Virgil Abloh’s New Off-White x Air Jordan Design Language
The designer talks about Chicago and the new Off-White x Air Jordan V.
In 2017, Virgil Abloh did something that once seemed impossible. He not only released 10 collaboration versions of iconic Nike, Jordan and Converse sneakers, “The Ten,” but he also gave them a deconstructed aesthetic that has dominated sneaker trends ever since. That might seem like a tough run to follow, yet Virgil has always been committed to progression. “I had my half-made design language, like the previous Off-White x Air Jordan I, which was about deconstruction,” explains Virgil. “That’s a three-year-old idea that I’m not interested in anymore. That design language has evolved.”
What comes next, after a series of collaborative Nike Running, Tennis and Skateboarding-inspired product, is the new Off-White x Air Jordan V, a shoe re-designed with an ambitious approach — to redefine the idea of Nike Air itself. The move is partially nostalgic, a tie back to the first Air Jordan that Virgil ever owned, and that he convinced his parents to buy for him, the Black Metallic Air Jordan V. “My parents were like, ‘I don’t get it. What’s the big deal?’” remembers Virgil. “For me, it was like they came from a superhero. I was sleeping with the shoes in my bedroom, on the dresser, so I could see them when I woke up.”
Building on his personal memories with the shoe, Virgil was shown some market research about how much Nike Air means to consumers. “I’m still enamored by the idea of Nike Air,” he says. “Nike did a survey around the world, and in some places, people had the impression that Nike Air is more pure than actual air.” Virgil abstracted this idea with holes, which are present on the Off-White x AJV design and box (and the recent Off-White x Nike Dunk releases, as well). “I came up with this new language, which is having these holes through everything,” Virgil explains. “You know, the same air that’s outside is in the product. So that’s why there are holes in the box, too.”
“MJ was a man who became a superhero.”
Of course, there are layers beyond the vision of bridging Nike Air and outdoor air. Virgil’s new design language resonates with Jordan Brand’s distinct definition of air, particularly MJ’s one-of-a-kind way of flying through it. That legacy still drives Virgil to create. “During the ‘90s, I was the kid watching Jordan on TV, and I never thought I would be able to do one of his shoes, let alone add anything to them,” says Virgil. “MJ was a man who became a superhero. He was jumping from the free throw line, winning six championships, doing the impossible. In design, I feel like I’m at my best if I can almost mirror how impossible those tasks were.”
MJ and Virgil share an understanding of another type of air, the chill that blows through the Windy City. Though MJ’s story has spread worldwide, it continues to have a special place in the heart of Chicagoans. “I grew up in the Jordan era,” explains Virgil. “I would come downtown to meet my crew of friends, and we would learn by shopping. My dreams were like, ‘I want to make something that can go in this store.’” Virgil’s transit pass doubled as a passport to the world within Chicago. “I personally spent three years on that train, taking the blue and green lines to school and back,” he remembers. “These different train lines are literally different people, with different identities and points of view, all coexisting on the lifeline of the city. It makes the city what it is, and it’s the perfect metaphor for this bigger Jordan Chicago Collaborators’ Collection.”
The symbols of MJ, Nike Air and the all-encompassing train are equally about empowerment, something Virgil has applied to his sneakers through DIY details. MJ gave Virgil his metaphorical cape and permission to take flight. Now, Virgil is doing the same for anyone who dares to try the impossible next.
“Here’s the analogy,” he continues. “You could give a kid a bed sheet and tell them to fly. Or you could give them a replica of a superhero cape. They’re going to believe that they’re flying, even though, either way, it’s just fabric. That’s what Air Jordans are to me. Yes, they’re just shoes, but MJ was doing feats in them. If you give a pair of shoes to a kid, and tell them to jump from the free throw line, that’s their superhero cape. That’s what I love. It’s about believing.”
The full Jordan Chicago Collaborators’ Collection, including the Off-White x Air Jordan V, releases globally starting February 15.