Things like "influence" and importance are watery concepts. But it's easy to see that the Milan-based fashion brand Off-White has 5.4 million Instagram followers and that founder Virgil Abloh has 3.1 million. It's easy to see that Rihanna wears these clothes, and that the Nike Air Prestos designed by Abloh and released this summer were mentioned more than 250,000 times on social media and were so hard to buy that they are now available on resale apps at markups of around 450 percent.
The brand was founded in 2012, and its popularity isn't new, but it's now reaching heights that, to the idle but curious fashion observer, may be confounding. Its guiding principle is just "everything in quotes," as in, "everything is ironic and also the main recognizable design element on the clothes is chunky quotation marks." A black dress with the words "Little Black Dress" written on it, in quotes. A shoelace on a $700 pair of sneakers with the word "Shoelaces" written on it, in quotes. A scarf with "scarf" written on it in quotes.
Off-White makes plenty of clothes that are what you might recognize as high fashion, but it's better known for things like $1,000 sweatshirts; pricey, tongue-in-cheek phone cases; buzzy collaborations that help fuel the $1 billion sneaker resale industry; its signature, seemingly nonfunctional industrial-themed belts; and its ... experimental furniture.
"Everything in quotes," as in, "everything is ironic and also the main recognizable design element on the clothes is chunky quotation marks"
As perplexing as it was when kids lined up and paid $1,000-plus to buy a literal brick released by Supreme two years ago, at least it was clear that it was in some ways a joke. Off-White isn't a joke. It's extremely expensive streetwear — primarily T-shirts and hoodies and sneakers — beloved by the teenagers of Reddit, the rich club kids of New York and Milan, the pop stars and rappers in every magazine and on every social media feed, and much of the high-fashion elite, including Abloh's day-one fan Marc Jacobs. Also, Julia Roberts.
It is not at all a challenge to find people who will say Abloh is leading a cult of personality dependent on teens who don't know better, that his undeniable historical significance as the most prolific designer of his generation is at odds with his seeming disinterest in giving anyone a good reason to care. Often, at his most earnest, he says things like, "We're lucky to have a public that is now prime to support brands. In essence, we're all independent brands and retailers."
It's rare that the question "what's the deal?" feels fair or interesting, but, uh, what's the deal?
Off-White started with a brush — or prolonged embrace — with celebrity
To answer that question, we have to go back to 2002. That was the year that Virgil Abloh — the Illinois-raised then-22-year-old son of two Ghanaian immigrants (his mother was a seamstress) — graduated from the civil engineering program at the University of Wisconsin Madison. It was also the year Abloh met Kanye West and started designing his merchandise and album art.
At the same time, Abloh worked on a master's degree in architecture, which he received from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006. (This should demonstrate two of his more notable qualities, which are that he is smart and has seemingly boundless energy.)
West and Abloh interned together at Fendi in the summer of 2009, and have said they were allowed to do basically nothing but did become better, more intimate friends. Abloh officially took on the title of West's "creative director" in 2010. (That alone makes him a trendsetter: Every rapper has a creative director now, and Rihanna has approximately 14.) Abloh's first big public project with West was art direction for West's joint album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, which pulled him into the broader hip-hop social and commercial circle.
In 2012, Abloh opened a boutique called Pyrex Vision, centered on a concept that went viral because it was basically a (highly enviable, just-clever-enough) scam: buying simple, cheap Champion basics and super-discounted pieces of Ralph Lauren dead stock, then screen-printing his own super-simple graphics on top of them and selling them for hundreds of dollars. It was buzzy! It was controversial! It involved A$AP Rocky!
The next year, Abloh founded his label Off-White. He centered the design aesthetic on diagonal lines and the iconography of American cities: White arrows. Plain labels. Industrial packaging with a signature zip tie. High-end fabrics and familiar streetwear shapes. From there, it was off to the races: The first Off-White womenswear line debuted at Paris Fashion Week in 2014 and was selected as a finalist for the coveted LVMH Prize, which got Abloh into rooms with all the top buyers and designers and people connectors in the infamously old, infamously rich, and infamously white industry. They loved it!
In 2017, Off-White partnered with Nike to redesign 10 of the company's best-selling and classic styles. There are basically no words for how popular and how difficult to purchase this line of sneakers has been. Though the starting price points were around $200, most available pairs seemed to end up in the hands of celebrities, and resale prices now hover north of $1,000.
Then in 2018, Abloh was named the artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear — call it a coup or call it a triumph, it was above all a thing that was written about by every fashion or business publication you can name and discussed by every public figure who had ever, for any reason, had anything to do with expensive clothes. Rihanna came to his Paris debut; Playboi Carti and Kid Cudi were models in it.
