Referencing seemed to be the greatest skill required from fashion designers today. It’s not about cutting or draping, it’s about taking a good visual, or a former smash hit, and reworking it in a new way, be it a Bernie Sanders logo (Balenciaga) or a the now iconic Supreme graphic (Louis Vuitton). Conservatives will quibble, but borrowing is the popular movement of fashion today. Virgil Abloh of fledging streetwear label OFF-WHITE understands this perfectly. He is a very modern designer in that sense. He’s cottoned on quick that one can become great by being around greats, and by taking from greats. There’s an old saying, attributed to Picasso, that, 'good artists copy, great artists steal.' I’d bet Abloh would actually slightly take issue with that - to him great designers borrow by hooking up with the original maker, by asking questions, by starting dialogues, by collaborating. It’s that knack for conversation, that willingness to learn, that has turned Abloh from cool dresser and boy-about-town to respected designer and in turn has turned OFF-WHITE from streetwear label known for graphic chevrons to a respected member of the new establishment, an emerging brand with a broad repertoire. That sense of widening his gaze and growing his offering was big news today.
It was telling and moving that the voice of John Berger, the great art critic who passed away this month, appeared on the soundtrack - 'The image does not come to you. You come to them.' Come to them Abloh certainly does. On a side note, Abloh enjoys a bit of spoken word on the soundtrack. For A/W 16, one year ago, it was my SHOWstudio interview with Peter Saville that made the cut. Saville’s presence lingers. Many will read the leaves that littered the catwalk and stuck to garments to be a reference to purity and nature - to me, they recalled Saville’s now iconic True Faith leaf for New Order in 1987. That adored album cover was probably in the mix somewhere, after all Abloh’s a big fan of the 1980s and the Madchester years where Saville rose to prominence - he’s just worked on a collaboration with Hacienda designer Ben Kelly (who sat front row), unveiled as part of my North: Identity, Photography, Fashion exhibition at Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool and available to purchase next month. The association with these names alone is proof of the point above - Abloh doesn’t just reference, he immerses himself in the school of thought of his icons.
Some were impressed to see that Abloh has expanded his repertoire to put more of a focus on fabrication and texture - those tactile outwear pieces were intriguing. But really image is still at the heart of what he does. Fashion and image become one in his mind, like they are to so many millennials who buy clothes online and live them out via Instagram, as a flat photo. All over this collections were varied visual suggestions and interventions - some modern, some nostalgic, such as the typography that suggested psychedelic art. They were placed haphazardly like badges. Collaged. Maybe that’s what Abloh really does - collages. His is an adapt appropriator, a skilled sampler, and each season his chosen mix gets more and more intriguing.