Menswear Monday: Off-White

Published October 27, 2014

There’s more to menswear than suits and ties. Every other Monday, we’re giving the fastest developing facet of fashion the attention it deserves and introducing the designers, buyers, trendsetters, and stylists you need to know.

Virgil Abloh knows his way around graphic tees. The Chicago-native mastered the medium when he launched his own line-up of screen-printed goods, Pyrex Vision, in 2012, which seemed to have everyone in New York under the age of 25 wearing a Tupperware competitor’s brand name plastered across their backs in white varsity lettering. Now, at the helm of his new label, Off-White, he’s interested in elevating this staple from his skate culture-influenced adolescence to something more grown-up.

Probably best known for his gig as Kanye West’s creative director or for hailing Martha Stewart as one of his biggest fashion inspirations, Abloh swims in contradictions. His latest project, a collaboration with Dover Street Market titled Under-Water, came out of the designer’s study of Australian surf culture as a total paradox: how, as he puts it, “there are these kids that sit on a beach all day, really serenely, and then just get in the ocean and swim with sharks.” There’s a sinister undercurrent throughout all of his clothes: basic tees, sweatshirts, and jean jackets come minimally but very potently collaged with images and language (“Wet Dream,” “Still Moving?”) that are both jarring and strangely alluring in their randomness. Abloh’s aesthetic feels born of the Internet in ways that other designers can only reference or roughly imitate. And as more Net-native kids grow up into fully-formed fashion customers, that competitive edge is worth a lot.

DESIGNER: Virgil Abloh

BASED IN: New York

TRADEMARKS: For me, it’s a split between me and my complete opposite. [laughs] It’s like a split personality between my true self and a style that I admire. I’m super streetwear—I love that—but then I also love like, a kid from Montreal. I don’t know if you know that blogger, JJJJound, but he’s the epitome. He is pure GQ. I just got back with my wife from Nantucket, and I just love that lifestyle. So it’s both sides of the coin. I love graphics, and I wear plain tees all the time. So all that is Off White: post-Tumblr, post-street style, post-Tommy Ton documenting outfits. This is the brand that represents that.

ORIGIN STORY: For me, I started on this process of designing in an organic way. I had done a few projects in graphic design. My friend Sarah who does t-shirts at Colette, she bought some of mine and sold them there in 2005 or something like that. So I was always doing these kind of one-off, very graphic ideas, and she really supported me. And then a number of years later, I had the idea of taking Champion sweatshirts from my high school time and screenprinting them and adding new ideas to them. And so I took the gamble and took the opportunity to curate a fashion film that I had sort of dreamt up—I wanted to show what was happening in New York, with these kids coming from uptown, being players in fashion but representing streetwear. It was called Pyrex Vision, and what happened with that is that it kind of took hold and made more of an impact than I ever thought it would. That’s what really involved me and gave me the confidence to do a full collection, which is now Off White.

SKATER BOY: Kids of my generation, there’s hundreds of thousands of them that all grew up skateboarding. They all grew up going to their local skate shops and buying a $30 tee. We all learned about our local screen-printer and tried printing our own idea, and then we’d try selling them to our friends, and then we’d give them away. That’s my era. Pbviously I grew up being really interested in fashion and the history and art of fashion. I saw this opportunity to be among the first of that streetwear generation, to actually elevate it to a high-fashion spirit. So what I’m doing is merging those two worlds, and trying to show just how Parisian our Lower East Side streetwear can get. [laughs] That’s my thing.

FASHION SCHOOL OF LIFE: I grew up as a self-taught shopper. All my education in fashion came from learning the difference between, say, Banana Republic and Louis Vuitton. And with that comes an understanding of different fabrics, fabric qualities, and construction. In that way, it’s very similar to architecture. Clothes are just things that are made. The same way that different kinds of wood, or different cuts of tile give a different impression—it’s the same principle with fabric. You spend so much time trying to get the right vibe.

BOYS VS. GIRLS: Women can wear any guy’s outfit, whether it’s a suit or jeans and a t-shirt. I would say they also have the range to wear something in a very boring way like men or to be full-on expressive. More of what my philosophy is is that menswear can learn a lot of new things from womenswear. Obviously there are many to learn, but I think that menswear, in its strive to become less boring, needs to pull more from womenswear, because I find it generally boring. But the boring side also plays to me, to my JJJJound side. [laughs]

INTERNET ART: I don’t know if you know Aaron Bondaroff from New York, who, to me, is like the one of most progressive thinkers in current culture. I was talking to him last weekend at Frieze in New York, and what I always question is whether the stuff that we’re collectively creating—all of these post-Tumblr, current Instagram kids, creative directors—are we actually making something that’s as good as what we grew up with? And he basically said, “We won’t know until later.” Very matter of fact. What that says about me is that I’m always trying to push and trying to add credibility to something that seems very streetwear. And it has yet to be determined if it’s gonna be like disco—if we’re gonna look at it years later and be like, “Oh, that was funny.” 

Menswear Monday runs every other Monday. For more, click here