For a number of reasons, I am fascinated by the streetwear label, Off-White.
It is one of the hottest labels in fashion, and yet there’s a part of me that doesn’t really get it. It’s mostly bold text, usually in quotations, on various apparel items. A set of Wellington boots might be plastered with “FOR RIDING.” A winter coat might be plastered with “DOWN JACKET.” And when they collaborate with Nike, the shoes might be tagged with “AIR.” Quotations included. Is that fashion?
But then you hear Virgil Abloh – the founder of Off-White, who by the way was also trained as an architect before becoming creative director for Kanye West – talk about his brand and it starts to make more sense. The quotation marks are supposed to signal “ironic detachment and a comment on the idea of originality.” Okay, so a little more sense.
Part of his inspiration comes from the work of Marcel Duchamp. In 1917, Duchamp shocked the art world with, Fountain. Some would consider this to be the most pivotal art piece of the 20th century. It was an off the shelf urinal that he simply signed, dated, and placed on a pedestal. Though initially rejected as art, it eventually redefined what art could be, shifting it from, “new physical creations to [the] moulding [of] ideas.”
The corollary to this was that anything could be art, even something as utilitarian as the catch basin that you pee into. And this insight is something that Abloh has used to fuel his label. But he has taken it a step further. He has leveraged the ubiquity of these everyday-items-elevated-to-art as a way to elevate his own brand. Here’s a quote by Abloh from the Guardian:
“The idea [that] an everyday object is art. Branding is generic and if I adopt the generic, then it becomes my branding, but it normally occurs in life.”
In other words, he is co-opting generic and ubiquitous items – like, for instance, the patterning on caution tape – for his Off-White designs. And if you believe that a bit of brand equity is at least partially driven by brand ubiquity, well then you might start to see the value in this approach. He is simply assigning authorship to things that are already omnipresent.
But, is that fashion? I guess that depends on whether you consider Duchamp’s Fountain to be art.