FOCUS / THE ICON INTERVIEW
‘I’m here to be an inspiration to kids that were like me, are like me, that didn’t believe that design was for them. That starts and ends my design mission’
Though largely well received, his work at Louis Vuitton, too, often faces intense scrutiny – natural, to some extent, given he has responsibility for such a pre-eminent luxury brand, but sometimes, it would seem, as a result of something uglier. But criticism, he says, is par for the course when you’re a black designer in a traditionally white world: ‘It comes with the territory, it’s kind of like paying tax.’ Abloh talks regularly about the barriers he had to overcome in order to break into the design world (sometimes literally, as he recalls being refused entry to fashion week shows with Kanye West). Even when Off-White started to gain serious traction, Abloh was faced with constant reminders that he didn’t fit in, not least being told on a regular basis that he didn’t ‘look like a designer’, something he says he’s been told ‘I can’t tell you how many t imes’.
Along with the bias – unconscious or otherwise – that Abloh faces from within the institution, it’s clear that being such an influential black public figure comes with another set of challenges. In summer 2020, he was criticised for expressing concern at the looting of Chicago shops by Black Lives Matter protesters and later revealing on Instagram that he had donated just $50 to a protesters’ bail fund (he countered the criticism by stating that he had in fact donated over $20,000 to related causes overall). Does the pressure to represent weigh heavily on him, I ask? ‘It’s not even a weight on me, it’s a weight on all of us of black descent,’ he says. ‘Obviously I don’t think it’s unfair, you know – it’s warranted,’ he says of being taken to account over the donation, but, he adds, ‘we that are oppressed still have the weight of education, communication, and can equally be sort of brought down by things that are untrue, just sensationalism.’
A desire to present his own narrative without the distortion that can come hand in hand with media representation is also, it seems, part of the reason that Off-White is what it is. ‘The advocacy work that I do doesn’t get the same impression on the algorithm as a pair of sneakers,’ he explains. (Most recently, Abloh set up the “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund to foster inclusion within fashion.) ‘So I’ve embedded my advocacy within the design, within the product.’
Despite the vulnerability to attack that comes from inhabiting his exposed position, Abloh shows no signs of slowing his activity. When we speak, his second homewares collection for Off-White has only recently hit the shelves (the brand’s debut “Home” range launched in summer 2019, while its first furniture collection was launched in 2016). Released in partnership with luxury retailer 1stDibs, it sees over 80 ‘familiar items’, as Abloh describes them, given an Off-White spin. There’s a classic black comb updated with whimsical Swiss-cheeselike hole detailing (these so-called ‘meteor’ holes are an Off-White trademark, and found on other homeware items including a new stationery range). An Escheresque design of overlapping graphic arrows (another motif that will be familiar to fans of the brand) appears on wallpaper and a cylindrical stool.