Design Dialogues No. 31

Designers Virgil Abloh and Heron Preston joined fashion editor Courtney Kenefick to discuss the origins of their projects and the future of young creatives.

Surface hosted Design Dialogues No. 31 at the Faena Art Dome in Miami Beach on Wednesday, Nov. 30. Fashion editor Courtney Kenefick moderated a discussion with the multidisciplinary designers—and longtime friends and collaborators—Heron Preston and Virgil Abloh during Miami Art Week.

Preston discussed the origin of his project with the New York City Department of Sanitation. “As a designer, I always have these little kid ideas, like redesigning uniforms for an agency,” he said. Combined with his concern for the environment, DSNY was the perfect collaborator, resulting in  an unlikely collection of environmentally conscious streetwear that debuted earlier this year. His process, he mentioned, always involves tracing threads through disparate ideas such as connecting fashion with city garbage collecting. “Getting to tell a really good story is where it all starts,” he said.

Citing Preston’s work with DSNY, Abloh touched on the importance of incubating young designers. “These creative ideas actually make the world a better place,” he said. “They represent young, contemporary thought.” When asked whether he risks losing focus while juggling multiple endeavors—including his fashion brand Off-White, his project at Design Miami, and his 22 forthcoming projects for 2017—Abloh stated that having his hands on many things at once is essential to his process. “If you’re an artist, you should also DJ or do clothing,” he said. “My idea for creativity is to do the most at the same time. One thing inspires another.”

Courtney Kenefick: We’re here today with Virgil Abloh. He is many things. He’s a trained architect, a DJ, Kanye’s West’s creative director, and, of course, a designer for his label, Off White. We’ve also got Heron Preston. Another amazing designer, DJ, and artist. These guys are not strangers to each other; they’ve known each other for a while and are long time collaborators. What I think is interesting about your story is that you met kind of on the internet.

Virgil Abloh: Yeah.

Kenefick: And you were doing some blogging about the downtown Manhattan scene.

Heron Preston: Right. Yeah, that’s how we met: blogging. Web 2.0. I had just moved to New York from San Francisco and had learned how to make website. I would design them on Photoshop and literally they were images—cut out images—and that was the website. But then I eventually learned html. So when I got to New York, I was like, “Man, I’ve got to get a blog.” I had a camera and I was like, “Let me show my friends back home in San Francisco what my life is like,” because I was meeting a lot of really interesting people. I was like, “Let me open up the window to my life.” And then through my connections and my relationships, Virgil and I just—I’m not sure how we …

Abloh: The best thing about that early wave of the internet is that it was literally hidden storytelling—not things like storytelling to his friends in San Francisco while I was in Chicago, like living in New York through his blog. It was basically an early version of social media, but it was so handmade that I was like, “I feel like I know this kid,” but I had obviously never met him. And then, as people are familiar in New York, when La Esquina opened up (I think you worked there), but I went there with some other friends and I was walking down the stairs while he was coming up and I was like, “Yo, Heron, what up?”

Preston: I had never met Virgil in person so we just recognized each other from pictures online and we kind of did like a double take. I was like, “Wait, what? Virgil?” And that was the first time. I was a runner at La Esquina in the restaurant, the Mexican restaurant, in the kitchen and I was waiting for the chef—it was like my first college job—I was waiting for the chef to give me plates. So I was just standing in the kitchen. In order to get to the restaurant you had to go through the kitchen and so that’s how—tif you had gone the other way, we probably wouldn’t have met.

Abloh: We wouldn’t be on this stage right now if it wasn’t for big city New York restaurants that think they’re super cool.

Kenefick: It’s kind of like a modern internet romance. I wanted to talk to you about how the internet has changed since you guys first got your start. Virgil, one of the things you were saying earlier is how you try to find young talent and how there’s not enough young people who are designers. Has the internet helped you with that at all?

Abloh: I think the most profound thing about the internet now is basically, it’s your résumé. It’s also your avatar, your persona. It’s like, whatever you’re into is what you put as your internet profile. It’s a good and a bad tool, but the good thing is that you can see people’s talent. Half the people that I work with are people that have intriguing things that they put out on their social media and I see it more often than not and I’m like, “Let’s work together, let’s do something.”

Kenefick: Do you find that this kind of inclusive internet, and being kids of the post-internet saga, do you find that there’s pressure to be multidisciplinary? Because you guys both have your hands in so many different projects. Do you find that intimidating?

