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Off-White SS17 womenswear
Backstage at Off-White SS17 WomenswearPhotography BABYHOUSE

Virgil Abloh: defining streetwear’s place in high fashion

After his SS17 womenswear show, the designer reflects on power dressing, categorisation, and why he put a critic’s ‘trivialising’ comment on the floor of his showroom

This week, buyers paying a visit to Virgil Abloh’s Off-White showroom in Paris may have found themselves standing on an unusual furnishing – a black rug bearing a large, white sentence on it. “It’s highly possible that Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, slapped ‘PYREX 23’ on the back, and resold them for an astonishing mark-up of 700%”, it read. A piece by elusive artist Jim Joe, the reference was to designer Abloh’s former brand Pyrex Vision, which skyrocketed to notoriety around 2013 for, among other things, printing its name on deadstock flannels. “It was from press, some article that was trying to trivialise what Pyrex was,” Abloh explains of the quote, speaking over the phone from Chicago. “The critic was trying to black and white underline what happened, but had totally missed the art context of Pyrex – it was like a theory on streetwear. If you look at it wrong, you don’t see where the ideas were.”

With his current brand Off-White now showing both menswear and womenswear collections at Paris Fashion Week, being sold (and selling out) everywhere from Selfridges to its flagship in Tokyo, that critic’s dismissal is a fitting message for Abloh to incorporate into his showroom. It’s a reminder that, even in the midst of his current success, he’s not forgetting where he came from – that his route into the industry was through designs made on a laptop rather than the prestigious cutting tables of a school like Saint Martins. “That quote is what people stand on when they’re buying Off-White,” he says. “That literally was my only entry-point into fashion – I had to use whatever means I had.”

“I take that label, ‘streetwear’, I wear that as a badge, sort of rejecting it as a common denominating term. It’s like I’m trying to define what that word means within high fashion” – Virgil Abloh

Things have come a long way in a few short years, but the understanding of what people want to buy and wear which saw Pyrex become a cult success hasn’t weakened. Abloh’s SS17 womenswear show, presented on Thursday night, was dubbed “Business Woman” and came complete with an invitation bearing the name Katherine Parker – the ball-busting boss in 80s classic Working Girl. (If it seems a retro choice, blame the designer’s self-proclaimed interest in the cycle of trends, which sees him drawn to references like Carrie Bradshaw or Pretty Woman – out of date to the point they are almost relevant again). The 80s reference wasn’t a heavy-handed throwback, though. At a time when your Instagram bio has replaced a résumé, when women no longer have to put on men’s suits to be taken seriously, Abloh sought to explore what the idea of power dressing looks like today.

“It’s not that power dressing that’s in the film. It’s 2017 dressing of what I see that that liberated feeling looking like,” he explains. “There’s a lot of deterioration of a man’s wardrobe – not just a woman wearing a dress shirt or a suit, but wearing it in a feminine way that has nuances of masculinity.” Patrick Bateman-esque striped shirts were reworked into new silhouettes, complete with status symbol initial monograms reading ‘OFF’, while tailored jackets were asymmetrical, teamed with baseball caps or tracksuit pants. It’s these elements, along with printed tees and reworked denim, which present a vision of womenswear that hasn’t, traditionally, been found at Paris Fashion Week – long known for its showcasing of Comme des Garçons’ high concept design and Chanel’s couture-level luxury. But Off-White has streetwear at its heart, and Abloh doesn’t shy away from that.

“I take that label, ‘streetwear’, I wear that as a badge, sort of rejecting it as a common denominating term,” he says. “It’s like I’m trying to define what that word means within high fashion. My thing is (doing) both, not ‘and’ or ‘or’. That’s what Off-White is, it’s choosing two things, not one.” There’s certainly something to be said for embracing both – after all, it’s not like huge fashion houses don’t make t-shirts or jeans, they just ship them straight to stores, not wanting to incorporate such banalities into high-concept runway collections. (Gucci, no doubt influenced by the success of the likes of Vetements, has recently done so). But a lot of the time, as Abloh knows, those entry-level pieces are what allows people to make an economic – and a personal – investment in a brand.

The most important thing to understand about Off-White is how totally, unashamedly of the moment it is. That’s not to say it’s a flash in the pan – instead, it’s defining something that’s happening in fashion and culture now. Along with labels like Matthew Williams’ Alyx, and Demna and Guram Gvasalia’s Vetements (the latter brother having turned out to watch Abloh’s show), it’s creating clothes that are based in reality, and that speak to both men and, increasingly, women – young women, the kind who are today’s Working Girls, calling the shots. “For me, there’s been a transition that’s happened – I’m just trying to underline it,” Abloh says of fashion today. “There’s a freedom, there’s an empowerment, there’s a way of letting the clothes express your personality but not dictate it. It’s a nuance but I think it’s very powerful in current culture. It’s like styling oneself is more important than the brand in itself.”