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Off-White Designer Virgil Abloh Has Emerged From Kanye's Shadow

In Kanye West’s solar system, he is the sun and everyone else revolves around him, dependent on both his shine and his gravitational pull to stay the course. Orbiting West are people like Don C, whose snakeskin snapback line, Just Don, has carved out a market in the streetwear scene. There’s also a handful of rappers, including Big Sean, Kid Cudi, and Vic Mensa. Referred to as West’s protégés, they have yet to eclipse their mentor. However, there is one West disciple who has managed to become a star in his own right, Virgil Abloh.

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Abloh has worked with West since 2002 and currently serves as the rapper’s creative director, advising him on everything from tour merchandise and album covers to stage design. Abloh’s parents hail from Ghana and the designer was raised in Chicago where he idolized Michael Jordan. He received a degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin in Madison before earning his masters in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Abloh names his wife, Shannon, whom he’s been with since high school, married in 2009, and has a two-year-old daughter with, as his "main inspiration." However, his list of inspirations seems endless. He’s an avid collector of Raf Simons, saying, "I’m maybe 80 pieces deep with archive work, but they’re all very special pieces. They’re works of art to me." Art is of great interest to Abloh. He likes to reference the renaissance painter Caravaggio, whose paintings he prints on hoodies.

Over his short career, Abloh's launched the (now-defunct) streetwear brand Pyrex Vision, founded Chicago menswear boutique RSVP Gallery, collaborated with Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver, and joined the group responsible for the graphic-heavy brand #BEENTRILL#. Pyrex’s course was similar to Don C’s Just Don in that the only thing that separated it from the glut of other streetwear brands was that it was worn by celebrities like West, A$AP Rocky, and Jay Z.

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Photos: Off-White Spring 2015 collection

Despite early success, Abloh shut Pyrex down after only a year. He then launched Off-White, a high-end men’s and women’s brand that has shown during Paris and Milan fashion weeks; is carried by some of the most influential retailers in the world (Barneys, Selfridges, Maxfield, Colette); and has appeared on the back of celebrities as often as it has in fashion editorials. Off-White garnered Abloh mainstream and critical success; he was the only American finalist for this year’s prestigious LVMH prize. Although Abloh didn’t win, his nomination landed him in the same class as other extremely successful — and respected — designers like Hood By Air’s Shayne Oliver, Marques’Almeida and Craig Green, who have all been nominated for the LVMH prize in the past.

Pyrex was more akin to a screen-printing operation than a fashion brand. Abloh took deadstock Rugby Ralph Lauren flannels — which only cost him $40 — printed the word "Pyrex" and the number 23, Jordan’s number, on the back, and sold them for $500. The ethics were iffy; the sales were not: The re-purposed flannels reportedly sold out in a matter of minutes. "Pyrex allowed me to get a foot in the door," Abloh told GQ in early 2015. "It became an essential starting point. But it was more like an art project. It was a moment in time, just a vision that I had. And because there was interest in it, and because I saw that it was catching steam, I quickly wanted to rebrand and expand my vision on clothing. Take a more serious approach."

"What Virgil Abloh created with Off-White is very different from his Pyrex collection."

When Abloh started Off-White, he moved his headquarters to Milan. "It’s just where I found the best opportunity after Pyrex," he said. "Great partners, great resources, great creatives, high-level talent." However, the brand’s first offering, entitled "The Youth Will Always Win,"didn’t seem to reflect Abloh’s newfound focus. The collection, which actually shared its title with a past Pyrex offering, was almost identical to what Abloh had been putting out underneath his previous brand. The hoodies, shorts, T-shirts, and trousers looked the same; the only difference was that the word Pyrex had been replaced with Off-White.

However, discounting Abloh at that point would have been a mistake, as he’s grown exponentially since releasing that first Off-White collection. In the GQ interview, Abloh compares his evolution to that of Jordan's. "You saw him get better," he said. "You got to watch that every season." Later, he talked about what he wanted to accomplish with Off-White’s nascent collections, again referring to Jordan. "That Jordan effect: Allow people to see the growth. My brain moves way too fast, and I want to go from zero to a hundred really quick."

Abloh launched Off-White with just menswear, but by the brand’s second season, fall/winter 2014, the designer added in womenswear. Yes, there were still heavily-branded hoodies, T-shirts, and pants. But there were also signs that Abloh was much more than a whiz with a screen printer.

