Off-White autumn/winter 2020 collection at Paris Fashion Week. Photo / The Washington Post — Jonas Gustavsson

Runway Report: Why The Shine Came Off Virgil Abloh's Off-White Label At Paris Fashion Week

Virgil Abloh's status as a designer of our time is in question after his autumn/winter 2020 collection at Paris Fashion Week.

The designer Virgil Abloh stands at the edge of a precipice. He is precariously perched atop a segment of the fashion industry where someone like him is a rare sight: a black man with a megaphone and everyone's attention.

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Abloh is the man behind the Off-White label. He also is the designer of Louis Vuitton's menswear. But Off-White is his baby; it's the project that propelled him to this peak. It's how he made his name as a new kind of designer — one who is not tethered to clothing as his sole creative medium. Abloh is a disc jockey, consultant and industrial designer. He is a promiscuous collaborator. He has conjured up products with everyone from Ikea and Nike to Evian. Fashion, for Abloh, is not a destination. It is more of a means to an end, with that finale being a charismatic, divine expression of creativity — and a satisfyingly lucrative payday. The eyes of the fashion industry are upon him.

Until suddenly, they are not. Until suddenly, the people come but in the back of their mind, they're wondering why they made such an effort. This happens in fashion, with brands that ride in on a tide of zeitgeisty buzz: Zac Posen, Hood by Air, Kanye. it happens a lot to designers of color, but maybe that's simply because there aren't that many of them that ever breathe fashion's rarefied air, and so when it happens to a couple of them it feels like it happens almost all the time.

Off-White's autumn/winter 2020 collection includes this white knit dress with Swiss cheese cutouts and a gold belt. Photo / The Washington Post — Jonas Gustavsson

Abloh is on that edge.

This ebb and flow isn't a measure of commercial success — though it often is. People buy what they want to buy regardless of what some gatekeepers in a glass tower say. It's more a reflection of the industry's willingness to invest in a narrative about technical skill and originality — based more on a whim than evidence. It's fashion putting truth to the "Project Runway" cliche about fortunes shifting in a day. Fashion isn't fickle; fashion simply puts an inordinate amount of stock in fables.

Abloh is an intellectual grazer. He's constantly snacking on inspiration, offbeat ideas, iconic creative gestures from historic brands. The autumn-winter 2020-2021 collection he put on the runway Thursday evening at Fashion Week was a mix of Abloh and Nike and Arc'Teryx — along with references to the Dutch label Viktor & Rolf and its use of massive silhouettes, and Tom Ford's version of Gucci.

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Indeed, Abloh sent down a white knit dress with Swiss cheese cutouts and a gold belt that was a direct homage to Ford's slinky white jersey evening gown with strategic peeks of skin, which was, itself, an homage to the work of Halston. It was even worn by the same model, Carolyn Murphy, who should really bottle whatever she's drinking because she does not appear to have aged at all in the course of more than two decades.

Abloh likes big tulle ballgowns juxtaposed with technical sportswear and street gear. And so he offers half a fussy party dress over camouflage trousers, or a cropped windcoat over a giant wedge of tulle. He likes Hadids, of which there were three on the runway: Gigi, Bella and mama Yolanda. Sometimes, instead of spindly heels, models wore Off-White for Nike sneakers with their dangling references to anti-theft devices. That was the coolest thing on a runway, which was essentially a large sports arena lit by lurid red lights and studded with the sawed halves of cars standing upright like industrial age Stonehenge.

Yolanda Hadid in the Off-White autumn-winter 2020 show. Photo / The Washington Post — Jonas Gustavsson

Fashion is all about borrowing, referencing and reinventing. But really good fashion does so in a way that improves upon a preexisting idea by tweaking it to make it utterly, perfectly right for a new time. Truly marvelous fashion transforms something familiar into a revelation. Abloh doesn't reveal something anew; he gives something that's already been done a shout-out.

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At the end of his show, metallic confetti rained down on the cars. It wasn't clear why. But blizzards of confetti have been part of the finale at other designers' runway shows. And Abloh is part of the rental economy in which nothing is owned and everything is shared. Everything is borrowed. No one has a stake in anything. Nothing sticks.

Abloh is a designer for our time. Until suddenly, he is not.

— The Washington Post

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