Preston: I don’t think there’s necessarily pressure. It just defines the now. This is just what is at our fingertips to be creative and to express. There are so many more opportunities and so many more platforms where kids can create. You can be a photographer, you can be a DJ, you can start a band, you can start a clothing company, you can do whatever you want. That is the new definition. I don’t think kids really want to get jobs these days because they can just do it on their own. They can figure out how to make money on their own.

Kenefick: Heron, one thing that I think is interesting about you, is when you worked with Nike, that kind of came from a cold call. Do you think that being in the dark about the industry, and how your not being aware of what the consequence can be, has driven your career?

Preston: Wait, ask that again? Sorry, my energy levels are very low right now.

Kenefick: Do you think that being kind of oblivious in regards to the realities of business and designing helped you to launch your name and your career?

Preston: Yeah, I think it was just all about writing new rules, creating your own path right to the future. That’s basically I guess how I got to where I’m at today. It’s just been like a “fuck it” mentality. I’m just going to try it, I’m just going to do it. I’m very experimental and I just don’t like to take “no.” It’s just like there’s puzzle pieces and I’m putting them in place.

Kenefick: Virgil, I know that you are constantly trying to emulate what culture is today through your work. So can you talk about that a little bit, please?

Abloh: You know, it’s ironic we’re doing the Surface magazine talk. There’s a lot of kids that create, but then I feel like if you never see this sort of approval in a magazine, or if you never see it from outside your peers, then you question if it’s credible or not. I think the social stratosphere of creatives, like Heron and I or Corey Black, represents that we’re just kids that study and then create things and we’re lucky if we have an outlet to get them out to more people than our friends. Me, my whole thing is I went—obviously, working with Kanye or working with friends is how I got to where I’m at. My position is to open up doors for more kids of the social stratosphere to get there work outside of just their insular [group of] friends who think it’s cool. I think it’s the most important work that’s happening is this role of the creative director that works with closely with culture. My motivation is that it might not end up in the magazine or it might not end up in Art Basel. We might be just doing parties, which we’re fine with, but I think this is the highest level of contemporary thought and creative design and it should be in magazines. It should be written up in an intellectual way.

Kenefick: Heron, what’s your take on expressing culture through your work?

Preston: For me, it’s all about storytelling. Getting excited to tell a really cool story, that’s kind of where it starts. It’s kind of like an emotional connection for me. I really want people to feel it get under their skin, the stories that I tell. I think I put myself in the shoes of people I’m telling stories to. I’m like, “What’s going to get you excited? What’s going to get me excited?” It starts there. That’s where something like the public sanitation project comes from. Because it was a very overlooked idea of fashion and art colliding with the Department of Sanitation on a mass level. For me, it was doing something that was super unpredictable and unleashing those stories. I don’t really want to do something absolutely predictable. I feel like that’s an easy way out. So I’m just going to challenge myself to really awesome interesting stories by bringing different things together that normally aren’t together.

Kenefick: For the Department of Sanitation, can you explain how that came together and why that felt like a good fit for you?