Three months later, Abloh debuted a Nike collection designed specifically for Serena Williams, and here is an incomplete list of the other collaborations he completed and sold in the same 12 months: Champion, Le Bon Marche, Selfridges, SSENSE, KM20, TheDoubleF, Gore-Tex, Browns, Timberland, Burton, Jimmy Choo, Chrome Hearts, Vivendii, Rimowa, Hirshleifers, Ikea, Kith, Equinox, A-Cold-Wall, Burton, Grog, and Sunglass Hut.
For a collaboration with Hiroshi Fujiwara, Abloh designed a money clip that looks like a credit card. "Don't let Zara and Uniqlo educate you on the price of a garment because that's not fashion," he once said. "That's like McDonald's. Your health is tied to that — a 99-cent nugget." He has also collaborated with McDonald's.
Virgil and Rihanna in Paris.Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Off-White benefits from high fashion's desperation to regain youth appeal
Off-White is the hottest brand in the world, according to the quarterly ranking released by the fashion and e-commerce platform Lyst.
It climbed 33 places in Lyst's ranking in the last year, and surpassed legacy luxury fashion houses like Gucci and Balenciaga for the first time this quarter. This first-place ranking should be taken with a grain of salt, as Off-White isn't a publicly traded company and we know absolutely nothing about its revenue (we do know Gucci and Balenciaga have seen "stellar" growth this year). Plus, the methodology of the Lyst index relies heavily on opaque sources: its own search, browsing, and purchase data, social media "engagement statistics," and "sentiment analysis." It also incorporates Google Search data, which is publicly available, but it's not clear how that's weighted in this secret, sort of suspiciously complicated algorithm.
Regardless of methodology, the index points us in the direction of the obvious: "Luxury" today is fancy streetwear. Streetwear has been a boon to the $300 billion global high-end fashion industry, and helped it grow an estimated 5 percent in 2017.
Last October, Federica Levato, a partner at the marketing consultancy Bain & Company, told Business of Fashion, "Customers are becoming younger, and that is very good for the mid- and longer-term survival of this industry." She continued: "There is a big market of €2.5 million for luxury T-shirts, for example, that is growing very fast. And a half-a-billion-euro market for rubber sliders, which is very unusual in this market."
This marriage of wealth and accessibility is a cornerstone of Abloh's creative pursuits and his business, and he discussed his Louis Vuitton appointment with CNBC earlier this month, saying, "My baseline consumer can sometimes be 12 years old, and, you know, that is an incredible task, but I like the challenge of translating a brand that could be 100 years old to someone who's 12. I specialize in that."
Virgil and Kendall Jenner at the Met Gala.Noam Galai/Getty Images
In that conversation, he was also referring to the challenge of making an Off-White suitcase in collaboration with the 120-year-old German luxury luggage brand Rimowa (majority-owned by LMVH, which paid $716 million for an 80 percent stake in 2016). That suitcase — priced at $1,700 — was the most popular item among the teenagers who flocked to Hypebeast's first New York streetwear festival this October.
Abloh is benefiting from larger trends, such as the Instagram-driven return of logos, hip-hop's ascendancy to be the dominant form of American popular music, and the rise of mass-produced "algorithmic" style — but he's also spurring them, and capitalizing on them more robustly and quickly than anyone else.
Nike moved up five spots in Lyst's brand index this year too, and the Off-White x Nike Air Presto was the "hottest" item of the year — ranked higher than West's new Yeezy Boosts, or Balenciaga's tongue-in-cheek, trend-disfiguring Triple S sneakers. The company reported a year-over-year revenue of 6 percent for 2018, bringing in $36.4 billion.
Abloh is valuable to them because he sits at the intersection of art and commerce and popular culture: At the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills this fall, you could go see 35 sculptures created in collaboration by Abloh and Japanese fine artist Takashi Murakami. Before the exhibit closed, Drake bought one of them. During a lecture at Columbia University last February, Abloh compared his cover art for Kanye West's Yeezus to the Coca-Cola can, saying, "Being able to brand content that shapes a generation is not a small thing."
There is just nobody who understands our modern word salad better.
Off-White and Virgil Abloh are both extremely controversial, which is its own free advertising
The brand is not without controversy. Abloh's understanding of what is good and beautiful and important seems to be informed by what creates an impact, not necessarily by any consistent or discernible moral or intellectual worldview.
"Being able to brand content that shapes a generation is not a small thing"
He's a complicated hero to have: Last summer, he worked with the extremely famous socially conscious conceptual artist Jenny Holzer to create a line of pro-immigration and anti-neo-nationalism statement pieces, and that winter, he designed T-shirts for Planned Parenthood.
At the same time, he still stands by stylist Ian Connor, a hip-hop staple who has been accused of rape more than 20 times. In a 2017 W profile that declared Abloh "King of Social Media Superinfluencers," he named Connor as part of "inner circle," alongside A$AP Mob's creative director A$AP Bari, who has also been accused of sexual assault (video evidence leaked on Reddit just before he was arrested) and with whom Nike cut ties last year.
