“I think the reason why Off-White exists is to modernize fashion,” said Virgil Abloh. “I want to do it in a way that’s half-punk, the other half Wall Street businessman.”
This story first appeared in the August 17, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The founder and creative director of the rapidly rising streetwear label stood in show-and-tell mode next to four models, whose detached demeanor contrasted with the frantic activity of the team putting the finishing touches on his spring men’s collection in a Paris photo studio on a sunny June afternoon.
Sitting in front of him on folding chairs were a handful of editors who had been convened for what was billed as the first installment of “Private Conversations,” a format designed to bring together media with VIPs and friends of the designer such as Dwyane Wade, Victor Cruz or A$AP Rocky.
Like everything in Abloh’s world, which moves at the speed of social media, the format changed at the last minute and was now taking a back-and-forth form between him and members of the fashion press, loosely structured around his collection, titled Mirror Mirror.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon, who was covering the men’s shows for GQ magazine, arrived late with his 13-year-old son Abe, whose painstakingly curated outfit included a pair of Off-White socks. Beaming with delight, Abloh proceeded to quiz the teen.
“You know my style of clothing is basically a discourse between me and the kids. That’s what the premise of the brand is,” he explained. “We’re talking straight to the market. But I believe in the romantic interchange between intellectuals about fashion.”
It’s the kind of paradox that sums up Abloh’s unorthodox approach to luxury, which could be read as a test case on how to build a brand from scratch.
Launched online in late 2013, Off-White held its first showroom presentation in Paris the following January with designs that merged influences ranging from Bauhaus to sports apparel and Caravaggio. It established the visual signature of the brand: thick diagonal stripes that have become a byword for insider cool. Eighteen months later, Abloh had expanded into women’s wear and was staging his first runway show in a contemporary art gallery in the French capital.
In that brief timespan, the brand made it onto the shortlist of the 2015 edition of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, crystallizing the advent of streetwear as a credible challenger to the luxury status quo.
Trained as an engineer and architect, Abloh rose to prominence as a DJ, cofounder of Chicago concept store RSVP Gallery and creative director for Kanye West. The Chicago-born 35-year-old has collaborated with everyone from Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci to painter George Condo.
He made his fashion debut in 2012 with the launch of Pyrex Vision, a short-lived label that spawned a fanatical following among streetwear aficionados.
“Back then, there was no ambition to be a fashion designer. I think my original ambition was to be an artist,” Abloh recalled. “I’d worked in a collaborative space, never had creative control to the final end, so with Pyrex Vision, the idea was to make a film. And in order to make the film, I needed to make these clothes.”
Before he knew it, Abloh was presenting his ideas to the LVMH Prize jury, made up of senior executives from the luxury conglomerate, alongside industry luminaries such as Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière, as well as Raf Simons, one of his personal heroes.
“I think it was essential. If that moment hadn’t happened, Off-White might not exist still,” he mused. “When I look back at my presentation, even a year ago, it was still more theory than reality, so in a way, having that knowledge and having to express what my design is and what my goals were became not only the business plan, but the creative plan to exist.”
These days, his ideas about brand-building are still a work in progress — much of it unfolding live on his Instagram and Tumblr accounts — but Abloh has made no secret of his ambition to take the creative reins of a luxury house.
“I have a litany of ideas that bring modern relevance, but also a financial vision, on how these brands can be more successful in the space of luxury,” he said. “Off-White is sort of my résumé and it’s my laboratory to experiment with these ideas to see which ones are valid.”
The key to his theory is keeping product relevant by constantly updating his designs to reflect current obsessions.
“When the trends change, Off-White changes,” he said. “My general premise is not about selling clothes. If that’s your end goal, then all of a sudden everything looks the same, you know — you start designing by numbers.”
Abloh lives out of a suitcase, permanently in search of the next new thing. “There’s a fear, it’s like a creative thing, like you might miss the next idea by just not being in the right place at the right time or being open to seeing the trends evolve. Culture moves at a crazy pace.”
He maintained the strategy is financially sound, though he declined to provide details of the label’s performance, beyond revealing that sales were almost entirely generated by branded streetwear items, to the detriment of the high-end creations he likes to show on the catwalk.
“Financially, there’s growth. That’s how I describe it. You can tell probably by how I’m speaking about it, I actually don’t care to know,” he said, adding that he intentionally limits distribution. “The control is with me and not necessarily with the buyers. And this year, we’re transitioning into our flagship retail model.”
Off-White opened its first flagship in Hong Kong in late 2014 and last month unveiled a Tokyo store, called Something & Associates, which looks like a generic office. He plans to open additional units in New York and Toronto by mid-2017, each of them designed to reflect local tastes and culture.
Abloh said his approach to retail is strongly influenced by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, but mainly, he designs for himself. “I want to discover, I don’t want to be sold something. I want my perceptions to change and I want to be in a more open-minded state, to be excited to covet something,” he explained.
