative, overall.

When it gets down into the details, shoes have become art pieces for the art world in a way. I take the practice seriously. And this shoe, the V, is one of those designs that's affected by the fact that most of my shoes leak before I get to announce them. That's where the holes came from. The shoe would have come with the holes already cut out. But I decided not to because if the shoes had leaked, then the full design would be out, without there being any Easter egg for the moment of making them. That's why I keep reiterating, this was all just an experiment to say, "OK, even though the shoes leaked, the end of the process is supposed to be made by the user themselves, and that's to cut out the holes." But my favorite internal design feature is removing the padding from the ankle. It's an element on almost all the Jordan designs that personally I didn't favor, how thick the original V is at the ankle. Of course it was an original design detail, but there's subtlety in the shoes that I make, that can often get overlooked because the sneaker culture moves so fast. 

But those things are things that I pay attention to. The internal structure of the shoe, the fact that the tongue is thinner than the original makes it a slimmer silhouette when you wear it with a boot-cut or skinny jean, and obviously the different material gives it a whole overall different feel. To me, it's an art object. I don't really refer to it just as a sneaker. 

Off-White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail' (Detail)

I remember you've even said that you have to cut the holes out of the shoe to get the full experience of the shoe
It's a great privilege that I have to make these shoes. So I kind of leave it all on the court just the same way Michael Jordan did playing the actual game. Nowadays, versus when I first had these shoes when they originally came out, we have a sneaker industry. There's a shoe every week. These shoes end up being resold almost instantaneously. I wanted to leave that effect on the design itself, so if you go back 30 years from now, you can say, "Oh, there were designers that were cognizant of the sort of preciousness." Shoes just go onto a shelf. Do they get worn? So the cutting of the holes was a little bit of a commitment to the shoe. Are you in it for the shoe? Can you stomach cutting the shoe? In my book, it doesn't devalue it. It's not one of the first, but it's amongst the shoes that are cognizant of the current culture that we're in.

You actually tweeted something during All-Star when the first pair came out to the effect of how everyone was saying the shoe was wack when they first saw it. But now when it finally comes out, everyone was going crazy for it. What prompted that tweet from you?
I just think that this culture is something that we love, right? And it's just, I'm noticing that instead of fostering culture, there's an approach to just ripping it down. And I just want people to dwell on that. It's our culture, it's our community. So just think twice. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion, but this design, it's a design. It's not mandatory. It's meant to inspire. It's meant to inspire a next generation of creators. It's meant to respect the history of Jordan. So just that sentiment of one minute something can seem polarizing and then, the next minute, I get bombarded with requests to buy the shoe. It's just interesting looking at it from my perspective. So that was just me relaying that to people.

A more recent example that had the same reaction from the sneaker community was the Union x Air Jordan IV. What are your thoughts on that project that Chris [Gibbs] did with Union?
I would say Chris [Gibbs] from Union is one of my... he's someone that championed my career in fashion, period. He was one of the first eight stockists of Pyrex when I'd started that project. And we're a bit older, so we have a longer-range view of this industry. We've been doing it maybe, like, double the age of most kids who have been participating. Once you've been in this game, you want to evolve it, you want to do something new. You don't want to do something that's easily digestible. So I think it was a beautiful project as for the fact that there was a call to action with the IV. It's a shoe that requires a commitment to it. And I think that's the forefront of collaboration design. When we came up, collaborations were few and far between. Now there's one a week. So those of us that love the practice and appreciate the history of iconic shoes before us, I'm proud to see that Chris is pushing the envelope as well in his own vocabulary.

You've done a ton of shoes with Nike up to this point. They obviously stand out in a way that you immediately know that it's your work when you see it. So have you ever pitched something to Nike that they were hesitant about? 
It's the perfect partnership. A lot of my ability to create is with the freedom and respect for the brand. I'm trying to restore that feeling that I had when I got my first pair when they originally came out. I'm trying to give that to a young customer today and to the culture itself. So they give me a lot of freedom, I think, because I respect the brand, the craft and the heritage of sport as much as I do. So I take it with great responsibility.

When it comes to Jordans, I know MJ gets his final say on all the projects. Have you ever spoken to MJ about your work that you've done with the brand? 
Yeah, it all started with my Jordan 1. There's a great team member at Jordan, Gemo [Wong], who helped see that happen. I deconstructed the Jordan 1, and thankfully it went over very well and Michael Jordan called me to thank me personally for the work. That was a surreal moment speaking to the guy that motivated me to be what I am today.