Preston: I think I was just really frustrated with work. I was at Nike at the time, and they weren’t letting me get my ideas out. I was just on the receiving end of executing terrible ideas that I didn’t believe in and I was like, “Fuck this. I’m leaving. I want out.” So I asked a friend of mine, “What should I do?” And he asked, “Well, are you interested in applying art and fashion to art and fashion or are you interested in applying art and fashion to wicked issues?” When he asked me that question, I was like, “Wow, that’s an interesting challenge. I do care about wicked issues; I know I do, but I don’t really know what those issues are.” That question kind of plagued me for two years. I was interested in trying to figure out how I can incorporate what I care about into my work. I always wanted to do that. In my thirties, I wanted to be more responsible. I was in Ibiza and I was swimming in the ocean and this garbage brushed up on my arm in the ocean and I was like, “This is fucking whack,” and I had this epiphany. This moment where I was like, “That’s what I care about. I hate littering.” That’s what I want to get behind: cleaning up beaches and the environment. As a designer, I always have these little kid ideas like redesigning uniforms for an agency. So that’s when it hit me, I was like, “Holy shit. The Department of Sanitation is a uniformed force that cares about the same stuff that I do. Right when I got back to New York, I started researching them and found out they had an anthropologist in-house. An anthropologist named Robin Nagle who was doing a talk at the New York Museum uptown. I went to her talk, to learn about the department. I was really curious if they had ever done anything creative or artistic before. I had this idea of doing a t-shirt and that’s as far as the idea had gotten at the point. So I was like, “If I can push them with a t-shirt collab idea, using all vintage t-shirts and second hand clothing, would they even get it?” So I went to the talk and learned that they actually had an artist in residency through the presentation of Robin’s talk. I was like, “Wow, I need to meet Mierle Ukeles–her name’s Mierle Ukeles. Right when I knew about Mierle’s work, that kind of accelerated my dream to really pursue the Department of Sanitation. I was like, “Man, they’ve already done amazing art projects. Mierle did a project called “Touch Sanitation” where she shook the hands of every single sanitation worker in New York City in ’79, early ’80s. It took her almost one year to do that. As she shook their hand, she said, “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.” I was like, “Mierle needs to hear this idea; she’s the only one in the department who would understand it.” So I emailed Robin and was like, “I have this good idea.” I laid it out, I had the whole plan, and I was like, “Would this interest Mierle.” And Robin was like, “Sorry, no.” She was protecting her because I was cold calling. She’s like, “Who is this dude who wants to get in touch with Mierle?” So she was basically like, “No.” I put the dream on the life shelf of to-do’s, but I kind of stopped pursuing it because I was like, “How do I get in touch with someone?” Fast forward a year later, I was at NADA art festival in New York and I only went to go check out the Know-Wave basketball tournament. As I went into NADA, I went into the bathroom and as I walk out of the bathroom I see this big presentation. There’s a panel of four or five women talking about their own art projects and literally the one slide that I saw was of Mierle and her “Touch Sanitation” project. It was at that moment the stars just aligned. I got super lucky. If I hadn’t gone to the bathroom, I probably wouldn’t have gotten in touch with Diya, who’s in the back right here. Diya was presenting Mierle’s work, so I approached Diya at the end and I was like, “I have this big idea. I’ve had it for like a year! Please let me just pitch it to you and put me in touch with someone at the department!” And that’s how it happened. Then she CC’d me to all the right people at the Department of Sanitation and I pitched it and that is kind of how I got in touch. That whole project was a collection that we collaborated on using all recycled, second hand clothing. It was an entirely up-cycled collection using donated sanitation worker uniforms because you can’t get those if you’re not a sanitation worker, and also donated t-shirts from the good women from Housing Works. Everything was recycled and screen printed with the Department of Sanitation ring and then we had—I’m talking so long.

Abloh: I think the theme of what Heron is saying, what my work is about also, is the impossibility of this younger generation to exist in this new world. We all have a loss. We have to pitch something. We’re not complaining because the difficulty makes the work better, but what I think this talk should represent, to anyone listening in on it, is that there’s a new generation of people that are immersed in culture. These creative ideas actually make the world a better place, or they represent young, contemporary thought. That’s already something that the Department of Sanitation needed that they didn’t know they needed. How would needs be brought up in this context? It’s because somebody had an idea and had to go through two hoops, but got it done. Could you imagine the amount of better ideas that have never been supported. That’s what I try to represent with my projects on a day-to-day. Like, “Hey, it’s always like nepotism,” because I feel like I’m not a boss. I had a boss; I know what that’s like. Could you imagine if that layer was removed and good ideas were able to come up?

Kenefick: Did you have a project that you pitched to somebody that they didn’t really believe in, like Heron did?

Abloh: Literally every day. I’m the king of the cold calls, the king of the emails. You use a project to pitch one to the next. That’s what being a creative director, I think, in the modern sense is. I’ve kind of gone overboard with it. I think I have 22 different projects coming out in 2017, but it’s like a modern way to work.

Kenefick: You said earlier that your process is, essentially, to just constantly create and make it happen. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Abloh: I think that, naturally, I grew up in a way that was like, “You can only do one thing.” Even in the art world, I’m still kicking the tires this week. If you’re an artist, you probably shouldn’t DJ and do clothing because in the yesteryear, it was hard for your brain to be like, “Wait, you do that and that? You suck.” You’re not an amazing artist if you’re a chef, or something like that. My idea for creativity is to do the most at the same time because one thing inspires another. I think a lot of it as a phone: I can have twelve conversations at one time, it’s different. You brain can design a t-shirt, it can pitch a presentation, you can do visuals in this dome. You can do a lot, and that’s what I think, the misconception is now that people are stuck in this mentality that you can only do one thing, nine-to-five, and you can’t have a side project.

