How Off-White Shaped Fashion Culture
When White launched her SS14 collection in 2013, the impact of her fashion breakthrough was just a dream. Today, the brand is a high point on the Parisian agenda, a cultural juggernaut and commercial powerhouse that consistently ranks among the most sought-after names in fashion retail. Born from the embers of Virgil AblohThe previous venture of Pyrex Vision, Off-White’s mission focus was to translate the culture the designer surrounded himself to the world stage; in haute couture, and beyond.
“I remember talking with Virgil around 2007, when we were working with Kanye and nigo on Pastelle”, testifies Dior for men Artistic director Kim Jones. “Even then, he was talking about the concept of a label he’d like to do – one that would encompass all aspects of design. He had a really big vision for it, and I always admire people who think big: they change the Kim was right: in the extent of her influence and the way she achieved it, unapologetically celebrating black and youth culture, in many ways, Off-White changed visual culture from a way few others have ever done.
Born out of the idea that there was a gap in the industry, “I was trying to communicate that this generation wants to play a role in fashion,” Virgil told the curator. Hans-Ulrich Obrist in System in 2017. During a panel discussion with Kim Jones for Off-White, he went on to express that “my motivation is, in part, a bit of angst that comes from feeling like I don’t belong; that our generation does not belong. I made a conscious decision that I was not just going to be a consumer; that at least one of us appears at the end of a Parisian podium.
Off white SS19. Photograph BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images
Virgil’s work at Off-White is shaped by his unorthodox fashion training, accompanied by a heavy dose of postmodern irony. In addition to his internship at Fendi, his resume didn’t fit the industry standard of a designer: he was trained in civil engineering, first worked as an architect, and spent years running Kanye West’s creative agency, Donda . Celebrating rather than wrapping up his outside perspective, Off-White found his way to the limelight using fringe methods often derided by the industry. Nowhere was this more evident than in Off-White’s use of the ready-made. The brand’s arrow logo itself, for example, was accused of plagiarism by unofficial fashion police Diet Prada in 2018 when they found a matching design used at Glasgow Airport in the sixties. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg for a brand built on the art of sampling. Her talent lies in her assembling of various cultural signifiers, or in the slight manipulation of an icon to create something new. When Diet Prada struck again in 2020, criticizing Off-White’s tulle dress for resemblance to Givenchyof the spring 2020 couture dress, Virgil’s sleight of hand failed. Pairing a couture dress with an Arc’teryx jacket, Off-White juxtaposes a cult streetwear item – often worn by the graffiti artists he loved – with the glitz of high fashion.
Virgil’s celebration of subculture and his enthusiasm for the fury it inspires are key to Off-White’s success. Child of streetwear, he understood that the Mercedes of some is the Nike Air Jordan of others. Where sneaker scenes focused on ruined rarities, Off-White asked: what if we take the sneakerhead’s fetish item and change it? Abloh’s first sneaker outing was The Ten project, which saw ten iconic Nike sneakers reimagined. In the accompanying Taschen monograph, ICONS “Something’s wrong”, Virgil describes it as “The idea of obsession/effigy. Redo something you love over and over again to create a replica. The book details the streams of consciousness recorded frantically by Virgil as he scoured the Nike archives gathering his thoughts via text message.
Image via Nike
Released in 2017, the sneakers might now increase their resale value, but The Ten project has put the community first. To coincide with the launch of the sneakers, Off-White and Nike teamed up for “Off-Campus”, which involved a series of workshops where creatives such as Kim Jones, Martine RoseMax Lamb, Grace Wales Bonner and Michele Lamy teach young attendees how to customize their Nike sneakers or invite them to panel discussions and intimate workshops. Zainab Jama, the Deviation pioneer and head of public relations and marketing at Supreme, worked on The Ten’s events in London. For her, it was about “bridging the gap between the industry and its fans, giving back and letting them in with first-hand experience.” This is, of course, just one of many satellite initiatives of Off-White programs, such as the “I Support Young Black Business” project, which raises money quarterly for black communities. “Off-White has always been about inclusivity and community,” says Zainab.
Off-White is a fashion brand by profession, but its goals are rooted in changing paradigms. Virgil’s oft-quoted aphorism, where he would call himself a “Trojan horse”, captures this perfectly. “Off-White behaves like a luxury brand, but the spirit and everything behind it is tied to issues of race, youth culture and globalization,” Abloh revealed in his interview with System. Through its choices of visuals, landmarks and graphics, Off-White offers a semantic diagnosis of our time – thus shaking up the status quo. “I think of his free spirit and his constant pursuit of innovation all the time,” Hans says, thinking back to their conversation. “He continues to inspire me every day. His talent, curiosity and approach to experimentation will stand out forever.”
Photography Estrop/Getty Images
The irony of using commercial success House commenting on contemporary capitalism, however, did not escape Virgil. On the contrary, he adopted it. Irony – particularly figures of speech – enabled him to discuss thorny issues from a distance. Take for example his SS16 men’s collection, entitled “Blue Collar”. A patchwork of Royal Mail and DHL shirts with pin badges reading “Working Class,” Abloh opened a conversation about class division through fashion, just as he opened conversations about race and youth culture.
Off white SS19. Photograph BERTRAND GUAY/AFP via Getty Images
Bringing this to the fashionable table was no small feat. Off-White, as widely esteemed as he was, faced tough criticism, finding himself in a back-and-forth with the former fashion establishment. But Abloh was an eternal optimist, treating criticism as fruitful. When Raf Simons suggested that Off-White was not original for QG, Virgil’s response was typically brilliant: a show called “Nothing New.” During Off-White’s later years, questions of maturity and whether Virgil could move beyond streetwear plagued the discourse. His appointment to Louis Vuitton didn’t do much to temper this at first, but he stuck to his vision, foregrounding the subcultural obsessions of his own and today’s youth. Kerwin Frost’s Spaghetti Boys and Asspizza had their moment alongside Heron Preston in a capsule collaboration in 2015, while graffiti legend Dondi White was honored with a whole collection of Spring/Summer 2019 runways.
Treating Off-White as his canvas, Virgil gave a platform to those he believed in, regardless of their stature in elite high culture. By remaining open to all opportunities and avenues, Off-White gained the necessary clout among the establishment and sufficient success to empower the youth. But all of this was underpinned by its founder’s bolshy approach to experimentation. “Virgil was one of the greatest creative explorers of our time,” says curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. “Always looking to the future.” With all the wonder of seventeen-year-old Virgil keeping it fresh, Off-White became a fashion authority, telling his audience what’s hot, while the old guard caught up. It’s unclear where Off-White goes next, but things look hopeful. “I’m sure there are a million ideas stored on hard drives and sketchbooks,” says Kim Jones. “Children who aspire to become designers can guide the brand for years to come.” Virgil was right. Young people always win.
Off white SS18. Photograph FRANCOIS GUILLOT/AFP via Getty Images
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