The Off-White Story: How Virgil Ablohs Dream Became A Big Success

Off-White is best known for its $1,000 hoodies; costly, tongue-in-cheek phone covers; buzzy partnerships that help drive the billion-dollar sneaker business; trademark, seemingly nonfunctional industrial-themed belts; and experimental furniture. Two years ago, when children lined up and paid more than $1,000 for an actual brick issued by Supreme, it was at least apparent that this was a prank.

But Off-White is serious. It consists mostly of T-shirts, hoodies, and sneakers, and is adored by teens on Reddit, rich club kids in New York and Milan, pop stars and wealthy rappers in every magazine and on social media, and a large portion of the high-fashion elite, including Virgil Abloh’s earliest supporter Marc Jacobs. Let’s dive into the Off-White success story.

Off-White Started With A Bang

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The 22-year-old Illinois-raised son of two Ghanaian immigrants (his mother was a seamstress) Virgil Abloh graduated from the University of Wisconsin Madison’s civil engineering school that year. Abloh met Kanye West and designed his clothing and album art that year. Abloh also earned a master of architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006. (This shows his intelligence and seemingly endless energy.) West and Abloh interned at Fendi in the summer of 2009 and said they did nothing but became closer friends.

West appointed Abloh “creative director” in 2010. (Every rapper now has a creative director, and Rihanna has about 14.) Kanye West’s successful album with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne, was Abloh’s first major public effort with West. In 2012, Abloh established Pyrex Vision, a store based on a scam: buying inexpensive Champion basics and Ralph Lauren dead stock, screen-printing his own simple images on them, and selling them for hundreds of dollars. Buzzing! Controversial! A$AP Rocky!

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Off-White redesigned 10 Nike classics in 2017. This footwear line’s popularity and scarcity defy description. Despite starting at $200, most pairs went to celebrities, and resale prices are now over $1,000. In 2018, Abloh became the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, which was covered by every fashion or business journal and discussed by every prominent figure who had ever worn expensive clothes. Playboi Carti and Kid Cudi modeled for his Paris premiere with Rihanna.

Outperforming Several Premium Fashion Houses

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According to a quarterly rating published by the fashion and e-commerce portal Lyst, Off-White is the most popular brand in the world. It surged 33 positions in Lyst’s list during the past year, and for the first time this quarter, it eclipsed historical premium fashion houses such as Gucci and Balenciaga. This ranking should be taken with a grain of salt, considering Off-White is not a publicly traded company and we know nothing about its sales (although Gucci and Balenciaga have experienced “outstanding” growth this year).

In addition, the Lyst index relies heavily on opaque sources, including its own search, browsing, and purchase data, social media “engagement statistics,” and “sentiment analysis.” It also incorporates Google Search data, which is publicly available, but it is unclear how that data is weighted in this secret, somewhat suspiciously complex algorithm. Regardless of methodology, the index indicates the obvious: “luxury” today refers to upscale streetwear. Streetwear has been a benefit for the $300 billion global high-end fashion sector, contributing to a projected 5% expansion in 2017.

Federica Levato, a partner at the marketing consulting firm Bain & Company, told Business of Fashion last October that their customers are getting younger, which is great for the mid-and long-term survival of this industry. She explained that there is a big market of $2.5 million for luxury T-shirts, for example, that is growing very fast. And there is a half-a-billion-euro market for rubber sliders, which is very unusual in this market.

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Controversies Being The Brand’s Free Advertising

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The brand has been the subject of controversy. Abloh’s perception of what is good, beautiful, and significant appears to be shaped by what makes an impression, and not necessarily by a consistent or obvious moral or intellectual viewpoint. Last summer, he collaborated with the renowned socially conscious conceptual artist Jenny Holzer to develop a collection of pro-immigration and anti-neo-nationalism statement pieces, and he designed T-shirts for Planned Parenthood that winter.

Nonetheless, he continued to support hip-hop icon Ian Connor, who has been accused of rape more than twenty times. In a 2017 W profile in which Abloh was crowned “King of Social Media Superinfluencers,” he named Connor as a member of his “inner circle” alongside A$AP Mob’s creative director A$AP Bari, who has also been accused of sexual assault (video evidence leaked on Reddit just before he was arrested) and with whom Nike severed ties in 2018.

Abloh’s “everything in quotations” tagline serves as a rallying cry for sarcastic distancing in regard to the real designs that he has created. When asked about becoming the first black man to design his own brand for the 165-year-old Louis Vuitton, he told W that his generation was interested in fashion but was not intended to be there.

 

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Sources: Vox, BoF, Vogue

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