Virgil Abloh’s Soccer Past Foreshadowed His Fashion Future

With Abloh’s artistic imagination, the work ethic he displayed as a high school soccer player later transferred to glitzier locales. More than a decade later, in 2009, Abloh and West were in Paris looking to kickstart their fashion careers as interns at Fendi. Padron, at that time shooting photos for Louis Vuitton, ran into the pair. Abloh wanted to learn about the process of fashion, his friend said, and even work with pattern makers. He was a college graduate and colleague of one of the world’s biggest recording artists, and yet he was fine doing grunt work. “Even with success,” Padron said, “he was willing to go backwards.”

“I would say that, in a way that’s almost beneath you to go work somewhere… to be able to do that [roughly] 10 years ago goes to show you your brain is programmed in a little bit different way,” Padron said.

Abloh’s dogged rise to global stardom—which included work on never-released brands from him and West—was fueled by the traits he showed as an adolescent. It’s no huge surprise, then, that his future designs would take cues from his soccer past.

In 2018, Abloh released his Nike x Off-White “Football, Mon Amour” collection, a tribute to his favorite sport ahead of that year’s World Cup. He wasn’t shy in touting his soccer bonafides in a video released that June for the collection.“We’re speaking the same language,” he said. “If you know Off-White, you know the game of football.”

While the Off-White kits in that collection were literally representative of Abloh’s playing days—they were all numbered with digits Abloh used to wear—his past also influenced his designs in more subtle ways.

Abloh came of age during a seminal era for sportswear. Big Nike swooshes and Adidas stripes were omnipresent, while Michael Jordan became a brand all by himself. Abloh (and Off-White) would go on to collaborate several times with Air Jordan, and his few soccer designs were never short on the kinds of big graphics seen throughout the era.

“I think that ’90s nostalgia has always kinda went through all of his fashion,” Padron said.

It’s understandable that Abloh, who grew up roughly 90 minutes from Chicago, would gravitate to Jordan for inspiration later in life. His early Pyrex designs were even marked with the Hall of Famer’s iconic #23. But there was plenty for the future designer to absorb on high school soccer fields across Illinois.

Eiss outfitted his Dorian soccer club players in loud red and white striped kits, with “candy-cane” socks rounding off the look—an approach to design language that wound up at the heart of Abloh’s work for Off-White. At Boylan, the team had a thing for Lotto cleats. According to Padron, the entire team wore the same black and green model; Abloh later designed a similar-looking Nike Dunk x Off-White collaboration.

And his “Football, Mon Amour” collection was far from his only foray into soccer. The same year, Abloh released an Off-White x Nike Mercurial Vapor 360 cleat and ran a “Soccer Jersey Culture” workshop at Art Basel in Miami months prior in 2017.

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