Virgil Abloh on the Off-White Air Jordan 5 and his journey collaborating with Nike
Fashion designer raised in the Chicago area headlines the Jordan Brand’s NBA All-Star collection with his latest sneaker
CHICAGO — Virgil Abloh returns to Chicago for 2020 NBA All-Star Weekend as the hottest fashion designer in the world. He’s the creative mind behind Off-White, the artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton and the most revered collaborator in the current landscape of sneaker culture. And he hasn’t forgotten how he got here.
Abloh, 39, grew up in nearby Rockford, Illinois, the son of Ghanaian immigrant parents, watching Michael Jordan hoop and wearing the Chicago Bulls superstar’s iconic sneakers. Those childhood experiences inspired him to pursue a career in design. In 2017, he began working with Nike and the Jordan Brand on footwear. And now, with the All-Star Game returning to the Windy City for the first time in more than three decades, he’s the headliner of the Jordan Chicago Collaborators’ Collection, highlighted by Abloh’s long-anticipated Off-White x Air Jordan 5, which drops Saturday. For All-Star Weekend, Abloh also teamed up with Nike to design a refurbished basketball court for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys & Girls Club on the West Side of Chicago.
The Undefeated recently sat down with the designer, who discussed idolizing Michael Jordan as a kid, collaborating with Nike and the Jordan Brand, designing the Off-White x Air Jordan 5 and more.
What does it mean to you to be involved in the Jordan Chicago Collaborators’ Collection?
It means a lot. I’ve had a fortunate sort of recent history with the brand. I’m close with Gemo [Wong], who’s been a longtime sort of key in the brain trust of the Jordan Brand, as well as him sort of keeping an eye out — what’s happening in the outside world as it relates to current culture and the Brand Jordan. So we’ve had an organic relationship.
I started with my partnership with Nike about three years ago regarding ‘The Ten,’ which is a project that [former Nike CEO and current executive chairman] Mark Parker had sort of conceptualized with the team over there. A part of that was doing sneakers across the different sort of stakeholders that Nike was a part of. So it was not only Nike but Brand Jordan and Converse. That’s when I did a Jordan 1 that started the relationship formally and then to now where we exist, where we’ve had a few different iterations. But this is by and large the most ambitious of the projects we’ve taken on.
Back when you started with Nike in 2017, could you have imagined how big your relationship with the brand would become?
Well, you even step back further than that. A lot about what makes this a special collaboration is I was born in 1980, so the ’90s, early 2000s. I grew up in the same city that we’re talking in idolizing who is now Michael Jordan as we know it. But you have to bring it back to the emotion of a kid watching him play on TV as our basketball player. You had Michael Jordan — losing. I think that’s the part that time doesn’t tell. Because you say Michael Jordan, it means excellence. It means championships. It means domination. It means larger than life. What makes him still a guiding light or impactful for us to even still be talking about his legacy, is when he was losing. …
So that impossibility of these guys losing against the Pacers or losing against Detroit. It wasn’t guaranteed he was going to win six championships. That’s why I always highlight these things now because we won. … But imagine the impression of seeing that turn from impossibility to possibility, is what made me become a designer at the magnitude that I have.
I was a kid that was raised off of his excellence and his ability to unite the globe. When I go to Paris … all they know is that you’re from Chicago. … Michael Jordan — his ability to unite, his ability to win, his ability to do the impossible … I’m a direct descendant of that. So I think … the story arc, in my case, is very personal and particular. Through his hard work, it raised me to believe that in my own avenue, which wasn’t basketball, unfortunately, he made you think that you could be Michael Jordan. It obviously wasn’t my case, but I turned that into my field of work, which brings me here.
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The original design intention was inspired by the fact these shoes via Michael Jordan himself were originally energized with a touch of “unrealness”. In order to live up to my own expectations my take on them needed some surrealism embedded within the transaction of owning a pair just the same. This video does the rest of the long talking. Proceed with caution ⚠️✨®
What was it like idolizing him as a young African American kid growing up in Chicago? And how much value was there in that representation?
I’m glad you highlighted that because I remember these things like it was yesterday. My parents are from Ghana in West Africa. I grew up in Rockford, Illinois. I went to a great school, but it was such a pivotal time, the ’90s, where it’s, like, your role model. I still very distinctly remember Charles Barkley getting on TV saying, “We’re not your role models.” … It was something avant-garde at the time, but what brings me here today is I was a fan of pop culture … from A Tribe Called Quest to the Beastie Boys. Or Nirvana … skateboarding … whatever was popular on TV … Terminator 2. But as you said, what role model [was there] that looked like me that I could identify with, go to school and be proud? Like, ‘Hey, if you’re going to stereotype me, stereotype me next to Michael Jordan.’ Or just something that I identify with.
And now as an adult, obviously, that’s what I love about our generation is we’re collectively enlightened by being, ‘Don’t put anyone in a box.’ In the ’90s, that was very far from the reality.
I think it’s important, too, this story that we’re talking about — Jordan and his ability to unite and what this campaign means as far as what we’re doing around All-Star — is literally uniting the city. Uniting — this is a global message about it doesn’t matter if Michael Jordan looks like me, like, almost like no one flies alone-type thing. Because that’s the other part about the Jordan narrative, is when I watched him and even when I recall the nuances of the victories or the losses, he made his team better.