And when it comes to the actual designs, Abloh's "everything in quotes" tagline is a rallying cry for ironic detachment. But he can also be sincere: "We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren't supposed to be there," he told W when asked about becoming the first black man to design his own line at Louis Vuitton, which has been around for 165 years.
What he is doing is simultaneously important and easy to pick apart. When Abloh became the design director of Louis Vuitton menswear, K. Austin Collins wrote for Vanity Fair that the match made more sense than it seemed: "Off-White's signature diagonal stripes and ironic quotation marks are, for hypebeasts and the star-obsessed, as coded and class-aware as interlocking L.V. monograms are to another generation."
Collins also pointed out that the brand has "a youthful folly, a crude sense of pop weirdness," and acknowledged that "detractors claim its fraudulence." Off-White has plenty of these detractors.
For one, there are those who believe the foundation of Off-White is stolen ideas: In July, the Norwegian sportswear brand Helly Hansen filed a trademark infringement and unfair competition suit in Illinois federal court, accusing Abloh of ripping off its logo in many of his designs.
Even before that, Diet Prada, the popular Instagram account known for semi-accurately calling out rip-offs in the fashion industry, pointed out that the Off-White logo was nearly identical to a 1965 Glasgow airport design created by a famous UK design group. It found a photo of Abloh in his office, with a copy of a modernist design book that had an entry about the logo in question, and also accused him of plagiarizing Calvin Klein's Raf Simons and the Japanese label Anrealage.
Abloh has said it takes him 10 minutes to come up with many of his designs. He's also said he wants to help Apple design the next iPhone. His aesthetic interests are simplicity and efficiency, his commercial interests are what could be called economically avant-garde — dramatic, cartoonish, garish markups of basic items marketed primarily to kids, by celebrities, turning unattainability into a sport and pastime. When he introduced Off-White's "For All" diffusion line, it included four T-shirts and four hoodies that could only be purchased in brick-and-mortar stores in major cities, ranging in price from $95 to $170.
No one can decide if it's brilliant or hollow, but they'll keep talking about it
Controversy, though, of course, is conversation. And conversation is brand awareness. And boy, are the boys of Reddit ever aware of Off-White. There are only 2,000 members of the Off-White specific subreddit, but the 807,000 readers of the primary streetwear subreddit discuss it constantly.
They don't all love it. Many of them are lukewarm. Many of them openly hate it! Many say it's "aesthetically good stuff" but that they can't get behind the "disingenuous" message of the brand.
"Maybe Virgil is one of the greatest designers of our generation or maybe he's just best friends with Kanye," one user writes. "I like to think it's somewhere in the middle." Abloh represents a highly American tale of improbable work-driven success and highly probable celebrity-proximity, luck-driven success.
Kid Cudi in Louis Vuitton's spring/summer 2019 runway show.Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
Alex Castro, an illustrator at The Verge (and of this article!) and a notably cool person, is my last best hope to understand the brand's dominance, since even the hypebeasts are capable of openly questioning it. "All of the power of Off-White is in the quotation marks," he says. Then he details a very complicated emotional process, reacting to a rug that Abloh designed that says "Keep Off" on it:
It seems dumb at first glance, and then you end up thinking about the humor in it, and then you end up thinking about society and the rules we live in, and capitalism and norms and wherever that leads you. … But then I still end up thinking it's kinda dumb again. Because it's so simple and approachable, a lot of streetwear kids may think it's deeper than it really is. Similar to Rick and Morty, it makes people feel smart, but is it really saying something about capitalism and society that already hasn't been said? Probably not.
"Because it's so simple and approachable, a lot of streetwear kids may think it's deeper than it really is"
Off-White is huge — that's inarguable — and the best explanation of the brand might just be the products themselves: Rihanna's $1,000 over-the-knee white leather boots that say "For Walking" (in quotes) up the back of the calf, even though she was actually wearing them to stand on a stage and perform a private concert for label executives at the Top Dawg Christmas party last year.
Or John Mayer's Off-White x Nike Air Prestos, which he likely received for free before he paid the Grateful Dead-obsessed Instagram brand Online Ceramics to tie-dye them for him, inspiring a former Hypebeast editor to tweet that we have reached "Peak Tie-Dye" and "the most 2018 Streetwear Sentence" in one swoop.
Or the translucent Off White Converse high-tops, reviewed by renowned YouTube weirdo Brad Hall as, "The right foot says 'left,' the left foot says 'right,' it might totally reprogram my brain, not sure I'm ready for that." I, for one, love this absolutely useless floor-length, neon-yellow tutu, which Beyoncé wore one time.
"To be fair," Castro told me. "Off-White does have some fire items." It's true. That is fair. It is also fair to say that whether Off-White's designs are rip-offs will cease to be a very interesting question, as we sit back and watch more and more youth-craving fashion brands attempt to copy everything else about it.