Taking it back to the All-Star launch, everyone was lining up to get their hands on the "Metallic" colorway, and then you went on Instagram and you hit everyone with what you called a plot twist, wearing the white pair. Was that a calculated decision on your part? Was that an early sample of what we're seeing release this Thursday?
It's very hard to design shoes that leak before they're done. I think every shoe that I've done with Nike has [leaked]. I'll just be searching the internet one day and I'll find shoes that are in my studio on the internet. So, for me, the joy with building with Nike isn't so much just doing the shoes, it's the launch.

It's the imagery, it's the campaign. That's why I just launched Public Domain. Now I'm creating the advertisements and context to my own shoes. Previously we weren't doing that in such a hands-on way. So, yeah, with that Jordan, that was the rare case where a shoe I did I leaked first. That might have only happened one or two times, I think, because what happens is the product code gets seen, people can assume the colorway and then I think illegitimate factories make that colorway or make the shoe before it comes out. So that was a case where it was like, "Here's another colorway that actually was seen by me first."

The release that is coming up this Thursday initially got pushed back because of the ongoing pandemic. As a creator who's involved with multiple projects at a time, what has been your experience throughout the pandemic and how have you dealt with maneuvering through it?
Kind of week to week, month to month. I think the important thing that an outside person should know about the process is, whatever shoe you see now was designed a year ago. It's not like these shoes are made and designed the week that they leak. From that point, it was maybe 10 months before. So a lot of this is just pre-planning. And we didn't know what the mood was going to be of this year. There's things in the pipeline. And we just try to make it work within the time given. Today, I announced I'm raffling off a Jordan V with a friend of mine, Aleta Clark in Chicago via Notre. And what we're doing is donating those raffle proceeds to an initiative that feeds the homeless in Chicago. To me, that's important. It's not just using the energy for these shoes to create more energy for itself, but how can we help and shape and change the world while we're doing that? I'm very proud of those initiatives.

You initially did that with the Air Jordan IV release as well, right?
Yeah. It's something special. Again, I forget these things because obviously I'm in my own bubble in my own world, but we're Chicago kids, right? Like, Jordans are called "Mikes." They're our shoe. There's something about it. And it's our community in a way, so to me, this is just being... I'm a Chicago resident still. And this is like, there's something in the water. There's a Chicago mode, and it's like, I may exist around the world. But to me, my hometown is most important, my local community. These Mikes are just important, so if we can use that as a vessel to make the city better, give the city a better reputation, to me that's an important part of the shoe design itself. Now that shoe is ready to come out. It's actually doing something for the community, as well as representing the city in the 2020 manner. So now I feel fulfilled.

Off-White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail' (Heel)

So Thursday morning, 10 a.m. rolls around, these are going to essentially come and go within a few minutes. And then the usual social media reaction of angry people that didn't get their pair and stuff goes on. I'm sure you're used to seeing that with a lot of your collabs at this point. Is there a sense of pride in seeing that your creations have become so coveted? Does it bum you out to see all these people angry that they haven't gotten their pair again? Is it a mix of both? 
I'm soon going to do a project on Public Domain that explains a little bit more the ethos of Off-White. I was very much the kid that didn't have the "it" sneakers when I grew up. You might ask yourselves, why are there so many extra laces or why is there a zip tie in the shoe box? For me, that's sort of spreading the impact of the overall ethos. An Off-White x Nike shoe is what it is, but there's also an inline Air Force One that could be made cooler with the remnants of an Off-White x Nike shoe. That started from the very beginning. I was thinking about making it trendy to sort of DIY or customize because that's the value. Of course, that doesn't always ring true. Naturally so—the actual pairs are most coveted. But that's where it comes from. It came from me wanting to think about these shoes as a wider thing. One time I even said, there was the blue "MCA" pair and somebody had posted them painting a pair. And I legitimately thought that they were cool, so much so that I re-posted it. And I think I actually got backlash because people thought that I was kidding.

And it was like, that was the best example of the outside world being like...Because if you my read book or look into my practice, it doesn't matter if it's real or not. If you make it it's yours. If I was 17, I would be having the craziest Off-White x Nikes that were never out. I would be drawing on them. I'd be getting laces off of eBay and Grailed. I'd have the crazy combinations. It's like I'm sort of giving license to that. That's the ethos. That was the ethos the whole time. That's sort of how I can sleep at night, even knowing that there's so many kids that can't get them, that I sort of predicted it and I put [the extras] into the project itself.

