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Virgil Abloh On the Grey Area Between Luxury & Streetwear

By Caroline Suganda

During the one-hour interview, Virgil Abloh was seen updating his Instagram story multiple times.
 
Tung Pham
During the one-hour interview, Virgil Abloh was seen updating his Instagram story multiple times.

Virgil Abloh, founder of Off-White, once said a very interesting thing that resolved my qualms about the recent “luxury” street-wear phenomena. “If you look at fashion historically, first you had couture, then you had Yves Saint Laurent inventing the idea of ready-to-wear, and now we’re at the beginning of what I believe is the streetwear era of fashion — which is about doing it yourself, logos, irony, satire... But it can also be chic, and refined, and elevated. That’s Off-White,” explains Abloh, who is also Kanye West’s creative director, working on Yeezy together.

As with every achingly hip trend, it comes with its own loyal, cult following. These “kids” — as Abloh refers to them — see luxury differently from the older generations. Much like himself, they, who mostly grew up in the ’90s, perceive luxury as coveting something exclusive and “one-offs”, and they walk into a store looking for something they can identify with. This generation is much more informed about fashion than the previous, they are dictating how they want to wear clothes beyond the designer’s suggestion. Abloh points out that, moving forward, this would be the starting point for the next idea evolution.

In Singapore, it’s not hard to spot these kids clad in Off-White. Whether it’s the iconic T-shirt or hoodie bearing the diagonal stripes commonly found at construction sites, or the clinical-like labelling for the obvious (a leather thigh-high boot with the word “For Walking” printed vertically or “Shoelaces” on, what else, shoelaces) — these are design signatures of the brand that are Abloh’s self-expressions, innovative but at the same time, very well-rationalised.

Abloh has taken what is essentially a universal pattern, the diagonal stripe, and made it his own. The repetition of such a pattern makes Off-White’s products instantly identifiable, even for people who don’t even know the brand. Those “labellings”, written in quoted Helvetica type font is a form of ironic detachment, widely used on his brand, and a “thumbprint” of Off-White collaborations. “It’s a modern way of speaking,” says the 37-year-old. Simply put, it’s powerful branding, definitely an eye-catcher.

Tung PhamThe Off-White boutique in Singapore was Southeast Asia's first.
The Off-White boutique in Singapore was Southeast Asia's first.

It is a nod to post-modernism, which he became fascinated with while studying architecture. He points out that the world today is not engaged in any art movement, or a cultural way of thinking and Off-White challenges this personal thought. “So, instead of claiming that this is streetwear, [I want to be] sort of ironic, [and say] ‘Take this’, [and] link to all of the art movement that came before it.”

“[This is] the way that we communicate, and there is always going to be traces of that larger narrative within the brand. That is Off-White’s aim to be the modern representation of now,” says Abloh, in a 9 AM interview in his Singapore boutique, which opened in 2016. Despite the heavy downpour that morning, Abloh was on time. He had just touched down from South Korea, enroute to Australia that same night. “It’s vital to be physically present in places to keep the message and the design language of things,” explains Abloh, who relies on his phone as he works on the go much of the time. This short 12-hour visit is part of his Asia tour for “The Ten”, a sellout collaboration with Nike on the latter’s 10 long-time icons. Prior to this collaboration, Abloh already owns a few pieces of these icons, including the Jordan, Airmax 90 and Presto.

Nike is one from long list of brands who tapped on Abloh for his ironic sense of communication, which proves to command a massive queue of fans wanting first dibs at any of the brand collaboration launches. His repertoire of collaborators includes, among others, artist Takashi Murakami, behemoth lifestyle chain, Ikea, and most recently, luxury footwear, Jimmy Choo.

Off-WhiteThe Off-White Spring/Summer '18 collection takes cues from the silhouettes and patterns the late Princess Diana used to wear, including biker shorts, tailored Catherine Walker suits and patterned blouses.
The Off-White Spring/Summer '18 collection takes cues from the silhouettes and patterns the late Princess Diana used to wear, including biker shorts, tailored Catherine Walker suits and patterned blouses.

The latter may seem to be the most unlikely suspect to join Abloh’s collaborators, but the London-based shoemaker makes perfect sense to complete the story of Off-White Spring/Summer ’18. “Every runway show is an opportunity to tell different sides of my personal interest. Princess Diana (who was frequently seen wearing Jimmy Choos) particularly inspired me. She was a muse before her time, her effortless style between street and runway or red carpet is in her DNA,” explains Abloh. It was indeed an exercise to showcase how the brand can also tap on the feminine side for inspiration. “She was our Cinderella, a fairytale person, and I want to wrap the shoes in plastics to give them sort of like a glass slipper feel,” he continues.

Throughout the interview, Abloh mentioned numerous times that the brand is a narrative of his personal interests and how he self-expressed them into his designs. His creative process journal is his personal Instagram account (@virgilabloh), which has garnered 1.2 million followers (as of print date) and Off-White’s (@ off___white) main account with 2.3 million. The former is where he shares his daily shenanigans, from hosting workshops and lecture talks to nights when he takes on the role as a deejay — DJ Flat White — while the latter is a diary of all things Off-White, from the latest drop to editorial shoots and celebrity sightings. He admits that the brand’s success would be different without social media. “These are new tools that [didn’t] exist five or 10 years ago to showcase and spread my message. Off-White is modern in its approach, using social media to engage with people in different ways,” says Abloh.

Tung PhamVirgil Abloh personalises a tiffin carrier for us.
Virgil Abloh personalises a tiffin carrier for us.

When asked how he keeps certain launches of the brand exclusive (the products at launches are always sold out and most of the time, command a value of almost five times on the second-hand market), he attributes the success to Off-White as a brand, which showcases his personal interest in the most authentic way. It is a representation of how he sees fashion and art merging together, a balance of many things in streets and luxury but also a modern way of dressing that is not adapting to rules. Said formula, which puts Abloh as a tastemaker, is somewhat his key to grease the wheel of exclusivity that keeps the brand high on the radar. Often, fans would come to Abloh with their pair of Off-White sneakers and request for his Midas touch. As Abloh left the store that morning, I witnessed a 20-something-year-old boy running after him, with what looked like a Off-White x Nike Air Jordan 1 in his one hand. Abloh would usually use a marker and write with a graffiti-like handwritten word in quotation marks. The most common one seen — “Virgil Was Here”.

He believes that a particular shoe can be embedded with a design that would make it sell out in a day. “There must be a design element that you can relate to, something you may have worn as a kid but then there is a way to sort of add elements to it that is very different with sneakers you’ve ever had. In the same way, it is sort of like post-modern way of design.”

With every great design, there’s bound to be high demand, but also imitators. But Abloh, is not of afraid of copies, whether it’s a personal DIY or a straight out counterfeiting.

“You said you want your item to be an open source, why?” I asked.

“That is sort of the point,” he said, which explains the streams of websites and Youtube links flooding the internet with different ways to DIY Off-White inspired items, particularly sneakers. “My brand is for my expression, if someone is inspired to start their own, that’s perfect. Counterfeiting doesn’t negatively affect anything, in fact it sort of reassures the idea that I have. This is how the world works; one thing inspires the next. Some look at it as a negative thing, others look at it as positive.”

Well said.

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