When guests attended Pitti Uomo SS18 back in June, there was a bright orange T-shirt awaiting them at their hotels. The tee had been produced by Off-White, which would show its SS18 collection at Pitti a few days later, and its plastic packaging was printed with the declaration "Runway Show Invite." The tee itself had a huge backprint that read "I'll Never Forgive the Ocean," a quote from Iranian poet Omid Shams, and its front was illustrated with the instructions for using a life vest. Abloh would later tell Dazed that the collection he showed at Pitti was "a dialogue about immigration, refugees and this idea that borders are so heavily guarded that people are dying just to try to get from one to another."
Take a look at any of the products Abloh is designing these days, and you'll notice the heavy use of quotation marks, which bookend seemingly innocuous words and phrases. Shoelaces are declared "Shoelaces". Off-White's leather bags, which can cost as much as $2,500, are titled "Sculpture." These high-heeled, over-the-knee boots tell the world that they're "For Walking." Even the brand's website is labelled, you guessed it, "Website."
Virgil loves quote marks; in a recent interview with 032c, he explicitly asked that terms like 'streetwear' and 'merchwear' be rendered as quotes in the magazine. 032c is a high-brow publication — it's a place where fashion is a cultural conversation, much more than just expensive clothes — and Virgil's interview with the Berlin mag is a must-read for anyone curious about the layers of thinking in his work. It's clear from the interview that all these citation marks aren't just some throwaway design trick, they're a window into Abloh's modus operandi. As 032c's Thom Bettridge recalled in the story:
"Quotation marks are one of the many tools that Abloh uses to operate in a mode of ironic detachment...Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations in favor of the copy-paste logic of the Internet and its inhabitants. His new order is protected by a fortress of irony."
Empirical facts aren't put into quote marks; when words are surrounded by speech marks, their validity is in question. By presenting words as citations, Abloh is taking them out of context, and questioning their seriousness. When he puts "Sculpture" on the side of a handbag, he's provoking the viewer. What's the difference between a handbag and a piece of art, really?
"You can use typography and wording to completely change the perception of a thing without changing anything about it" Abloh explained to 032c. "If I take a men’s sweatshirt and write “woman” on its back, that’s art."
Virgil's choice of typeface is also significant. Developed in 1957, Helvetica has become so ubiquitous that it's almost invisible — the font is used in the logos of American Apparel, General Motors, Panasonic and BMW, as well as on federal income tax forms and the insides of NASA's space shuttles. It's a masterpiece of the mid-century era that Abloh worshipped when he was studying architecture.
In the 032c story, he compares the typeface to the hazard stripes which unite the disparate motifs running through Off-White's collections. "The diagonal lines help me solve a huge issue, how to take a bunch of random things and let them be one. That’s the mindset of Helvetica. That’s the mindset of architecture."
Off-White's ironic tone, along with its streetwear sensibilities and army of celebrity fans, is what makes it one of the most relevant labels today. "We’re at the beginning of what I believe is the “streetwear” era of fashion – which is about doing it yourself, and logos, and irony, and satire" Virgil sums up in his 032c interview. "But it can also be chic, and refined, and elevated. That’s Off-White."
Just like Demna Gvasalia, who gives shout-outs to DHL and Balenciaga's corporate owners Kering, Virgil understands that irony is the most effective way of communicating these days. His subtle-yet-deliberate jabs engage the viewer, encouraging them to share his work until it goes viral. His not-so-serious tone places Off-White above the rest of the conversation, because, to casual observers, it looks like he doesn't even take it seriously.
These $2,000 boots? They're just for walking.
You can find Virgil Abloh's 5,000+ word interview in issue #32 of 032c, alongside pieces with Jason Dill, Bella Hadid and Nicolas Ghesquiere, among others. Visit the publication's webstore to get a copy for yourself.
Now read why Virgil Abloh should be leading a fashion house.