Editor at Vogue Magazine Jonathan Van Meter shares his Memories of Virgil Abloh

A recall of their long phone calls, mutual love for Vibe Magazine and hours spent hanging out backstage and at Abloh’s atelier.


Backstage at the Off-White show in Paris, March 2019. Photographed by
          Jonathan Van Meter.
Backstage at the Off-White show in Paris, March 2019. Photographed by Jonathan Van Meter.

In high school, we are all confronted with the tension of who we want to be when we grow up. What do we want to do when we leave school? And the truth is, as a kid you only know what you are around. Sometimes you may know what you want to do but your culture is not accepted in it, or there is always that pressure from your peers.

I had the privilege to grow up with art around me, so it was natural for me to have a desire to pursue art. When the question arose of what I wanted to do when I grew up?

I answered, “Art”.

“Why would you want to surround yourself with those boring museums?” responded the kid wearing Virgil Abloh’s Off-White Caravaggio hoodie….

This was the moment I realised that Abloh’s streetwear brand Off-White opened a space for young adults to indulge in art history without feeling out of place. There is something in the fashion collections that unconsciously invites new audiences to explore art and design. So, I undertook a journey into exploring Abloh’s commercialisation of the arts for diversification.

Stumbling across Jonathan Van Meter’s article in the Vogue May 2019 edition, he described Abloh as someone who is “actually rewriting rules, and kids look up to it”. Captivated by the descriptions of his shared moments with Virgil Abloh during the rise of the Off-White brand, I knew there was no one better to recall Abloh’s artistic practice.

Set in the mid-air of cold December with the power of Zoom, Jonathan Van Meter took me through his memories of the dear Virgil Abloh…

What made you want to write about Virgil Abloh and what was your encounter like with Virgil?

Jonathan Van Meter: So, Anna Wintour asked me if I wanted to write about him and I said yes immediately because I had interviewed him on the phone about Kendall Jenner and I was so struck by it. Usually, you know when you do phone interviews with people about a subject and you are on the phone with them for ten or fifteen minutes but with him, we just talked and talked. He had so much to say, and I could just see that his mind was just ripe and that he thinks so deeply about so many things that most people don’t bother to think about. So, when Vogue asked me to write about him, I said yes right away.

I went to Paris… he was preparing a collection for Off-White, and we spent a lot of time hanging out at his atelier and also at Louis Vuitton. I hung out with him backstage whilst he was getting ready to do the show for Off-White and then I went to Chicago a few months later and spent some time with him in his hometown. We had an intense connection. I have been writing profiles for people for 30 years and I often connect really well with people, but this was sort of different.

I had been the founding editor-in-chief of Vibe Magazine and he as a young person had been obsessively reading Vibe Magazine in the ‘90s and we discovered this amazing connection in that department. We could have talked for hours. He takes the time to explain himself and he has complicated ideas about things, and we were surrounded by art and furniture and fashion at the highest level in Paris. And just seeing him kicking around with his crew at Louis Vuitton was fascinating and elevating. It felt like I was watching someone master like a three-way circus basically mastering so many things at the same time.

Backstage at the Off-White show in Paris, March 2019. Photographed by
          Jonathan Van Meter.
Backstage at the Off-White show in Paris, March 2019. Photographed by Jonathan Van Meter.

Would you say he was different from other fashion designers you encountered in the past?

Most fashion designers do not study architecture and go to college for all those years. He stands out as an academic. He has an academic way of approaching everything. I think of him as a multipotentialite, a person who is capable of doing anything. He could be an architect, he is an amazing marketer, an artist, he makes furniture, he could be an academic professor. You just had the sense that he had the potential to be anything. A DJ. That’s what set him apart from any other fashion designer I ever met.

Do you see Virgil Abloh as an artist?

He almost starts his designs from a different place. Unlike some designers who create a mood board of different fabrics, colours, and feelings. It feels like it comes from a different point of view, a different source, a different place. I see it as the architect in him. The way you would go about designing a great big modern building is to look at the environment around the building and see what fits into that physical urban space. That’s how I saw it. Tweaking with objects that we are familiar with and turning them into something completely different. Like the luggage tags, taking mundane objects and elevating them and recontextualising objects. That to me, is something that artists do.

In a sense, his practice is an appropriation of art for a positive cause in creating access to art…

Yeah, it’s sort of. I remember once seeing this piece of art called Slab. This was like fifteen years ago and my husband is an art person, and I would sometimes laugh at the art stuff we were seeing like “What!?” It was a giant slab of concrete, and it was elevated just off the floor. And it was beautiful, but it looked like a patio!

