Lessons from Virgil.
Virgil Abloh is a master connector. He knows how all of the dots should be arranged in order for the picture to come out just right. I’ve been a critic, supporter, and fan of his work for some time. There are many lessons we can learn by taking a closer look at the career of the former artistic director for Kanye West’s Donda, and current men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton.
Know Your Position
In 2009, Virgil applied for and was offered an internship with Fendi. According to the then CEO, Michael Burke, he was paid just $500 a month. He didn’t receive any preferential treatment and did everything any intern would do. He was already very well established because of his connection to and work with Kanye, but knew he was an outsider in a field he knew very little about technically. He wasn’t afraid to dive fearlessly head first into something he knew would be an incredible amount of work, understood his position and knew what it would take to get to where he saw himself being. He wasn’t too big to humble himself. He wasn’t afraid to start from the “bottom” again to gain the knowledge to reach the next level. 6 years later he was appointed the men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton.
Lesson: There’s nothing wrong with resetting, rebooting, and retooling. Do whatever it takes to move your company to where it needs to be, even if you have to humble yourself and admit there is something you don’t know but need to learn more about.
“I was only interested in restraining myself, and only editing it 3 percent,” Virgil said about his collaborations during a lecture to students at Harvard Graduate School of Design. Collaborations with Ikea, Moncler, Levi’s, Fragment Design, Vans, Kith, Vlone, and a wildly successful Nike Collaboration titled “The Ten” later it seems his approach has paid multiple dividends. Too often people look to “leave their mark” on a project during a collaboration instead of doing what’s best for the project’s success. Virgil’s 3% approach pays respect to the original designers and technicians who have spent countless hours trying to present the best product possible to customers, while trying to look at things under a microscope to fix the 3% that could possibly make the whole product better.
Lesson: Sometimes it’s nothing massive that has to be done. Sometimes it’s the small details that will make the largest and most lasting impact.
Give It All Away
There’s a quote from Annie Dillard that goes, “one of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Don’t hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.” While Virgil isn’t a writer per say (he wrote for a blog called the Brilliance), he understands this sentiment. He broadcasts his professional life, lectures, shares thoughts and ideas freely on design and architecture, and explains many of his processes in great detail. Collaborating, for him, seems to feed his creative energy, not deplete it. He’s transparent with a purpose and is consistently using social media to “give it all away.” There is no magic behind what he does. No tricks of the trade. Just pure, honest hard work, passion, and love for what he does. He’s not concerned with running out of ideas. In fact, he’s afraid he won’t run out of them.
Lesson: Give it all away, hold nothing back. Don’t be afraid to be truly transparent. Authenticity will win you more brand favor and loyalty.
Consistency Creates Community
Virgil didn’t wake up one morning to find his Instagram followers sitting at a plump 2.6 million. Consumers that follow everything he does, who wait for everything he drops with bated breath, have been consistently and steadily added over years of posts and product launches. He spent years trying, failing, getting criticized, and triumphing publicly. He lived his life live on his social channels. Well, he curated how that experience was broadcast but posted consistently over time. He wasn’t worried about ROI because he knew the community he was building was worth much more than any short-term gain. It took years but that work has translated into anything he touches being sold out immediately and the resale value of those products being astronomical.
Lesson: Consistently create, post, and share original content over time to build a faithful community, without worrying about ROI.
The Youth Will Always Win
Virgil coined this phrase…and it’s true. The youth, especially more recently as their disposable income propels them into market takeovers, are the trendsetters, do-it-yourselfers, fearless bunch that continue to outdo themselves. Now more than ever, you see CEOs, CMOs, musicians, fashion designers, editors, creative directors, photographers, videographers, and entrepreneurs debunking the notion that you have to be a certain age or go a “traditional route” to make an impact. They don’t wait for anything. They just do, grab, make, and take what they want without asking for permission or acceptance. They are the ones who are, younger than any generation before them, building successful brands and filling important roles at some of the largest companies in the world.
Lesson: Embrace the energy and radical nature of the youth. Don’t look at them as rebellious kids who don’t know what they’re doing, but as the people who are shaping the landscape of future business