Exclusive: Kanye West’s Creative Consigliere Virgil Abloh Launches His Own Fashion Label, Off-White-------
Virgil Abloh’s career to date has conspired to put him in the periphery of the spotlight. As one of the creative directors who works with Kanye West, the Chicago-raised designer plays a key role in creating tour merchandise, pop-up stores, and West’s shows. He collaborates on graphics for the cult streetwear label Hood by Air. And last year, on 12/12/12, he launched Pyrex Vision, an ultra-limited line of logo-fied T-shirts and shorts that sold out nearly immediately at every store they arrived at, from Colette, in Paris, to VFiles, in New York. Abloh’s name is well-known to a few overlapping groups of hip-hop and streetwear obsessives—he is part of the Been Trill collective, with Matthew Williams and Heron Preston, as well as part of Donda, the creative arm of West’s entourage and enterprise—but he’s eluded wider recognition. That is, potentially, until now.
Abloh is preparing to launch Off-White, a streetwear-meets-fashion line that builds on, and expands upon, Pyrex Vision. Pyrex Vision was comprised of third-party merchandise, such as Champion T-shirts, screen-printed with Abloh-designed graphics; Off-White will be a full cut-and-sew line, made in Italy. “Streetwear has a one-trick-ponyness to it,” Abloh says. “I want to give my point of view and merge street sensibilities in a proper fashion context. I think that if I can merge the two, it’ll make something interesting.”
The first collection, for Spring, is largely based on Abloh’s graphics: a motif of parallel lines, crossing over a “WHITE 13″ logo. (On the name, he says only: “It’s just a bucket for me to put my thoughts into.” The graphic element was inspired by the geometric lines of Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House near Chicago, an inspiration point for the entire collection. Abloh trained as an engineer and an architect before coming to West and, by extension, to fashion.) There are jeans and chinos in unbleached canvas, cut wide through the thigh and skinny in the leg; inflated A-line flannels; and perforated mesh shorts. The clothes have a broken-in, occasionally pulverized look, a far cry from the pristine crispness that’s often prized in streetwear. “It’s not so much about brand-new. It’s about the washed nature of clothes, the relaxedness. That’s what I love, to bring a Ralph [Lauren] take back into streetwear. Streetwear is generally brand-new. It’s fresh out of the box, you wear it once, it becomes trendy, then you get rid of it.” The inspirations he rhapsodizes over are not necessarily predictable ones. “I have this deep infatuation with Montauk and Martha Stewart and Nantucket,” he says. “My parents are from Ghana, and I grew up in Chicago, but for some reason, this lifestyle, shabby chic—it’s grown [on me] since I got older.” The Off-White bag is an updated beach bag; the one shoe made to date is a mesh espadrille. “Outside of the sneaker conversation, I think, is much more interesting,” he says. “No one in the hood is wearing espadrilles.”
Cross-pollinating cultures is a key element in the Off-White project, as well as in the emerging streetwear-meets-fashion sphere altogether. (Abloh’s mentor in melding is Riccardo Tisci. “I saw him wearing Air Force Ones designing couture gowns—finally, there’s a glimmer of understanding that relationship.”) In a world inhabited by an increasingly savvy and interdisciplinary customer base, Abloh could be well positioned to be one of its standard-bearers. His state-of-the-culture pronouncements can sound a bit brisk to the uninitiated—”I want to represent this new era of styling, the post-Tumblr guy and girl”—but the legions are massed behind him. (Just check the fanaticism of his Instagram following if you disbelieve.) His Pyrex shirts sold in such quantity and such speed that retailers, including Colette’s Sarah Andelman and The Webster’s Laure Heriard Dubreuil, have already put in orders for the Spring collection—sight unseen. That new customer base, Abloh insists, isn’t only interested in fashion. They’re interested in the message, whether that comes from a T-shirt, a song, a video projection, or anywhere in between.
“The first collection, I named it Youth Will Always Win,” he says. “It’s really that. I think that’s what [defines] this generation…if people are really paying attention, they are interdisciplinary and they can jump into the conversation at any point. My team is talented kids that have that same spirit. They’re excited to give ideas across any platform.” The platform-builder has just built his own.