Kenefick: It’s like, with the technology we have today, we’re not programmed to do one thing. So, how do you guys bridge that gap and how do you appear serious in so many different realms. Especially Virgil, I know you’re active in Miami, so that’s a new thing.

Abloh: I’m just kicking tires. I literally don’t know what I’m doing. I’m just having fun with it, you know? Just trying to do things. Its like what Heron said about actualizing ideas.

Preston: How do I stay serious across multiple disciplines? Get taken seriously? You just have to take yourself seriously and you have to execute at a high enough level where people will take you seriously and just know your shit. And really believe in it, really really believe in it. And get the message out as clear as possible. That’s one thing I kind of noticed is that if no one really gets your idea, then they don’t take it seriously and it just kind of flops. I think it’s also, again, writing the future. This is the future. We can do whatever we want across all disciplines, across all platforms. It’s literally grabbing culture by the hand and and walking it into this new world. This is the new serious. This is now, so take it seriously because this is really happening.

Kenefick: I think that HPC Trading Co. kind of rewrites those rules—especially with fashion because you’re not going by a calendar at all. It’s kind of limited edition, it goes up when it goes up. You also have art projects that you sell, so can you talk about that more?

Preston: Yeah. I was like, “Well, I have more ideas beyond a t-shirt. Why do I have to just make a t-shirt?” I have way more ideas. I have an idea for a table; I have an idea for a sculpture; I have ideas of cutting up shoes and sewing them back together and making a Frankenstein brand out of that shoe. Rewriting the rules. I was like, “Man, every website I go to is super cookie cutter and it looks boring.” I’m just like, “Let me do something that’s different for the sake of just pushing something forward and experimenting again.” That’s where I find a very special place in my creative process: just trying stuff. I think Steve Jobs (or Google) spoke about trying a million different ideas—like building an elevator to space—and if it fails, it fails, but if it works, then that’s like a huge breakthrough. That’s kind of how I also approach my work. That’s HPC Trading Co. That little manifesto? That was my thinking.

Kenefick: Have you guys had any experiments that failed?

Preston: Yeah, all the time. That’s the beauty of just having guts. You’ve got to have some stuff and just try stuff. Who cares if someone laughs at you and calls you a failure? They’re not the ones putting themselves out there. It really takes a lot of confidence to put yourself out there. We’re up here on the stage talking and I’m slightly hungover and I still came. I’m not hungovermy energy levels are really low. That’s why I have these glasses and try to come off really cool. Just this barrier; I feel safe. But yeah, you have to just do it. Guts.

Abloh: Failure. Huh. I want to start with this whole intellectualizing “Been Trill” thing, which– no, maybe not. We’ll save it for a book or documentary later. This project that we had called “Been Trill” was it a failure? Was it the dawn of a new idea/ troll inside joke. That’s something that we want to figure out at a later time. I think it’s the beauty of our current generation. It was explained to me by Peter TK, who is a mentor in a design space—he basically gave me this idea that it’s all generational. Imagine your parents and their ideas in our current time and culture and politics and then imagine us and then imagine the generation below us. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom that our world has. If you’re in your twenties or thirties, the idea of failure is different if you were your parents standards. Then imagine the kids younger from millennials to super responsible people in the art world. Go to the art fair, it’s huge. My thing is like, “How come there’s no one in their twenties or in their early thirties exhibiting work?” To me it’s like really expensive things that are from a generation above. So you have to fail to make good things.

Kenefick: Do you think there is a way to get more people from our generation to be present in the design world?

Abloh: To me, it’s the biggest piece of culture equity in this current context is cosign. That’s why I keep bringing up the magazine. There should be an issue of Surface that’s like no one over 26, and fill it up with content. That’s a form of cosign. What Heron is doing is independent. We’re lucky enough to have a stage to talk about it, but it’s all work to get to this point where people listen. But we’re not special either. There’s tons of kids in tons of cities that are doing locally relevant things, but unless it’s heard about as a cosign with some form of credibility, it just disappears and doesn’t get put on a pedestal. That’s a distinct thing that I realized. Having my platform, the idea is to share it and to co-sign things like, “Hey, this talk will be with Heron because people should hear the thought that goes behind things that seem “cool.”

