How Off-White Became The Ones to Watch
Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White
What do tie-down straps, Caravaggio paintings, Nike's hottest sneakers, and Duchamp's Readymades all have in common? Off-White, of course! Led by Virgil Abloh since the beginning of the 2010s, the Italian label has carved out a place for itself at the intersection of art, pop culture, streetwear, and luxury. A look back at a phenomenon all its own.
A visionary designer
Few brands are as linked to their founder as Off-White is to Virgil Abloh. The Chicago creative launched the house in 2013, and since its beginnings the Milanese label has reflected the one-of-a-kind vision of the man at the helm. Nevertheless, that alone wasn't enough to guarantee a spot in the fashion big leagues. Earning a diploma in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006, Abloh's intention even then was to launch his own brand — but it had nothing to do with clothes. Still, his passion for fashion grew throughout his studies. Slowly but surely, he began to get his feet wet — writing for "The Brilliance" blog, opening trendy boutique store RSVP Gallery, and starting work as a creative consultant for Kanye West. In other words, the wunderkind quickly began racking up diverse and valuable experiences that would inform his creative eye. It was with the founding of Pyrex Vision in 2012 that things really started to heat up. Consistently ahead of his time, he bought up a batch of deadstock Ralph Lauren flannels, placed a simple logo on them along with the number 23 (Michael Jordan's number with the Chicago Bulls) and re-sold them for upwards of $500 a pop. The act created a buzz and highlighted Abloh's talent for revisiting basics and updating them with a personal touch. The following year he launched Off-White, initially centered on accessories, in Milan.
An aesthetic that's unique, and mass-produced
When Off-White exploded onto the scene with its gently-twisted classics, elevated with quotations and brightly-colored symbol, it was an alien in the industry. Super-graphic and boiled down to the bare minimum, the label's aesthetic made a splash. The stand-out pieces included a yellow adjustable grosgrain belt, alongside sweatshirts, sneakers, and t-shirts adorned with double arrows and herringbone symbols — one of the brand's calling cards even today. The look was stripped-down, but with a big personality. And that wasn't all — Off-White was also notable for the richness of its art references. Handbags emblazoned with the word "handbag," boots that read "For Riding," and a host of accessories labeled as "Sculpture" would have made Marcel Duchamp proud, and maybe even elicited a chuckle. Readymades — everyday objects revisited and elevated aesthetically — are an important touchstone for Abloh. J "I often tell people that Duchamp is my lawyer," he explains. "He's the legal premise to validate what I'm doing. Because streetwear started from the gesture of taking a logo, flipping it upside down, and sewing it back on again (...) Typography is the realm where you can unlock the reality of what a garment is. It's Photoshop 3.0. If I take a men's sweatshirt and write "woman" on its back, that's art. You can use typography and wording to completely change the perception of a thing without changing anything about it. This is what we learned from Barbara Kruger—you can evoke meaning by crashing two things together. And our result is not a one-off. These shoes are going to be mass-produced so kids can buy them."
A brand, from top to bottom
Though it's hard to name just one, Off-White's major strength is its capacity to reunite players from a host of different teams. Beloved by seasoned fashionistas and streetwear kids alike — not to mention the general public's appreciation for its touch of well-placed irony — the label has managed to create a unique fanbase all while shaking up the codes of the luxury industry. The secret weapon? An irreproachable aesthetic all their own, as well as a capacity to manifest collaborations, each more unexpected and groundbreaking than the last: Ikea, Nike, Champion. Whatever Off-White touches turns to gold, and that's one point that's no longer up for debate. It's a talent that didn't escape the gaze of LVMH. In 2018, Bernard Arnault's mega-group chose to bet on Virgil Abloh to take the reins at Louis Vuitton as acting Creative Director, following Kim Jones' departure from the prestigious design house. It was a bright idea, and one that didn't stop giving: on July 20th, Bernard Arnault announced that he had begun the procedure to become a major shareholder (60%) at the Milanese label, citing his desire to work closely with the founder in order to acquire new brands and energize actors in his portfolio. As we said, a force to be reckoned with — and with so much more to come.