Virgil Abloh on Collaborating With Ikea, Designing Emotion Into Objects

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From left: Jeff Carvalho, Henrik Most and Virgil Abloh at the 4th annual Fashion Tech Forum conference in Los Angeles on Oct. 6, 2017.

"We're at the end of an era where things can just be utilitarian. You can give emotional value into an object," says the Off-White designer, who joined Ikea creative leader Henrik Most at the Fashion Tech Forum conference in L.A..

Fashion designer Virgil Abloh is arguably the most sought-after collaborator at the moment, having created a Princess Diana-inspired Jimmy Choo range, a limited-edition Warby Parker line (which sold out instantly) and a Levi's x Off-White capsule collection. Next up, the Off-White founder will focus on his partnership with Ikea, which the Scandinavian furniture company announced in June.

Other than its announcement of a planned 2019 launch, details about the project remain scarce. However, at Friday's Fashion Tech Forum conference in L.A., Abloh joined Ikea creative leader Henrik Most on stage to share what made him interested in working with the world's largest furniture retailer and to provide more insight on the project.

"For me, I'm a dreamer. I'll sit around and think about how my ideas can impact or bring a different voice into the rest of the world. I looked at Ikea as this pie in the sky, this company put design first and believed in the democracy of design," said Abloh. "My story even started before I met [Henrik]. I was just thinking, 'If I could work for Ikea, it would open this door to this way of thinking that's usually left for clothing to the rest of someone's dwelling space."

Like the emotional values found in clothes, Abloh believes the same can be found in everyday objects.

"I firmly believe that these objects that have an inherent value and higher sense of emotion to it, it's possible to design that into an object. That was the epiphany I found in my work that I think is valuable information for this when brainstorming or designing into a widget. You can design emotion into it," he said. "We're at the end of an era where things can just be utilitarian. You can give emotional value into an object."

 

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The fashion designer used his Levi's denim trucker jacket as an example, noting that the look worn by both him and moderator Jeff Carvalho, managing director of Highsnobiety, is more than just a jacket, but rather an item that is likely associated with a certain memory or holds a particular emotional connection.

Abloh's Milan-based lifestyle line may not be the accessible for the average consumer given its expensive price tags (for example, the Off-White "For Walking" over-the-knee boots retail for $1,980 and a sequin bomber jacket costs $1,510), he aims to make his Ikea collection available to a wide range of people.

"In our modern world, I truly believe that design is linked to humanity. You can make the world a better place through design," said Abloh. "I was visiting a friend's home, who has museum-level art, like Jeff Koons and Sterling Ruby. I thought, 'What's the difference between this living situation and a college dorm room?' I thought if you make the right object, it can be appreciated by both." He added that his collab with Ikea "has been the most rigorous of any design process I've ever had."

The process has involved both Most and Abloh making home and dorm visits to get a better sense of what their customers want first-hand. "We're not deciding for the young adults, we're doing it together with them," said Most of their approach with this joint venture. Abloh added that trying to brainstorm ideas in a meeting among employees is "a mistake." Based his conversations with different people in various cities, Abloh came up with the phrase called "influencer gulfstream," a term to describe this "finite commonality that didn't necessarily exist [before] between cities that had identities."

When asked by Carvalho about the Instagram tease of the iconic blue Frakta bag's redesign in June, Abloh shared that it came together after he "saw the bag and they have this waterproof paper and my vision of this classic Ikea bag was like, 'Let me see this in another material,' so I can gain another level of appreciation. Using my vocabulary can get a different emotion out of something that you've already seen. Being at Ikea, before we can even have a proper meeting, I was figuratively trying to make something so that we knew my design aesthetic."

While little is known about what will be part of the collaboration, there will hints posted along the way on Instagram.

"I made it part of my ethos to show the kids before the end products," said Abloh. "Products don't come from a microwave. They come from collaboration. If you're following Instagram, you're seeing the errors, but then you see the end product later, you get an appreciation that starts after the marketing campaign." Most also noted that it's less about hype and more about "making a difference for young adults."

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