Not many designers can claim they influence contemporary youth culture in the same manner that Virgil Abloh can. Other than heading the LVMH Prize-nominated label Off-White, Abloh’s talents and accolades range from him being the creative director for Kanye West, to being Grammy-nominated for the album packaging of West and Jay Z’s collaborative Watch the Throne album. Abloh has a firm grip on every facet of design culture, manipulating what is considered cool and trendy across genres.
Abloh held a lecture at Columbia GSAPP on the 6th February entitled “Everything in Quotes”, where he delivered an informal and interactive talk to Architecture students. Abloh danced and took selfies to Migos’ ‘T-Shirt’ as the video of his Menswear AW17 runway was displayed, and an unreleased pair of Off-White x Nike Air Force 1s were handed out for the students to gawk and marvel at – it was definitely more exciting than any normal 9am.
At the core of the lecture was the discussion of fashion as a creative field and Abloh’s personal relationship with it, but a ‘fashion designer’ holding a talk about his craft to a room full of Architecture students might seem slightly out of place. Despite his production of garments under Off-White (as well as his previous projects Pyrex Vision and Been Trill), Abloh does not consider himself to be a fashion designer, or Off-White to be a clothing brand.
When describing what the enigmatic Off-White actually is in the lecture, Abloh characterised it as “a faux-luxury product. It’s a playground that I can build buildings, that I can make t-shirts, that I can do shows, I can make something that moves culturally without it being confined to four walls”. Avoiding defining Off-White as a clothing brand could be an attempt to avoid limiting his work to the boundaries of fashion so that he can experiment with different formats. But when the primary outlet of Off-White is fashion, it begs the question – what does a contemporary clothing brand even mean anymore when successful outlets such as Off-White claim they are not one? And what actually is required for something to be considered a clothing brand?
I don’t necessarily have the answers to these questions, but they are definitely interesting to consider. My take from Abloh’s view of his brand is that the prestige which fashion design once held is dwindling; Abloh remarked in his talk that he sees himself as an architect (possibly due to his holding a Masters degree in Architecture) rather than a fashion designer, and that the term ‘fashion designer’ doesn’t sit well with him because he feels he isn’t one. Fashion as a form of expression doesn’t appear to be Abloh’s sole mediator of an idea. Instead, he believes fashion brands are obsolete. Thus, products such as those created by Off-White allow ideas to be conveyed through various mediums: fashion, architecture, music or any other form of design.
Abloh, later in the lecture, talked about Off-White’s instantly recognisable iconography – the diagonal lines. This motif has appeared in many of his works, from being printed on Off-White graphic tees, to being a part of store design. Referring to the logo, Abloh says that “design is the only thing that I think can solve that now. So for me what is branding? What is an iconography that works in Tokyo, Chicago, Paris, London?” The result is Off-White’s diagonal line design, influenced by international road markings. In adopting an inconspicuous, globally used form of imagery, Abloh hopes that it becomes a method of reducing prejudice, via incorporating a design into his work which is experienced universally.
Reducing differences between people is a common theme in Abloh’s work. One example which was touched upon in the lecture is the graphic tee which reads “Woman”, which had been modelled by the male personality, Luka Sabbat. For Abloh, this tongue in cheek and “incorrect” identification is one method of harmonisation. Further, capitalising on Sabbat and his lucrative social media presence is important as Abloh states that “fashion, trends and coolness, can erase prejudice”. Links between fashion statements and social media are intrinsically linked in the current internet age, and Abloh is using this connection along with style to blur the boundaries between people.
This article is meant to highlight some of the interesting points Virgil Abloh has made about fashion and his Off-White label, and I would definitely recommend watching the entirety of the talk. In reconsidering what it means to be a clothing brand and reevaluating the current state of the fashion industry, more questions can and should be asked. In doing so, the future of fashion could change substantially and in all probability, move in a increasingly positive direction.
Watch the Columbia GSAPP lecture here.