In fact, his entire conception of creative direction is customer-centric. “I started out as a consumer and a fan of fashion, and I didn’t see a designer that was having a dialogue with me and my generation,” he said.
Abloh noted that new technologies make it easy for neophytes to launch collections at little cost. Among his first Pyrex pieces, for example, were Rugby Ralph Lauren flannel shirts, bought at a closing-down sale, which were then screen-printed and put back on the market for $550. They promptly sold out.
“The one thing that I think the luxury market needs to understand is that culture has changed. I don’t know if there’s any way to underline that any further. This should be in bold writing — that luxury by a 17-year-old’s standard is completely different than his parents’. His version of luxury is streetwear.”
From the start, Abloh was determined that Off-White should be more than just another T-shirt brand. Rather, he saw it as a multidisciplinary platform. “Fashion is one of the greatest vehicles to merge music, art, architecture, design, typography — it’s a wide enough canvas, or a big enough sandbox, to touch all the different things that I’m into,” he said.
He compares his approach to that of Martin Margiela, from whom he has borrowed elements including staff uniforms, deconstructed tailoring and the appropriation of nontraditional materials — such as yellow industrial lashing straps worn as belts.
Abloh’s rise to prominence coincided with the advent of peers such as Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, Gosha Rubchinskiy and Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow and Maxwell Osborne — a group linked by their seamless integration of web culture, art, street fashion and luxury codes.
Abloh met the Public School duo through a mutual friend and has DJ’d at their after parties. Both are fans of his line. ”It’s a cool collection of ideas that all seem to make sense together,” Chow said.
“It changed what traditional luxury meant and who it was meant for and opened it up to more people, and the collective ideas really are inspiring. For us, it even resonated personally. It’s a new luxury movement,” Osborne added.
Off-White belongs to New Guards Group, the Milan-based company that produces and distributes Marcelo Burlon County of Milan, Palm Angels, Unravel and United Standard.
“I often refer to it as generational design. Why, at the root of it, Demna and I and our groups of friends are similar is because we have a similar outlook. It’s like two different kids growing up in the same climate, but they’re not living in the same town,” Abloh explained.
That collaborative approach extends to young hopefuls. Abloh, who took his first art class at 22, wants to provide a bridge into fashion for fledgling creatives. “A 17-year-old can be more advanced and often is more advanced than a 45-year-old, so my design theory and the culture that surrounds Off-White is nontraditional,” he said. “I believe in mentoring, because I know that the barrier for me took many years and a lot of hours [to overcome]. I don’t really adopt that same philosophy that another kid who’s younger has to jump through all those hoops before he can be in Paris and do that.”
Among those he and West welcomed into their inner circle is Ian Connor, the 23-year-old stylist, muse and consultant who now faces several rape allegations. Connor’s star has fallen since he attacked rapper Theophilus London during a personal appearance by Abloh at the Paris concept store Colette in June.
In his presentation to reporters the day after Connor’s fight with London, which was captured on video and rapidly went viral, the designer played down the incident. “They’re all brothers, so it’s basically watching a bunch of brothers fight,” he said.
Abloh declined to comment on the sexual assault allegations against Connor, but the episode didn’t appear to put him off socializing with fans. The day of his men’s show, he issued an open invitation on Instagram with the address of the venue — raising hackles at the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, French fashion’s governing body, which insisted on strict security measures in the wake of the November terrorist attacks in Paris.
Around 150 kids were allowed to watch the display from the standing section, with more than 100 gaining entrance to the postshow party backstage. Abloh said he was unaware of the security risk, but he was unapologetic.
“I feel like, what’s the point of design and art if you’re not creating and thinking freely? It’s the duty of artists to dream out loud in a productive way. For me, it’s depressing if an industry based on creativity just makes decisions on a practical basis.
“It doesn’t seem modern, you know,” he added. “Stopping a kid at the door of a fashion show isn’t going to stop a terrorist attack. These kids need to be at fashion shows. The world needs to be involved in these positive art forms and these community gatherings that are based around creativity. That is what I think will eradicate terrorism, not actually leaving kids in their homes not aspiring to be something else,” he added. “Our job is now more than ever before to represent the positive, not be scared into the negative. I just made the decision based on that.”
Off-White is about to become a whole lot more popular. On the heels of recent collaborations with brands including Levi’s and Umbro, Abloh has just unveiled a capsule collection with Moncler. And in a sign that Off-White is flirting with mainstream recognition, Mila Kunis wore the label on the cover of the August issue of Glamour magazine. Abloh, though, is keeping things in perspective.
“I haven’t achieved anything yet, by my own standard. I’m starting on a path, but it’s a new time so it requires new thoughts, new philosophies, and that’s what I’m trying to show and prove with my own project,” he said.