An Inside Look at ‘ICONS’: Virgil Abloh Speaks About His New Nike Book
SNKRS Live, a feature of the SNKRS app developed by Nike, held an exclusive event discussing the collaborative work within
SNKRS Live, a feature of the SNKRS app developed by Nike, held an exclusive event discussing the collaborative work within “ICONS: Something’s Off.” Hosted by artist and photographer Shaniqwa Jarvis, thought processes were discussed with designer and author Virgil Abloh, historian Glenn Adamson, and creative director Zak Kyes. A sneakerhead at heart, Abloh shared his reimagining of fashion through dynamic sneaker culture.
Virgil Abloh is an American designer/entrepreneur and architect. He has been the artistic designer of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection (we wrote an article about it here) since March 2018. He also founded Milan-based label Off-White in 2012 and remains the chief executive officer. Abloh is the first African American artistic director at a French luxury fashion house. He also made the Time magazine ‘100 Most Influential People in the World’ list in 2018.
Glenn Adamson is an author and historian whose focus is primarily on the intersections of designs and art. He carries the title of editor, head researcher and curator at various establishments. Zak Kyes is a creative director who works on digital projects and design platforms with collaborators. Shaniqwa Jarvis is an accomplished photographer who has advertised campaigns for NIKE, Adidas, and Supreme.
What is “ICONS”?
Published by TASCHEN, known for their striking art book designs, “ICONS: Something’s Off” is, at first glance, captivating. Its visual features make the type of first impression that lives in your head rent-free—but we’re not complaining. With its Billie Eilish-green cover and whopping 352 pages, this book is half lexicon, half modern museum. An entryway into sneaker culture, “ICONS” includes prototypes, texts between Abloh and Nike designers and even some archives.
“I teamed up with TASCHEN to publish a book titled ‘ICONS: Something’s Off’ that does exactly what Instagram captions can’t do,” Abloh said. To Abloh, the fine line between sneaker culture and high fashion is blurred. Embodying “the Ten,’’ it includes the artist’s 10 analyses and reinventions of Nike sneaker icons. Some of these shoes are the Air Jordan 1, Air Max 90, Air Force 1, and Air Presto, to name a few of the greats.
What is the purpose of “ICONS”?
Even if you aren’t a sneakerhead, you can’t underestimate the rapid rise of sneaker culture in our society. Even with that said, sneakers in fashion have always been up for debate on where they stand. Jarvis asked why Abloh decided to make this book, and why now? Abloh’s response: “Sneakers have ascended to a pedestal in our society that takes logic to be displayed. This book kills a million birds with one stone. I don’t think of these things as sneakers—I look at them as cultural objects, each one of them having their own meaning.”
Abloh discusses how growing up as a kid in Southside Chicago as a sneaker fan, he never imagined being a producer since he was a consumer. But that reality changed, and he wanted to make that apparent in his book.
What’s more, Abloh said the purpose of this book is to show how sneakers present themselves culturally. He went on to relay the point of how this object relates to black culture. Virgil explained, “I love these canons. The whole idea is to really scribe black design into putting them on the bookshelf. You don’t have a bookshelf with that many black designers with a different viewpoint that are looking at our perspective.” One goal being that this book finds a home in a multitude of households, Abloh hopes to inspire young creatives.
The ‘Swoosh’ sign that they put in the cover was actually the original 1971 Swoosh by Carolyn Davidson in the Nike archive. It’s fairly different from the one that we see now. That’s where the ‘Something’s Off’ subtitle comes from.
“A part of the biggest gesture of that whole story cycle is this: don’t judge a book by its cover,” says Abloh. On discussing how the Nike swoosh on the book cover is ‘different’ from how most people recognize it, Abloh dives into why that is. “The book is called ‘ICONS’ but what’s on the cover is, to me, a gesture in itself that ‘something is off.’ The swoosh itself looks like something is off but it’s like this off-kilterness. There’s a lot of nuance in something as simple as the title and cover, and that to me, enters the world as an output. It has to have those layers to it.”
Design in the Digital Space
Designs are most definitely becoming increasingly digital. Whether that’s thanks to COVID, or the art of archiving one’s work, it’s pretty much essential to every artist. With mass technology consuming our world, it can be especially challenging for artists. Putting their work out there is one thing, but for it to stand out amongst all the other noise is truly a challenge.
Striving to present something different, Abloh dives into his thought process. “I have to suggest something that’s not been done before,” Abloh reveals. “I was thinking wider scope, so I offered a treatment that could be applied to 10 shoes. I’m not designing the shoe, I’m designing the logic.”
Jarvis asks why the book was made in physical form and not just a zine or other online platform. This is when Kyes responds, “also why now, because 2020 is the year our lives moved completely online? For those that think of the death of the book, 2020 should really be the nail on that coffin. But not everything is online, and the physical objects still have power, and books are just that, I think.”
This type of thinking is ahead of its time as one can always produce different types of shoes, with one product only barely differing from its predecessor. But to completely reinvent a concept or an idea is what makes bigger, much more noticeable waves. Something that hasn’t really been done before is bound to capture people’s attention.
Adamson explains how medieval society was structured by religious foundations. He then mentions how in today’s society, we are far more secular than before, and we need something to fill that space. “It’s powerful human stuff, what it was for people thousands of years ago who built their faith in god,” Adamson continues. “And when a lot of us don’t have that, what do we put? We put speakers as an icon. It has to do with finding your way as a human in the world.”
Abloh rejects the idea of the name ‘streetwear.’ This isn’t because he doesn’t believe in it, or that he doesn’t believe there’s space for it. It’s because he doesn’t like that this name is a sort of reduction. He believes that you can’t reduce streetwear to a deduction. “It’s not one or the other,” Abloh explained. “It’s both. A purist knows everything—they can tell you any sneaker facts. But then you have the tourists who are like ‘show me the AF1,’ and both of them are valid. That space that they both occupy, makes the culture.”
When is the “ICONS” book release?
True to its form, ICONS will first appear in Black-owned retailers and bookstores as an early release. Then, as of official US release, it will be available as Friday January 22. You can get yourself a copy on Nike’s SNKRS app, Abloh’s own Off-white website, and even canary—yellow.com. On February 5, a wider release will be available on TASCHEN.com.