*We share a laugh*

Andy said to me “The artist is asking you to consider it in a different way and to think about its environment.” So, I have always carried that around with me whenever I get a little eye-rolly about certain modern art. And I remember having that thought with Virgil, he is asking you to reconsider this idea, this thing, this object. To look at it with new eyes.

100%. I particularly liked when you wrote “he is rewriting the rules and many kids look up to it”. Do you think the commercial element helped to attract the youth? But did this not commercialise the museum?

The way I can answer that is that when I was in Paris spending time with Virgil I also hung out one day with an American student living in Paris.

One of my best friends is a lawyer and her daughter had just enrolled into university in Paris and she was 19 at the time. We wandered around Paris and had fun and she was obsessed with Virgil Abloh and all her friends were. And I was surprised by that, a group of college-age men and women were fabulous enough to be in Paris, but they were aware of everything he did. I was really surprised by that. It made me think he is actually getting through to young people. There is something between the combination of the brand and the streetwear aspect and the elevation.19-year-olds don’t care about high fashion.They are so hyper-focused on their little worlds and for him to have cracked through into their world of interest, that spoke to me.

Exactly. That’s what I’m trying to establish. His brand attracted young generations to go into the museums breaking away from the negative stereotypes.But I wonder if he would have had the same voice authority if he was not a luxury brand. In a way, the high price point enabled him to enter the conversation.

Well, Louis Vuitton took it to a new level. But I would be so curious to know, with the curator at the Chicago Museum, who attended and what was the attendance like.

I have spoken to Michael Darling; he was the curator of the Chicago exhibition, and he said the exhibition opened the door to new audiences that previously did not attend the museum. And as long as they were coming in through the door, that is what mattered because it was opening the idea of art.

I think it is rare what he did-to cross these worlds, to bring young black urban kids into Chicago into a fancy museum.That is hard to pull off-and rare. You can’t just decide you want to be that and make that happen. It has to be in you. It was in his nature.

In your conversations with Abloh, did he mention what his overall vision was with the Off-White brand?

The thing that does stick with me is him talking about wanting to reach people who were not necessarily natural buyers or participants in such a brand.

Indeed, I think the way he planned everything was to reach a new audience and I like when you mentioned in your Vogue article that it is an empowered brand. However, there are some critics of Virgil’s work regarding the trademark, reproductions, and the copyright associations with it and so I wondered what you would say to those who criticise him for stealing ideas and appropriating other artists’ work.

I always thought that criticism about him fell flat for me. Everything is synthesized references. Every song, every TV show. You know I was watching some TV show the other day and I was like, “Wow this is like literally a scene right out of a movie that I saw recently that is like from thirty years ago. It just feels like borrowing is the coin of the realm now.”

I think it is common language especially because artworks such as the Mona Lisa don’t have any copyright protection so you can’t really criticise him for that.

I also thought there was something punk rock and brave about going right up to the edge and stealing and seeing how far you could push it. As a person writing a book right now and looking at all these sources that are laying on my desk, I have scribbled on everything. I’m stealing all this stuff and it feels like that is what art is now.

I mean he came up with the 3% rule, in which he said if you change 3% of the design, it is technically a new design.

I mean yeah, I was writing a few paragraphs that were a mash-up of these two different books that I have and discuss the same story. There is this one story that I wanted to tell and so I compared them and reread them three times and then I let it sink in overnight. Then I wrote my own new version of the combination of those two versions of the same story. I found myself borrowing a couple of terms and phrases. And it’s the same thing, the same gist.

Indeed, it happens everywhere. I just think it’s a common language now. Some people I have been talking to have said they think all that criticism was just a racist attack on him.

One thing that I found remarkable about him was that he really resisted everything turning into a discussion about race. He really did not default to accusations of racism very easily he had to be convinced of that.

I mean those comments about him becoming the first black director of Louis Vuitton that wasn’t all down to race. It was all credit to his work and designs and the build-up to it.

Yeah, and you know Louis Vuitton they did need to diversify. They picked the right guy though. If they were going to hire someone because they were black, if that was one of the motivations, at least they made the right call.

Do you know how that selection process went about and who the other candidates were?

I just remember the whole sort of Kayne Virgil vibe that was taking over Paris and beginning to change Paris fashion. They were behind, and they had to catch up.

And the whole hype beast circulation at the time.

His work almost feels like an archival documentation of his work throughout his life. 

For sure that is a good way to look at it. A good word for it.

It is visible that Abloh brought so much positivity to those around him and opened the art doors to many outsiders.

In loving memory of Virgil Abloh.

Interview for this story was conducted on 15, Dec 2022. With gratitude to Jonathan van Meter.

Link to Jonathan Van Meter’s article: