Abloh’s latest menswear collection attempts to subvert middle-class malaise, but instead showcases the fashion industry’s obsession with ceaseless borrowing from other cultures and social classes.
On the ground floor of the Centre Pompidou in the middle of Paris, a room is swatched with reds and blacks, evoking sexuality in a decidedly industrial space. A gaggle of photographers struggle for space, at least thirty of them pinned behind a velvet rope into a spot the size of a toilet stall. Assistants—men and women, in their early- to mid-twenties, wearing black, ankle-length doctor’s coats with white lettering on the back: Off White™ “Staff Uniform”© 2013-20XX—corral them. A few of the photographers bounce on their heels, make impassioned arm gestures when late guests threaten to block their shots of the incoming models. Hurriedly, the assistants seat the final stragglers. A heavy bass reverberates through the central speaker. Then: a booming recording of the poet Charles Bukowski speaking. The first models can be seen in the corridor. Necks crane.
“You get caught into the stricture of what you’re supposed to be and you have no other choice,” says Bukowski over the speakers. “I decided I’d rather starve, live on the edges of nowhere, than do anything at all; than become anything labeled. So for fifty years I was a scarecrow, unlabeled, and now I’m supposed to be a writer.”
Weezer’s “Only in Dreams” begins. The models begin their walk. The clothing depicts a weary evolution into middle-class adulthood in what will be the show’s anchoring theme. The first model: a rumpled sweater. The next: a wrinkled button-up. The third: a suit. Then, a messier middlebrow miscellany gives way. The collection from Virgil Abloh’s Off White label is called “Business Casual,” a middle ground between tailoring and streetwear that’s been voguish in high fashion for at least the past year. A fishing vest over a blue t-shirt, atop cargo pants with high, white socks. A sparkling-blue puffer jacket. Mom jeans. A red shirt with its buttons in a diagonal line. Intentional creases in shirts; laid-back Nike trainers and spray-painted Oxfords. Handbags that look like IKEA shopping bags, colored red with “OFF WHITE” inscribed on the side. A shoe worn on the runway that says “RUNWAY.” A scarf that says “SCARF.”
There’s a sense you’ve already been here. If you’ve looked at a certain René Magritte painting before, if you’ve read any analysis by Marcel Duchamp, you already know what Abloh is thinking. His Off White shoe collaboration with Nike has shoelaces with “SHOELACE” written on them in Helvetica. He calls it “ironic detachment.” Duchamp is “my lawyer,” he also says. The Dadaist, he adds, gives him the grounds to copy and paste, to take and to re-apply.
But Duchamp also said, “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.”
With his new menswear collection, shown on Wednesday morning, Abloh has again angled for detachment but also for social nostalgia. The clothes tell the story of a middle-class life—that which Bukowski rejects in the recording, that which Abloh, who was raised in the suburbs of Rockford, Illinois, rejected. But does the show convey a cut-and-dry subversion, or an exploitative reappropriation? The rumpled button-ups, mismatched ensembles, and the aesthetic of imperfect hand-me-downs found in Goodwills have been placed on Abloh’s high-flouting runway, and as the ten-minute show comes to a close, you realize you have watched nothing less than the co-opting of a social class: a utilitarian middle- and working-class aesthetic that, in Abloh’s attempt to subvert it, he has made all the duller, morphing a varied class aesthetic into the streamlined visual and economic register of the fashion elite.
It is, of course, a similar conceit to that of the Georgian designer Demna Gvasalia, who takes motifs from the Internet and popular culture—the shipping company DHL, the film Titanic, IKEA, Bernie Sanders’ presidential run—and, depending on how you look at it, either satirizes their superficiality or cravenly plays into them for a profit. (The DHL shirts, for instance, which are nearly identical to the seven-dollar ones the company’s drivers wear, sell for $250.) “Y/Project” has also lifted from a middle-class, America register, this time tapping into the Bush era with their recent line of multilayered Ugg boots, which Vogue so daintily characterized as, “Jabba the Hutt engulfing each thigh.”
Abloh would call all of this art, a Duchampian copy-and-paste. And although Gvasalia and Uggs are guilty of a similar aesthetic laziness, ever since his rise to mega-designer and collaborator, Abloh has been fashion’s Charon, ferrying the industry between so-called streetwear and high fashion. His decision to play into this appropriation—to champion it, in fact—perhaps holds the most gravity, as he lives up to his given poetic name, guiding us through this current hell.