"What Virgil Abloh created with Off-White is very different from his Pyrex collection," Tom Kalenderian, Barneys executive vice president and general merchandise manager for men’s, tells Racked. "I'm sure many Pyrex aficionados have followed Virgil to Off-White, but more evident is his fashion following that emerged from the birth of Off-White."


Photo: Getty

His first women’s collection offered a glimpse at the streetwear-meets-luxury aesthetic that still defines Abloh's work. It featured nubby wool coats, leather and belted jackets, and experimentations with fringe, all styled with Nike Air Force 1s.

Abloh broke away from the diagonal black-and-white stripe motif, which still represents Off-White today, with his next collection for spring/summer 2015. Named "Nebraska," it was heavily influenced by his favorite designer Raf Simons, who showed his own "Nebraska" collection in 2002. There was a noticeable lack of Off-White branding, marking a huge step for Abloh. In a review, (which has since transitioned to Vogue Runway), noted, "To be taken seriously as a designer, [Abloh] realizes he needs to step up his fashion game," before adding that he "succeeds" in doing so.

Abloh's third womenswear effort was inspired by the Charlie Hedbo terrorist attacks in Paris in January of this year. The resulting collection was a mix of silhouettes and iconography reminiscent of the politically-charged ‘60s, such as bell bottoms, peace signs, and phrases like "Dazed and still confused" and "War is not over." While it represented another step in the evolution of Abloh, the designer, his nomination for the prestigious LVMH prize the week before marked an even more important milestone in his growth.

LVMH, which owns labels like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Céline, and Dior, created the prize to help support burgeoning designers with a large cash infusion and a year of mentorship. Finalists and winners are judged by a panel including Bergdorf Goodman senior VP Linda Fargo, Vogue China editor Angelica Cheung, and fashion critic Cathy Horyn — who recently made headlines for blasting Kanye West’s Yeezy Season 2.

Last week, Abloh wrapped his first womenswear runway presentation in Paris. Once again, the designer mixed high and low by collaborating with Levi’s on an evening gown and jumpsuit made out of denim, plus patchwork, baggy, cut-up, and distressed jeans. What wasn’t indigo was either white or black. There was a focus on proportion play, with layered and pleated skirts; exaggerated and structured jackets; and billowing, layered trousers. Looking at this collection and Off-White’s fall/winter 2014 debut, it’s hard to believe they are the work of the same designer.

"Virgil is one of the smartest, fastest, most innovative people."

Throughout his career, Abloh has shown he’s a designer for these modern times. He excels at blending eccentric high and low references, pulling from both niche and mainstream sources. He’ll speak critically about German architect Mies van der Rohe in one breath and dirty Air Force 1s in the next. "If you ask me the dirt adds a layer of reality," he wrote on his blog The Brilliance. His aesthetic is especially palatable to a younger generation of fashion consumers raised on a steady diet of Tumblr blogs, hopping easily from one obsession to the next. "Abloh clearly has his pulse on the culture of cool kids today," Kalenderian said. "The fashion consumer likes a high-low mix — I want to be a brand that represents that," Abloh told The Cut early last year.

Abloh also understands and embraces the need for designers to be celebrities in their own right a la Alexander Wang, Olivier Rousteing, and Riccardo Tisci. In his case, he’s also a DJ and BFFs with a superstar. It’s no wonder that In a recent story about Abloh, GQ dubbed him "the creative director everyone wants to be." Off-White boasts an impressive roster of celebrity clients, including everyone from Justin Bieber to Beyoncé; Abloh’s Instagram feed is an enviable mix of exotic locales and "lit" parties.

"Virgil is one of the smartest, fastest, most innovative people I’ve created with," West told The New York Times late last year. So, West probably isn’t too taken aback that Abloh ended up being the supernova in his galaxy. The designer and his collections are the subject of Vogue articles that now don’t mention West until the second sentence — which is at least progress.

He has received the type of adoration from the fashion world that has eluded West, whose own runway collection in Paris in 2011 bombed with critics. Abloh has also attracted an acolyte of his own in rising designer Samuel Ross, who founded the popular menswear brand A-COLD-WALL*. In 2013, men’s style blog Four-Pins wrote, "There are a good amount of people who, justifiably, think that without Kanye, Virgil [would not] be where he is today." That still might be true, but he has evolved so much over the past two years that it might be Abloh who is in position to help out his old buddy West now.

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