I'm a designer. I'm at Louis Vuitton from Pyrex Vision. I was screen-printing Champion shirts to get to where I'm at. And so I'm trying to advance this idea of "streetwear." I don't use that word just blanketly, but just having a larger impact than the project itself is a running theme in all my work.

Off-White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail' (Lateral)

Right now in sneakers, you see a lot of these young designers bootlegging, whether it's Warren Lotas' takes on the old Nike SB Dunks or you see a lot of people spinning pairs of Jordan 1s, replacing the swoosh with guns, middle fingers, or whatever it may be. As someone who promotes that creativity, what are your thoughts on that trend?
I think it's just the future. I'm not going to be ever the one to place rules on how creativity evolves. So "streetwear" was always made up of rogue moves. And I think they're always questionable at the time, but then in the future they create the next norm. So that's something that I've learned from the past. I think it's just natural evolution and it's making a top line of leading edge.

Speaking to your own creative process, you do have these Off-White collaborations with Nike, and then you have the Off-White mainline, and then you also do your stuff with LV, and the countless other projects that you do. Is it ever challenging compartmentalizing these ideas for each specific venture? Is there a specific strategy or process that you use?
Yeah, a little bit. Yeah, it's a lot about brand heritage first. Things don't hit the same with a different brand name on it. That's why history is important. Louis Vuitton has a history and resonance to it. Off-White had no history until I started it. Nike has its own history and resonance. So when I think of ideas, I usually am inspired by the place where they will live. It's not as complicated as it sounds in a way.

You've said before how Michael Jordan is your Superman. So to that point, what aspect of Michael Jordan do you feel like you've most translated into what you do now?
It's the relentless pursuit of getting the desired result. Imagine all the shoes that I do or the designs that I do. I think it's easy to forget I do 12 fashion collections a year. Each of those collections are probably like 500 or something items or something like that. And that's not including the collaborative shoes or just any collaboration, like a Mercedes-Benz or anything.

When you watch the Michael Jordan documentary, it's safe to say that he didn't take any days off. He didn't even take recreational sports off, a card game to a golf game was as equal to a Finals championship. And once I saw that as a local role model, I just applied that to things that I was into. I don't take days off. I don't sleep. I don't go on vacation. I enjoy life, it's not all that I do, but it's my thing. You pick your head up and you see what he achieved, a simple game of putting a ball in a hoop, he advanced the whole idea of it. And I look at design and culture that way. That's what I gleaned from it.

You've said, "I can't jump from a free-throw line, but I can try to advance sneaker culture." So what does "advancing sneaker culture" mean to you?
I think it's making meaningful shoes. Sneakers aren't just utilitarian, they're borderline art objects. They're past just a fashion accessory. I came up in the glory days of the '90s, when it was a Heineken Dunk, or a McFetridge Vandal, or Bapestas, or BBC ICECREAM sneakers, the whole line of Jordans. Those things shaped and shifted the same culture that we exist in today. If we just recreate that mentality, then we'll end up in the same place. So I want to see that grow. I want to see it become something else. And I think our generation is doing it as a whole.

Off-White x Air Jordan 5 'Sail' 1

I saw you posted on Instagram that you felt like you could go on forever discussing this upcoming colorway of the Jordan V, but if you had to kind of boil it down to a few sentences, what would you say about this collaboration?
There's that archive site, Samutaro, that just did a post on it. He rooted what Jordan had done in the V. I remember these shoes, these shoes to me are powered up by him playing the game in them. To me, at least today, it's my favorite Jordan, period. There's something special about the reflective tongue. Like I was saying about just the shape feels like an aircraft. The way that the flames are pointed in reverse. All that. All the history of the shoe, it's just a very forward silhouette for the shoes that were out at the time. Also, the shoe was famously worn by Darryl M. Bell in A Different World and Will Smith [in Fresh Prince of Bel-Air]. It was culturally relevant on a different scale, all the Spike Lee things that were done for the advertisements. So to me, it's bringing all that back in a current context.

There's been some rumors of a "Grape" iteration or some other things coming down the pipeline. Is there any truth to that? Can we kind of expect more Vs? Or is this the final chapter? 
I don't ever speak on what's next. Because it sort of ruins my creative process, but I guess I would say this, in closing, there's no limit to the amount of things that I would ever design. So I'll just leave it at that.

In general, when you look at the sneaker space right now what else has impressed you? Is there anything else that's kind of caught your eye throughout the year?
I think right now I'm most inspired by people using the halo of energy off of the shoes for bringing awareness or social change. I think that's modern. I think that that's bonus points in the logic of how we can use these things to make our world a better place.