Around about the beginning of last year the world of menswear experienced a movement of sorts. Gradually dismantling a dichotomy of Haute Couture and Hot Commodity that for decades kept all of fashion’s creatures in their appropriate cages, the emergence of type-defiant labels that refused to sit comfortably on either side of the fence has arguably been one of the best things to happen to fashion in a minute. Young, start-up designers have managed to find a viable and manageable way to get into the market by championing the value of strong graphic aesthetics with decorated basics like t-shirts that can bring in the money for further development.
In streetwear, it is these basics that formed the foundations of entire cultures and trends – see Kanye West’s “Hip Hop T-Shirt” – so it was hardly surprising to see that corner of fashion making its voice heard in the movement. Shayne Oliver’s HBA initially received stick for its expensive block-graphic t-shirts, but the label has since gone on to release exciting fashion collections that simultaneously expand upon his original concept whilst weaving those androgynous graphic t-shirts and pants into a more fully-formed concept. Elsewhere, British designer Nasir Mazhar is now creating collections of futuristic tracksuits that bring classic UK street style to the catwalk, and whatever your opinion you can’t deny that it’s completely new. Few labels, however, have managed to match the same smouldering anticipation that would emanate through the internet from Virgil Abloh’s Pyrex Vision.
I wrote an article for my own website around this time last year entitled ‘Pyrex Vision and the Rise of Concept Consumerism’. Central to the piece was my problem with Pyrex depending far too heavily upon its Crackhouse-Connotative Concept of ‘Take cheap raw ingredients, cook it up in the kitchen and make bank off it’ when the end product wasn’t as fluid. Sure, you cook coke with bicarb in a jug on the stove and you get crack, but if you screen print PYREX on a bargain bucket Polo Rugby Shirt? Well, you can tell me it’s Pyrex Vision but I still see the composite materials of a screen graphic and a cheap flannel. If it looks like a duck…
Needless to say, the collection sold out. Comment sections set off about how Virgil had better come through with more next season, and rumours circulated about exactly that. Following months of silence and a whirlwind Yeezus tour, Abloh resurfaced late last year with ‘OFF-WHITE c/o Virgil Abloh’. With this development, Virgil set his standards high. Collections would be larger and more developed, operations would become much more professional and, most significantly, there would be no more Champion or Ralph Lauren – all product would be custom-manufactured, and in Italy at that.
When the lookbook finally released the reaction was… well, I’m not really sure. What was the reaction? I mean, how did you feel about it? It’s alright, I guess?
The thing is though, I often look around on social media and check the hashtags to see new product when it hits the shelves. You can search #pyrexvision on Instagram and find hundreds of photos of Champion shorts and big 23s so clearly the stuff was a hit (and still is). Problem is, whenever I try and find OFF-WHITE, it doesn’t seem like anybody has actually bought any. Seriously, every shop from here to Taipei is gramming their stock of OFF-WHITE, but nobody is posting a pick-up. Why not? After all, for all of the hype Pyrex wasn’t terrible looking and OFF-WHITE isn’t massively different, so what’s to complain about?
The only way to explain what I think the deal is with OFF-WHITE is to make an analogy. I guess the thing is, the OFF-WHITE product is pretty nice; the graphics and stripe pattern are clean; the colourways are slick; the materials look good; everything works together; the more wildcard products suggest there is a bigger vision going on here. But then, the graphics are kind of familiar; and so are the colourways; and the uniformity; and the desire to see more of this bigger vision.
Imagine you’ve just paid money to see the very first instalment of Lord of the Rings. You’ve paid the standard price for a film ticket, you know Peter Jackson is a respected name in the industry, so you look forward to watching the film. The film starts, and immediately you start to ask questions. Gandalf is only in costume from the waist up and you can see Sir Ian McKellen’s Hackett jeans (one imagines). They’re making their way through Gollum’s caves and spend about 3 minutes walking past a blank green screen. When Gollum appears, it’s just a pixellated stickman with axes on all of his joints and there’s a sound guy eating a kebab by the stalagmites. Needless to say, as a paying customer you feel kind of cheated.
Against your better judgement, you sit the film through because you trust Peter Jackson. At the end he comes out on the screen and says “Hey guys! Thanks a lot for buying a ticket to come see the film! Don’t worry though, this isn’t the final product, and with your help and support I’m gonna come back soon with a film that’s even bigger and better than this!”
Okay, whatever. So you go back to the cinema six months later and you buy another ticket for Lord of the Rings: The Finished Vision. Yeh sure, the special effects are better, and Gandalf is dressed properly this time, but haven’t we already seen this film? It’s nice seeing it done properly this time, but I already know the story, I’ve already seen the ending, I know where all the “jump out your seat” moments are. If this is what Peter Jackson is capable of doing, what the hell did we pay for the first time?
Coming back to OFF-WHITE, for all the material progression that Virgil has made with the product that he’s creating, his concept is still sat on chapter one. It’s like Pyrex was a kickstarter that in reality was kickstarting another kickstarter. It almost feels like the concept was good enough for Champion blanks in the beginning, and now he wants to take it to Italian cut’n’sew and tell us than in reality it’s equally good for high fashion with minimal alteration. Great, but we’ve heard it all before. The same people that blew three bills on a Pyrex Champion hoodie probably won’t want to blow more cash on another Caravaggio print because a) it’s too like Pyrex, but b) it’s not Pyrex and c) it looks exactly like my Pyrex one but d) why the fuck am I paying even more for the already astronomically-priced Pyrex? Now Virgil’s released his OFF-WHITE womenswear lookbook and one has to ask whether OFF-WHITE Menswear will be on the heap in six months time as another smash’n’grab as well – though, to be fair, the womenswear is pretty fantastic.
Clever marketing? Perhaps, but only so long as your client is willing to be dragged along with you. For somebody like Virgil Abloh who exerts more power through a hashtag than he does through the catwalk, there’s no doubt in my mind that OFF-WHITE will sell, eventually. Recent backstage shots of Beyoncé at Coachella in the brand’s military jacket have seen the product swiftly vanishing from shelves across the globe, so there you go; shut me up.
I suppose that’s kind of the problem though. Is this good, successful fashion, or is it just associated with the right people? Are we supposed to find this all clever and slick, or is Peter Jackson trying to sell you the same film that he released half-finished a year before? When your brand is effectively repeating a collection it already ran 6 months ago, doesn’t that put you behind? How are you supposed to catch up with self-imposed sluggish development? More importantly, Caravaggio is long dead now, and his work is finite. I guess there are probably enough good paintings in there to get you through the next few seasons. If you’re asking me though Virgil, one might benefit from some new ideas. Frankly, at this point it’s not so much OFF-WHITE as it is lightly soiled.
GregK writes regularly in this vein on his blog Fuckin Yeh