In political terms what happened in Florence this summer at the Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh show was not a human rights offence. But, in fashion terms, it very probably was. We are talking about the most pretentious show in the world this year, the Italian runway debut of Off-White in the massive menswear trade show Pitti in June, before one of Italy’s most legendary museums – Palazzo Pitti.
It was not so much the collection – collectively, the most blatant series of lifts by one “designer” of a half dozen others in recent memory – that caused the most offence. It was more the utter fatuousness of the whole event, and most especially the outrageous claims made by this fledging house and its junior creator about his skills and talent. Traditionally, an invitation to stage a runway show in Pitti is a great honor. For the uninitiated, Pitti is a Florentine menswear salon that is widely regarded as the greatest fashion trade show anywhere on the planet. There are barely a half dozen catwalks shows in the four-day event, and the evening gala events are most anticipated and watched soirées.
These shows can be the sanctification of a designer; or in the case of Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh, a brutal desecration.
Abloh did put on a decent show, thanks to some giant light projections on the façade of the fortress like Renaissance building. The massive arc lights attracting a large gang of curious tourists and locals to the show on the le bank of the river Arno. Yet, ultimately, this was a rude public awakening – given the truly pretentious self- importance of the whole mood. An American raised in Chicago to parents of Ghanaian descent, Abloh is not a trained designer, but an engineer by profession. He rose to prominence after designing the album cover of Watch the Throne for Kanye West, going on to be nominated for a Grammy for the concept. Subsequently, in 2014, he launched his fashion label Off-White, which is manufactured in Italy.
For Pitti, he convinced Jenny Holzer, the American neo-conceptual artist, to create a series of anti-war poems in two-meter high words that shone on the Palazzo Pitti façade. Backing up the massive light installation with classical opera courtesy of the Opera di Firenze. The association with Holzer clearly excited Abloh. In his program notes, he took the liberty of calling himself a “multihyphenate (sic) artist who works in the sphere of fashion as Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh”. Right… Even such fashion greats as Miuccia Prada or Karl Lagerfeld describe themselves, quite correctly as applied artists. Abloh, however, called Holzer a “fellow artist”.
“No letter comes from the wounded Iran as long as death is the messenger and as the man,” read one ungrammatical poem projected during the show, as a model in white nylon shorts and a smock cut open to expose his tummy marched about the cobble stone plaza in front of the museum. The actual clothes gave the distinct impression that Abloh had been looking closely at the work of Raf Simons in terms of staging and silhouette; Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver regarding street tailoring; Y-3 for distilling active sportswear into clubbing chic and Helmut Lang in terms of unexpected materials. One should also not forget that two decades ago Lang incorporated Jenny Holzer installations into his own shows and stores and had his very own fashionart event with Holzer at Pitti in 1994. So, another lift.
“No letter comes from the wounded Iran as long as death is the messenger and as the man”
The net result was some 30 looks with jumbled up and oddly placed zips and openings; combined with eccentric versions of classic footwear. Let’s be clear: Just because you send out a Timberland boot in powdery orange does not make you a designer, or indeed an artist. The designer was greeted with tepid applause from the audience, most notably from the ranks of editors. Department store buyers tell us that Off-White sells pretty well at retail. Be that as it may, what we saw in Italy this summer was a fashion pastiche where the ideas of true designers were blatantly re-edited and ripped off by someone with the pomposity to describe himself as an artist when he is barely even a designer. Furthermore, the feeling that Europe’s deeply concerning refugee crisis was used by Abloh to create a fashion moment was truly disturbing.
This article appeared first in Achtung Mode Nr. 34 (September 2017).