“THE TEN” – An exclusive interview with Virgil Abloh
On January 11, 2021 Virgil Abloh announced Virgil Abloh. Nike. ICONS, a new book, published by Taschen. To support local business the book had an early sale period through selected Black-owned bookstores and independent retailers, including MENDO. The response has been tremendous.
MENDO’s Gunifort Uwambaga spoke exclusively with Virgil Abloh about the vital need for bookstores and print, supporting black-owned businesses and his design ethos and process.
1. You stated that you believe print and local bookstores are vital. Can you elaborate on why they are now more needed than ever?
There’s a lot you can learn on the internet or on Instagram but it doesn’t always capture the whole story. There are so many important stories and cultures that are carried on through books and printed matter.
There are so many missing books on the bookshelves. That’s literally true but also a metaphor for the entire world. It’s important that we write our own histories. Books and archives influence what gets included in certain canons versus what isn’t.
Local bookstores are important because these stores are bearers of the torch in that way.
‘‘I believe in print and I believe local bookstores are vital. ’
‘‘I believe in print and I believe local bookstores are vital. ’
2. Why was it essential for you to launch this book through black-owned bookstores? And how you find out about MENDO being partially black-owned?
These are the stores that dedicate their practice to our traditions, our stories. It’s important to support them in the same way they’ve supported us by helping us tell our stories.
Shops like Bliss Books in Kansas City or Good Books in Atlanta, which is run by a mother and daughter are gems more people should know about. My hope was that we could capture some of the sneaker “hype” and re-direct it to these important institutions and shine a light on their important work.
I found out about MENDO through Samir, actually. I knew it from iconography of a book story, but Samir first told me about it.
3. You also just launched the “Public Domain”, basically sharing 40Gigs of the Nike Architecture design program for everybody to access. I graduated with an MSc in Information Technology and Knowledge Management, so I loved the reference to the Macintosh file directory system. I’ve literally been telling people all day how disruptive and generous of a move the “Public Domain” is, and how sick the interface. Can you touch on what it is?
Public Domain aka Nike Architecture is my new design and creative direction studio and think tank through Nike. The entire leadership team that I selected for it is Black, which is important to me. It’s really about open sourcing the work, getting everything out into the public domain, so that the next generation can access it and learn from it.
The reference to “Architecture” in the name comes out of two things. Black creativity is literally the entire architecture of culture. We are everywhere occupying all the spaces but rarely on the “façade”, rarely the “face” of leadership at these brands. And I’ve always loved hearing stories about Nike “Kitchen” or the mythos around the first Nike shoes or Apple computers being designed in “the Garage”, so “Nike Architecture” felt like it had a similar ring.
The website is like a facsimile of my desktop and my hard drive. What better way to manifest an “open source” ethos than to literally open source all of the files and images and processes that are behind the work?
4. For me, you are one of the best examples of actually using what you learned in school and applying it to real life. How did your studies and Civil Engineering schooling influence your approach to the design ethos of “The Ten”?
Engineering has so much to do with the structure and logic behind the design of major systems. I knew that when I got the opportunity to design a shoe for Nike that I didn’t want to just design one, I wanted to design several. And so I couldn’t just propose a new colourway or material palette, I had to propose a logic. A logic that could apply to not just one shoe, but that could be an entry point into the design of any shoe.
My studies in architecture also had an impact. Rem Koolhaas at OMA influenced me really early on, the idea that you could apply architectural thinking not just to buildings, but really to any object or any domain. So my design ethos for “The Ten” partly drew on certain logics and principles that have been important in the history of architecture. Transparency vs. opacity, revealing the internal structural elements of an object, reduction, process, those sorts of things.
‘What I want people to take away from the book is the birds-eye view not so much the individual shoes.’
5. Following on from that. With the intent that gave, did each design turn out as you expected? Or was there an element of the experiment even with the end result?
It’s funny a friend of mine I really respect Tom Sachs asked me the same question working with Nike and crafting. For me, it’s the logic and the system that I designed. How it lays over each shoe isn’t a “design” it’s a product of a system I coded.
6. You continue to give out – looks into your kitchen, insights into your unique creative processes, “free game” for all. Where do you cross the border? How do you decide what information to keep for yourself and what to share?
I let it happen organically. But overall my ethos at its core is that for any door I’m able to open or dent I’m able to kick, my goal is always to leave bread crumbs on how I did it or what I’ve learned for anyone coming up after me.
7. Although you’ve probably been asked this a million times, I know the MENDO readers will want to know this. Which of the ten is your personal favourite, and why?
I hate picking a favourite that’s why so many shoes exist, haha. But I’m from Chicago, it has to be the Jordan 1 on principle.
8. We have a shared friend in fellow Dutchman, architect, and print-lover, Samir Bantal (AMO). What can you tell our readers about Samir and his role in your first book, “Figures of Speech”? Also, personal question, is it a coincidence both books have Swiss-binding?
Samir plays an essential role in making my archive of work into a 3D space people can understand. We have an architectural brain synergy which is refreshing for my practice to be in dialogue with a brilliant mind as his when thinking about the edges of contemporary architectural practice.
The Swiss binding… It’s an emerging trademark…I’m very picky when it comes to any essential detail. When I find something I like, I’m not quick to replace it.
9. You / Off-White have just collaborated with my best friends from Daily Paper in Ghana. A huge moment for the game! How did that come about? How did it go, and what are your plans to (continue) build in Africa?
For me African diaspora is what I find infinitely interesting. I am Ghanaian at heart. So becoming familiar with Daily Paper and their resonance of what they are doing in Amsterdam and then just now moving to an outpost in NYC I wanted to build a bridge.
After all I’m more interested in community than purely clothes.
10. As a young black man, I am particularly proud to have been part of this launch. Thank you for that, V! What “free game” would you, particularly give me?
“JUST DO IT.”
But no cap, you’re doing it.
About the book
ICONS is a dynamic retrospective of the extensive collaborative project between NIKE, Inc. and Virgil Abloh.
Bringing together all the greats—from Air Jordan 1 to Air Presto—Nike and Virgil Abloh reinvent sneaker culture with the collaborative project The Ten and redesign 10 sneaker icons. Experience engineering ingenuity and Abloh’s investigative design process: each shoe is a piece of industrial design, a readymade sculpture, and a wearable all at once.
Pre-order and receive a copy at the next drop, expected in April.
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