Kenefick: Would you help us co-edit the under 26 issue?

Abloh: Yes.

Preston: Yeah.

Kenefick: We’ll see you next year then. To wrap things up, I’m going to ask you one more question: Heron, last night on Instagram you said that you and Virgil have been wanting to do a talk together for awhile and that you’ve dreamed of doing TED Talk. If you guys did have the opportunity to do a TED Talk, what would the topic be?

Preston: Tequila? [Laughs] People wanted to hear our stories. Again, it goes back to storytelling, just sharing cool stories. People just need to hear how we got to where we got and what we had to do to get to where we are. It goes back to inspiring people who look up to us and inspiring youth who are looking for codes and who want to be like us. Let’s share some stories. We do a lot of parties, but we were thinking we’ve got to do something on a more intellectual level—bring people together and just story tell. I think the first topic was just talking about our own various projects. This is kind of the beginning of that thinking. What would the topic be, Virgil?

Abloh: It’s such a new idea. We’ve dedicated ourselves to loud music and alcohol because that’s fun. That’s when culture happens at night—it rarely happens during the day. First phase is getting people in a room to talk. What I want is to break through that and get to critical discourse. If you study how people critique art, as in, what makes it good? After the kum-ba-yah talks, and everything is great, and the storytelling, it’s like, “Why does this suck?” Obviously, there’s whatever political landscape, but then you realize that people have opinions. In the modern context, don’t vocalize your opinions and just be chill, but in terms of the art space imagine if we were doing talks based around what art critics used to do or fashion critics. That’s a whole thing that disappeared so that art and fashion are different. It’s commercial when I think what made art that we love were the gatekeepers that kept it in a box. I think that if we were to do something like that, I would try to make it critical and credible. We’re both streetwear kids: print on a t-shirt, make a brand that goes out and makes us have a persona. Like I said, I worry that streetwear is going to be like disco. Disco was cool, it was jazzy, you could imagine the vibe, but the whole genre aged poorly. I think “streetwear” is now a cheap term. It could be cheap unless it was intellectualized and broken down into ages or someone who has a background to break down this way of thinking. His story isn’t that different than mine. My story is just streetwear. Streetwear isn’t just t-shirts, it’s a way of thinking; it’s a way of pitching your boss; it’s a way of drinking tequila. It’s a thing. So that’s what I want to do and that’s why I’m going to continue to use my platform to make what we do not seem like just rambunctious kids that have a microphone, that we’re actually doing something that is adding to culture.

Kenefick: On streetwear I’ve seen a lot of different iterations and you guys are part of the crew who is defining where it’s at now, so how would you explain where streetwear is now?

Preston: I think it’s at a point where everyone is fishing for ideas. What’s the next thing within this culture? For me, it’s about going in a more sophisticated direction, a more premium execution, and a cross-collaboration between cultures. I think what was really special with the DSNY project was at the event it wasn’t just young cool kids, there were Department of Sanitation sani-workers. The one feat at the event (besides, “oh it was awesome”) was, “Man, I didn’t expect sanitation workers to really be there.” Just to see a photo with a model and a sanitation worker. That was what I did it for: the sani-workers and bringing people together. You know you go to a fashion event and it’s all the same stuff, the same people, the same music. It’s like, “Alright, wanna go get some drinks and go to the next one?” Bringing different people together to bounce energy off of, that creates a new experience. I think that I’m trying to aim this culture in that direction.

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Design Dialogues No. 31
Design Dialogues No. 31

Courtney Kenefick, Virgil Abloh, Heron Preston
Design Dialogues No. 31

Larry Ossei-Mensah
Design Dialogues No. 31

Design Dialogues No. 31

Ben Jones, Marc Lotenberg
Design Dialogues No. 31

Virgil Abloh
Design Dialogues No. 31

Heron Preston
Design Dialogues No. 31

Emily Moqtader, Elizabeth Duggal
Design Dialogues No. 31

Nate Rosenfield, Andy Faerman
Design Dialogues No. 31

Heron Preston, Virgil Abloh, Courtney Kenefick

Watch the video of the conversation here. Find out what else Surface has planned during Art Basel Miami Beach here.  

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