Off-White and the rise of Virgil Abloh
Sneakers are the new It-bag, hoodies are the new cashmere and informality is the new refined. How we buy luxury has shifted seismically, thanks to one man – Virgil Abloh. Ted Stansfield charts his rise.
Who is Virgil Abloh? The guys queuing up outside Supreme on a Thursday morning, they know. In fact, anyone, regardless of age, wearing fancy-looking (and likely squeaky-clean) sneakers will be able to tell you.
Virgil Abloh is a man, a brand and a phenomenon. Beyoncé loves him, Riri calls him “GOAT” (greatest of all time) and Naomi Campbell is “incredibly proud of him”. He’s also one of the most important designers working today. Having just been installed as Louis Vuitton’s new Arrtistic Director for menswear, Abloh is reinventing luxury as we know it. In fashion he is, to all intents and purposes, a revolutionary.
Unlike most fashion revolutionaries, however, the Chicago native didn’t go to an illustrious fashion school – that’s right, shock horror, he didn’t go to Central Saint Martins. Oh, and he’s busy, as in never stops, creating and creating and being really rather cool. “I don’t sleep as much as normal people do,” he told Vogue.
Beyoncé loves him, Riri calls him ‘GOAT’ (greatest of all time) and Naomi Campbell is ‘incredibly proud of him’.
Born to Ghanaian immigrants who dreamed of having a son who was an engineer, Abloh read civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before going on to study architecture in Illinois and, after that, joining a small architecture firm. Then Kanye West entered the scene and things started to get interesting.
Abloh met the rapper in 2003, when Kanye was still, well, in the process of becoming Kanye – this was before The College Dropout and long before Kim. Abloh approached West, offering to design his merch and give his input on what he was doing. Fast forward a few years and they’re partners in crime, going to Paris Fashion Week and even spending a couple of months interning at Fendi together. Working as West’s Creative Director, Abloh also art-directed West’s and Jay-Z’s 2011 album, Watch the Throne, which earned Abloh a Grammy nomination. Luxury fashion was about to change. “The future looks different,” he has said.
In 2012, Abloh started an art project-cum-fashion label called Pyrex Vision, screen-printing logos onto Champion T-shirts and old Ralph Lauren shirts and selling them for up to $500 each. He quickly moved on from this, launching Off-White, which promptly thrust him into the limelight.
Then, in January 2016, he put on his first runway show at Paris Men’s Fashion Week. Here, frosty fashion editors sat sandwiched next to raucous rappers, including members of the A$AP Mob – one of whom (A$AP Nast) actually walked in the show. Abloh and the culture he represented had arrived, not just in Paris but in the fashion world at large.
Since then, Abloh has gone from strength to strength, now sitting at the helm of one of the most prestigious luxury houses in existence. So what’s the secret to his success? Well, the concept behind Off-White and his approach to fashion more generally is simple. Simple but genius: he reissues cool streetwear basics as luxury goods, which might not sound like rocket science, but it’s smart. Really smart. It’s what today’s men – specifically today’s young men – actually want. And I mean want, as opposed to much of luxury fashion, which is either too ‘avant-garde’ or traditional and geared towards an older demographic. “To me, luxury means value system,” he said in a recent interview with 032c. “To a younger group of people, you could replace the word ‘luxury’ with the word ‘coveted’.”
Discover the revolution
And his designs are coveted. I’ve actually got firsthand experience of his Midas touch. Last year, he unveiled a collaboration with Nike that consisted of 10 iconic footwear classics that he had Abloh-fied. “That was an example of a good collaborative process,” said Abloh about this now-legendary meeting of creative minds.
I was invited to the launch and, upon my departure, was given a pair (one of the perks of being a fashion journalist). I liked them a lot but, not being much of a sneakerhead myself, decided to do what most people in my profession do but rarely admit to doing, particularly in the company of PRs: flog them.
One of my friends (who definitely does classify as a sneakerhead) told me he’d seen them going for about £1,000 on eBay and, while I didn’t sell mine for that much, I did sell them for enough to pay my next month’s rent. This is sneakers we’re talking about. And London rent.
To me, luxury means value system. To a younger group of people, you could replace the word ‘luxury’ with the word ‘coveted’.
– Virgil Abloh
Off-White has more than 220 stockists around the world – the Selfridges buy is immense. According to The Business of Fashion, it was the third-hottest fashion brand in the world in 2017, trumped only by Balenciaga and Gucci. The queues for Abloh’s Nike sneakers were insane, while the crowd outside Off-White’s show in March swelled to almost dangerous proportions – people were nearly crushed. That’s the extent of his draw. If hype is music, then Abloh is Mozart.
But it’s not just his capacity to create clothes that sell that makes Abloh noteworthy: he captures the zeitgeist more astutely than any other designer working today. Performing on stage with Drake one day, directing a music video for Lil Uzi Vert another, Abloh engages with popular culture like no other, fusing it with art and fashion, and creating something that is covetable, yes, but highly compelling, too.
The fact that he’s African-American, too, is significant and symbolic of a positive shift in terms of representation, in what has historically been a very white industry. “[He] is the first black designer to be given such a position in the gilded halls of LVMH,” said British Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Edward Enninful. “His appointment is a step in the right direction for diversity.”
June is going to be a big month for Abloh – he’ll be presenting his first collection for Louis Vuitton at Paris Men’s Fashion Week. If the past few years are anything to go by, his revolution has only just begun.