When Virgil Abloh was a boy, he’d head from Rockford to downtown Chicago, and visit the shops of Michigan Avenue, where all the biggest brands in the world had stores–a place he calls his “gateway to the world.”
This was long before he became creative director for Kanye West, brought street fashion to the runway with his label Off-White, created a giant receipt and “Keep off” rug for Ikea, redesigned the water bottle for Evian, and transcended to artistic director of Louis Vuitton.
Niketown was a highlight for anyone of his age at the time–a fact I can attest to being a Chicagoan of a similar age–as it was the temple to footwear during the peak of Jordan mania. There, sales associates didn’t run to the back to get your shoes to try on. Instead, they called in your size, and the kicks flew through a two-story, clear pneumatic tube to reach you. “That’s what made us today,” Abloh laughs to me. “Being able to con our parents into buying $120 shoes!”
More than two decades later, Abloh talks to me from the same block of Michigan Avenue as Niketown. Niketown has long since closed. But now he sits in another Nike store that he helped design. And for a creative who compares himself to a modern-day Marcel Duchamp, famous for using challenging, or even ironic air quotes on designs like a purse labeled a “sculpture” or “cash inside,” Abloh admits that it’s an almost uncharacteristically sincere project.
Called the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center, the space feels like being inside a giant Nike shoebox designed by Abloh himself. It features the self-aware, over-indexed print labeling that Abloh is known for. The Re-Creation Center sign itself has “for promotional use only” printed on top. The rest of the space’s irony is more subtle, or arguably nonexistent.
The space is meant to celebrate the idea of re-creation through sustainability and experiences–two of the biggest trends in retail today. And for the world traveler Abloh, who keeps a house in the city, it’s something of a coming home. The design for the Re-Creation store was completed nearly a year ago, but the opening was delayed to coincide with Abloh’s new exhibition at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art that’s happening right up the street.
The sustainability plays at the Re-Creation store are literally all around you. The walls are lined in shoebox paper. Those that aren’t are filled with flat bags of vibrant shoe parts are swept from the factory floor. The bags that hold the shoe parts, and many of the banners around the store, are actually made from recycled Nike Air bags. But there is little traditional signage labeling the collections across the store. Instead, plain cardboard inventory boxes sit over items. Their label is the sign.
A colorful confetti fills the seats, the flooring, and even the mannequins. This confetti feels like a thousand tiny erasers in your hand. It is actually ground-up shoes, or what Nike calls Grind, and customers are encouraged to bring in their old shoes. Those in good condition will be donated. Those that aren’t will make their way through a conveyor belt overhead–inspired by the aforementioned pneumatic tube–and be ground up in a giant vat to have a second life. A screen displays how many shoes have been ground up to date. (Since the doors haven’t opened yet during the preview I’m attending, the counter only reads “2.”)
I can’t help but think that Adidas has just created a shoe built to be recycled, but isn’t sure how to get the public to return them when they’re done. Nike has built the space to make that recollection compelling, but of course, it won’t give you a shoe in return. Mash those two good ideas up, and maybe you get a great one.
As for the experiential aspects of the store, Abloh wants young people to come in and, with access to free notebooks and markers, sketch their shoe of the future. Abloh and Nike–like Apple and Starbucks before them–imagine the store as a public space. “The footprint of this place is probably 20% retail on one of the most expensive retail streets in the country,” says Abloh. “The concept is valuable to me and the brand, but it’s not about the exchange of dollars.”
But can any corporate-owned entity ever be truly public? It’s certainly not a point Abloh is ready to defend to the death. He admits that it’s a good idea to question corporate motives, while also pointing out that he never thought his local Boys & Girls Club was a cool enough place to hang out at as a kid. “I think though, for me as an architect, with an urban planning brain, the reality of retail moving online is that physical retail would be vacant,” he says. “Maybe these companies exploring these ideas are passing [me] the baton. ‘What will you do when all Starbucks is Postmates?'”
In 2019, as Abloh opens his own Nike store on his aspirational stomping grounds, he is certainly holding the baton. And perhaps the Re-Creation store is an early look at that future.