It took the nuances of a game of chance — just put the ball in the basket — he made it to be such a metaphoric rise. … I was so in tune with it and I’m thankful. Because it’s very different. I saw him play basketball. I saw him shoot the ball. My dad would get tickets through work and we would go watch a game. Of course, I believed in Superman and that’s why it’s personal. … Art didn’t speak to me. There was no artist back then besides music or something that I could relate to in a very a metaphoric way.
Take us through your vision for your part in the Jordan Chicago Collaborators’ Collection. What story does each piece tell?
I take a very artistic approach to my work when I work with brands that are this big. … As you can tell, I can speak for like two hours about how passionate [I am]. Like, ‘Do you remember … the shot [by] Reggie Miller … when they lost?’ And, of course, I bring all this to a Nike meeting and they’re like, ‘Hey, what’s your idea? We’ve got another meeting at 3 o’clock.’
For me, it’s about what can I add to this story that’s big already. The Jordan Brand is big. I’m one piece in a very large narrative, so what I do is I tried to distill it to a very personal sort of story. And I also try to be distinct between all the other projects. I want to make it a very small conversation in a big brand. That’s the goal every time.
And I’m a consumer, by the way. It’s like this is the kid that was waiting in line the first time the Jordans were coming out. Not the retro, the first time. … I’m not like, ‘Change the color,’ which is a common practice of a Nike collaboration. … I’m from the beginning, so I’m, like, do the exact same color that you did before, just change the minute details so I get that feeling like I did the first time. I’ve bought the different colorways. I’ve seen them. I want something that emotionally connects me to the product.
So the collection is rooted in the first time I saw the Flight logo, that topography, the script, how it looked like it was moving through the air. It’s my very personal favorite logos, or iconography, or colorway meets a modern take. It’s co-branded Off White x Jordan. But it’s from the era that made me believe.
The logo on the back is from the jacket that I had that my mom got me from T.J. Maxx or something like that. The Jordan 5, this is the very first shoe that I convinced my parents to buy. It was too expensive. So I had to use extra ingenuity. This was the very first Jordan that I bought out of Foot Locker, like brand-new.
The black colorway comes into play [during the NBA playoffs]. The Superman cape comes in the playoffs. They’re dropping another colorway because he’s about to go blackout at the end of the season. When he would shoot in warmups with the white outfit with the black and it was your first time seeing a colorway, not on Hypebeast, not on the internet, just on the TV. Insane.
What was it like working with the Air Jordan 5 silhouette?
It was cool because, you know, I had done the Jordan 1. The Jordan 1 was obviously where I had to start with and I gave that its own identity. But this was more like, ‘OK, I wanna do the first shoe that I owned … ’ This is the shoe that I slept with. Bought it, put it at the end of my bed so I could wake up and look at it at eye-level. … For me, it was THE shoe. …
That’s what I love about the work of Tinker Hatfield and the original [Jordans]. I had once heard a story that they were like, ‘These shoes should be designed for 10 years into the future.’ That’s an awesome design principle — not designing something for next year when it comes out. People won’t understand these things until 10 years. And look where we are now. Because they had that philosophy, we’re still enamored with this design. It was relevant then, and then we’re 20 years [out]. But the idea that shoe was padded. I never understood that. So what I did, it’s like a 3% design principle where it’s like I only changed the minute amount, not the maximum.
It’s why the shoe is not pink … or it’s not see-through. It’s because it just needs a touch to evoke a feeling. The sole on mine is vintage to give that turning back the clock [feel]. I took the padding off the top. I have this sort of Swiss cheese sort of new design language. Because before I did things in quotes or I remove material to make it look like it’s halfway made. This is the first shoe that’s a new design language, which is the holes. … What’s interesting about this, which I’ll reveal at a later date, is the 100% design. Even though the shoes that are out now, people think that those are the finished idea. They’re not. There’s a DIY element that completes the finished idea, which is the idea that it’s kind of like air. The hole, what is the circle? You actually cut away that material so there’s holes in the actual shoe.
In your mind, what does Michael Jordan mean to the city of Chicago?
Jordan, to me, only after this amount of time, is a symbol of unity. He’s a benchmark for excellence. Those two things in a pop culture atmosphere, as you said, as we discussed, as a role model, are very, very rare in a state like this. Usually, someone who’s that known for a specific thing is kind of like a pop star for the moment. They’re putting out content that’s an exchange. I think that’s what’s amazing about why a brand like Jordan is important. Long after his career of putting the ball through the hoop, when he did that, it has a lasting impression and means something more.
Kids today can look at the Jordan logo, the Jumpman logo, and think unity and excellence. [I’m] thankful [to the brand] for allowing a person like me to collaborate. I passionately can bring that message, carry that torch further. When I spoke to MJ, you could imagine how surreal that moment was for me to be like in my living room talking to Jordan himself, being all off the strength of doing a product for his brand. That conversation, I look at as one of the very few sort of highlights that I can take pride in while he’s living and while I’m creating, that we can sort of keep furthering the message and sort of doing what’s natural to us.
When did this conversation take place?
Like a year ago. … It was before this project, after the Jordan 1. The white one, the blue one, it was in between. Gemo was like, ‘Hey, MJ wants to talk.’ It was, like, I didn’t even fathom that … I’m a big thinker and that wasn’t even in my [mind] … like, ‘Oh, I want to speak to [him].’ … I would’ve thought it’s impossible to do a Jordan, let alone to be in dialogue, and here we are.
That’s what I hope kids take away from my project. When they see that Off-White meets any brand, it’s like, ‘Hey, you can have a higher-tier design that people can emotionally relate to you in 2020, not the ’90s.’ Yeah, these are retro ideas, but they’re showing how valuable they are over a period of time.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.