Virgil Abloh x Harvard: a “YouTube Video” That Redefined Design For Me

Virgil Abloh x Harvard: a “YouTube Video” That Redefined Design For Me

Posted by Shakeel Mohamed on May 03, 2018
Virgil Abloh x Harvard Design School

To anyone that knows me, it’s no secret that I’m a fan of Kanye West. I had no idea who Virgil Abloh was until I heard this line from I Am a God:

Virgil, Pyrex, Don C snapback

Over the years I heard Kanye name drop Virgil every once in a while but didn’t pay much attention to it. One day I was scrolling through YouTube and saw Virgil had done a guest lecture at Harvard. I had no idea what it was all about when I clicked on it, but this one video really changed something inside of me. I won’t bother recapping the lecture, it’s honestly not worth doing. Give yourself the gift of an hour and watch it below:

My main takeaway was how much damn intention Virgil puts into every — single — design — decision. I mean if we put 1% of the intention he puts into a t-shirt design into any area of our life, we would have a profoundly different experience. That sounds great in abstract terms, but I’ve got some practical examples from my life over the past 6 month to illustrate these points further.

After some time to reflect, I think what makes certain people fascinating is the ability to make the ordinary seem extraordinary. Or, by putting in an extraordinary amount of time and effort to become the best at what they do. Virgil does both. Traveling about 300 days a year to work on projects in multiple continents and being in constant communication with his design teams. Whether he’s working on a Nike sneaker collaboration, or a chair for Ikea — he finds a way to make something totally different that you’d expect.

After watching the lecture I immediately wrote this on a sticky note:

“If environment is so key, why am I not making the absolute most of what I have?”

I’ll have a separate blog posts talking all about this concept of environment, because that could easily be a 10+ minute read.

Before I go any further, let me apologize for the chaotic nature of my writing, this is about 4 different blog posts I’ve lumped into one. I’ve taken a very long break from writing and this has been very challenging for me.

Project OOTD

After I finished the lecture I remember thinking “Why don’t people put the same intention from their daily fashion as the rest of their lives?” Essentially, make the ordinary into extraordinary — the essence of street fashion.

I’d have to go back and watch the full lecture to see what exactly inspired this idea but, I wanted to bring even more intention to the clothes I wear. So I started sharing my OOTD (outfit of the day) on my Instagram story and felt really good about experimenting with different outfits. Most people only wear about 20% of their closet, so there must be some interesting outfits I can put together with what I already have.

Before I went to sleep that night I picked some items from my closet that I hadn’t worn in a while, and definitely not together. I remembered I had a pair of Shaq Attaq sneakers I hadn’t worn in over a year because I thought “big shoes are out of style right now” (see the first photo of me below). I was really thinking about the current state of fashion and how you can get away with wearing just about anything if you “own in” (put intention behind it). I decided to wear those the next day. What else? Oh yeah, I can wear my light wash jeans and… a gray crewneck sweatshirt! Since then I’ve had a few days like this where I’m totally inspired by the idea of visualizing an outfit made of items I already own. I didn’t manage to get a picture that day, but it was G L O R I O U S.

Personally, I think the Balenciaga Triple S is hideous, but maybe that’s the point.

That outfit had a very 90’s vibe, something I was terrified of for so many years since that was the style many adults were wearing when I was growing up. I must’ve realized the 90’s were coming back in style with the dad hat trend, and sure enough they have (especially in streetwear). For example chunky shoes are now super in, for better or for worse.

Other fashion experiments I had fun with are:

  • Wearing flannels unbuttoned over just about anything
  • Reverse layering by wearing longer t-shirts under outer layers
  • Buying some interesting pieces (camo H&M hoodie, Yeezy 350 v2s)
  • Growing my hair to the longest it’s ever been!

Let’s take a quick recap at some OOTDs along the way. I think the best part about this was being able to change my style without having to spend a lot of money (aside from a certain sneaker purchase 😏).

Photo credits to Hannah & Ruji.
Photo credits to Hannah & Ruji.

A huge realization I had during this process was understanding that people generally didn’t care what I wore. It seemed the more “extreme” an outfit felt to me (see the blue-flannel photo above on the left), I received less comments of any variety. I now feel really good wearing outfits that were outside of comfort zone. I’ve still got a long way to go on this fashion experience and I’m excited to see what’s next!

The Converse-sation Chuck Taylors

I was a fan of white low-top chucks (short for Chuck Taylors) for so long, I finally bought a pair in 2016 and wore them almost every day. It’s such a versatile sneaker and it looks great even when it’s dirty (which is inevitable with white sneakers and the amount of rain we get in Seattle). After a year and half they were starting to hurt my feet so I stopped wearing them but, I hadn’t gotten rid of them yet.

A few days after watching the lecture, I thought about doing something interesting with those shoes. Virgil makes heavy use of sharpies and adding short phrases to add depth of meaning to finish of a design, so I thought I’d do something like that. After all, Sharpies will work great on canvas. But first, I had to clean them. It took me a good hour to clean each shoe by hand, and several days for them to dry. That was definitely a labor of love.

I took visual notes using Preview

One of the key steps in any design process is mocking up any physical products before making any irreversible changes. Since Nike bought Converse a few years back, they’re brought some Converse products to NikeID to allow anyone to customize them. I’m a pretty crafty guy, so I was able to use NikeID as a tool to make something close to what I was going for with this project. I took some digital notes using the Preview app and had something like the above before starting.

Before. Cleaned. First word after new laces.

My main inspiration for this project were the Kswiss Garyvee 001 & 002 collaboration with Gary Vaynerchuk. Beyond that, I just wanted to add powerful words to a pair of sneakers that went everywhere with me for so long. Both shoes have a unique set of words on either side, the outer sides have more external words (visible to others) and the inner sides have more internal/spiritual words (mostly visible to the wearer).

Pictures taken late at night.
Here’s a more readable one!

The Future

As you can see, my creative side has come out quite a bit in the past few months and I’ve really enjoyed the process. Another thing Virgil Abloh made me reconsider was my music taste, I gave Lil Uzi Vert & Jaden Smith a chance and really like some of their stuff! Random note: this fortune cookie from several years ago was pretty spot on!

“You will find an outlet for your creative genius and accomplish a great deal.” — a fortune cookie that I taped above my desk a few years ago.

When I began drafting this blog post a few months ago, I was thinking “Oh, I can aim to design my first t-shirt in time for New York Fashion week Spring/Summer [around September 2018].” But I got impatient in February and started a brand called ntrsct (@ntrsct.designs on Instagram). Initially I wanted to be “cute” about it and just call it a design brand, but really my focus has been clothing so far and I’ve maintained that focus.

I think about ntrsct as “Clothing inspired by a love of the cultural intersection that made us who we are today.” The name is also an acronym: nerd thought revolution serving cultural truth. Initially I’m starting with print designs to validate the concept and run a Lean Startup however, my end goal is to get into proper cut & sew fashion. By the time you’re reading this I’ve probably already launched the website and am taking orders.

Yep, this was a pretty chaotic conclusion to a pretty chaotic blog post.

Now I’m done.

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