The death of Virgil Abloh in November of last year came as a shock to the industry, not least because the multihyphenate (who practically imploded that term in fashion) was in the midst of such creative fruitfulness. His Louis Vuitton, where he was artistic director of menswear, was singing; his famous collaborations, like a second collection with streetwear vet Nigo at Louis Vuitton and a special-edition Maybach with Mercedes, were ever-flowing; and he was deep into plans for a major show for the Brooklyn Museum, to open in July of 2022. His passing left a void in an industry that had only just begun to understand his impact, and observers have wondered since then what might happen to his many projects that were in the works, not to mention the artistic leadership of the two brands, Vuitton and Off-White, that he led.
At Monday’s Off-White show, we got our first sense of what is to come. The brand, which Abloh founded in 2012, plans to move forward for the next two years as a kind of collective, with a team of designers working from the extensive archive of designs generated by Abloh during his ten years as its founding creative. The clothes shown this week, for example, were described in the show notes as “designed by Virgil and completed by the creative teams and collaborators with whom he worked.” So copious were Abloh’s designs, in other words, that his team is sitting on a mountain of unreleased material and concepts they’ll continue to execute.
The collective is very much in the spirit of Virgil; he was known for recruiting both experienced hands (like Nigo or Hans Ulrich Obrist) and untested, unknown talents who DM’d him on Instagram. The new system, in other words, is both a continuation, even expansion, of Abloh’s mission to disrupt the fashion status quo, and a savvy strategy to keep Abloh’s design vision pulsing through the culture. It’s possible that the brand will eventually appoint a new creative director, Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke (who is also helping Off-White’s owners, New Guards Group and Abloh’s wife, Shannon, move forward) told Business of Fashion on Monday, but for “the next two years, we are going to go full-speed.”
As for the show itself, it functioned as a celebration of the designer’s life and the sprawling community he formed through clothes. His cast was a star-studded parade of close friends, like tennis star Serena Williams (for whom he created custom game outfits) and 21st century model-muses Bella Hadid, Gigi Hadid, Kendall Jenner, and Kaia Gerber (all of whom regularly wore his clothes). His po-mo approach to fashion history meant he was always as much about the moment as he was about the past, casting legendary models like Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford, and he loved to highlight a true insider, like fellow music- and fashion-head Honey Dijon. Seeing all these women walk in his show underscored the reach of his ambitions as well as the role he played in minting new stars into mononymous personalities.
And here’s an assurance that we’ve really just seen the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Abloh’s output: the show’s final clutch of 28 looks comprised the launch of a new “haute couture” offering (in classic Abloh quotes, of course, to emphasize this isn’t official Fédération-sanctioned stuff). His show notes (coming in at a modest-for-Abloh 36 pages) included a screenshot of WhatsApp message between Abloh and a member of his team, which is how he created almost all of his shows, describing the muse for the clothes, which he conceived of last summer:
owns her own apartment
wears boys clothes
listens to hip hop
Reallly real indeed: the looks commenced with musician Ian Isaiah strolling down the runway in velvet blue tux, smoking a joint—Abloh’s interpretation of Yves Saint Laurent’s timeless Le Smoking suit. Indeed, the collection included classic Abloh mishmashes of fashion cliches and style subcultures, like a varsity jacket over oyster-like waves of plisse tulle, and a tiered skirt of pleated cloud-gray tulle with a Grateful Dead t-shirt under a black bra. The show notes, which are always a joy to peruse, described each look as an archetype, like “The Carrie B.”—a tulle-and-shopping bag tribute to the Sex and the City antihero—and “The Fangirl,” featuring enormous fans of tulle and silk radzimir layered over a sparkly green jersey, “which at once lionizes and trolls the esoteric culture of the institution [of couture].” Another gown featured a bustier reading “no snitches,” intended, per the notes, as a rebuke to the Diet Pradas of the world: “It echoes a pop cultural and political sentiment heard often during Virgil Abloh’s upbringing in the same decade, adapted to fashion in the age of social media: Fuck the Fashion Police.”
These sorts of high-low mixes are increasingly common in couture—Balenciaga made T-shirts and sweatshirts for Demna’s relaunch of couture last summer, and Chanel, under Virginie Viard, is increasingly investing in couture daywear—but the Off-White couture underscores how Abloh was particularly fluid, even funny, with his reference materials, and used clothes as a way to provoke and comment on major social issues as well as stick out his tongue at internet jokes. (The back of Campbell’s dandyish black coat, for example, read in giant letters stacked vertically, “RESPECTFULLY.”)
Haute couture has become a renewed center of the fashion world–not because the business is expanding, per se, but because the growing number of online fashion fanatics—the ones who regularly dissect shows and celebrity outfits, and who were raised on Abloh and in turn fascinated the designer—are so obsessed with its mystique. Classic couture shapes and gestures are even trending in ready-to-wear. His multitude of jokes and outright trolling of the sacred artform, especially operating as someone who was often described and even dismissed as a streetwear designer, is a fantastic final punchline.
While Abloh was perhaps the world’s most famous living fashion designer at the time of his death, his creative practice was, in a way, critically under-appreciated, in part because he made so much and disseminated the clothes with so much information. His clothing was also sometimes inscrutable to the conservative fashion establishment, who were attached to old-school views about glamor and design. But this new “HIGH FASHION” line, as the notes described it, offers longevity to both his designs and the legion of creatives working in his wake. This moment might mark one of the first 21st luxury brands to charge forth successfully in competition with the ruling class luxury names—Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent—established in the middle of last century (putting Abloh in good company with Alexander McQueen’s brand under Sarah Burton, and the eponymous brand founded by Tom Ford post-Gucci). It’s already ensured that his provocations will continue to do their thing for many seasons to come.