Back in Van…1
The white marble-clad concrete box has no perpendicular street front presence and it’s not until you’re smack-dab in front of it that you can clearly see the glowing helvetica lettering shimmering through the glass curtain wall. If you know, you know. And if not, well, too bad so sad.6
Inside, the four-member staff is perfectly polite with no airs nor pretensions. The two-storey store has womenswear on the main floor and menswear upstairs, neither of which has more than 100 items displayed, including accessories, though I’m assured by the staff that more sizes are kept in the back and are available upon request. But could I find something tempting enough to even try on ?
The wayfinding markers on the stairwell landings represent the most intriguing elements of the entire store design. Such details perhaps aren’t unexpected given Virgil’s formal architectural training at IIT, but are nonetheless appreciated marks of transparency and playfulness, both hallmarks of the omni-channel brand that was founded in 2013 and is now opening such boutiques in the world’s global capitals.7
The articles of clothing themselves, however, largely lacked refinement. This is certainly part of the appeal, if not the lion’s share of it, and it speaks to Virgil’s expressed desire to iterate rather than perfect, but it doesn’t speak to all “da youf” (yours truly included). Perhaps if you’ve seen it all and owned it all at this level of the game, this calculated carelessness would feel like a breath of fresh air, but for someone primarily interested in quality and craftsmanship as much as self-expression, the Off-White SS19 collection comes up short, not to mention that it positively pales in comparison to Virgil’s work for Louis Vuitton’s SS19 menswear collection, which is just so exquisitely constructed. In addition to the intentionally rough finishing, the “Off-White” logos, whether in effusive print or with massive arrow-cross, lack anything resembling subtlety. This level of overt branding is about what you’d expect from Diesel, which is to say that it’s almost expressly for people who can’t read design and need to be told what brand you’re wearing.8 The one clear positive about Virgil’s design direction, however, in addition to the sharp use of quotation marks throughout, is his knowledge and integration of classical fine art into his fashion, whether Caravaggio, Da Vinci, or Manet. He’s speaking very clearly to a new generation that may have only a passing familiarity with fine art and his blatant references can’t help but spark deeper inquiries into the masterpieces of western cannon, be it for owners, their friends, or passersby. This blend of literacy and illiteracy is nothing if not ironic, which can only be the point. And a beautiful one at that.
Closing on an architectural high-note, the curtain wall had some of the thickest glass vertical mullions you’ll find anywhere. Not even the newish Vancouver Convention Centre West (as seen out the window from the PacRim) has glass mullions so robust. A solid two inches of laminated glass provide wind load resistance while maintaining off-centre transparency from within and without.9 Like much else in this store and from the brand, this detail’s only obvious if you know what you’re looking for. Le Corbu’s line about “eyes that do not see” can be applied nowhere more aptly than “Off-White” today. The whole experiment is a curious if refreshing blend of layers and meanings that acts as a perfect titrant to relax the often rigid industry. Thanks to continual infusions of fresh blood such as this, high fashion10 continues to evolve with mesmerising alacrity.
- Now do you see why I positively need a pied-a-terre here ? Vancouver House is set for occupancy later this year… and the market is finally “correcting” a bit… [↩]
- Off-White is the most inspirational and aspirational new fashion brand on the planet. In a matter of a few short years, it’s ascended to the heights of the established maisons and even bested the better part of them for mind-share and social impact. How, you ask ? How is an upstart brand created by a then-33-year-old black kid from Chicago (whose parents were both born in Ghana) now as hot and sexy as multi-billion-dollar powerhouses such as Balenciaga, LV, Nike, and Gucci ?
Simple : the world is just that starved for fresh perspectives optimistically presented. Bjarke strikes the same pose in the world of architecture, and as we see with Virgil, the effect is the same across creative disciplines. Bring energy and optimism to the table and the world will lap you up. The world is otherwise so blinded with anger, frustration, resentment, jealousy, bitterness, apathy, intolerance, meanness, and spite that any rays of pure light that manage to shine through the whole misanthropic morass can’t help but be reflected by a million eager mirrors.
A little bit of light goes a long ways these days. But maybe that’s always been true. [↩]
- Lest you think all these ironic “air-quotes” are just me being cheeky, this is only partly true! They’re in fact an affectation adopted and advanced by Off-White head honcho Virgil Abloh for the purposes of giving a nod and a wink to the grassroots modernist “streetwear” movement now making its impact felt in the world of high fashion. Isn’t it ironic ? That’s the point, Bob. That’s the point. It’s also one of Virgil’s signatures, along with helvetica, all of which are part of a sense of humour largely lacking in the otherwise sombre world of luxury goods, what with its pernicious “flexing” and whatnot.
Another remarkable part of Virgil’s ethos is that he encourages copycats and “fakes.” Rather than prosecuting such behaviour to the full extent of the law as is the industry norm, this consummate collaborator pushes his consumers to be more than just buyers and to engage in the act of creation themselves. And really, why shouldn’t you make your own t-shirts with quoted phrases and ideas that are meaningful to you ? As with a blog, perhaps by endeavouring to create you’ll find out what you were really trying to say all along ? [↩]
- While the mono-brand boutique lists its address as being on the haut de gamme Alberni Street, it’s in fact only accessible from the (albeit pristine) back alley properly known as “Eihu Lane.” This back-alley-as-front-entrance is really not at all unlike the MCMP-designed Trump Tower a few blocks away. Hey, when your alleys are so goddam immaculate that you can literally eat off them, why not repurpose them as primary entrance points ? There’s no shame! [↩]
- “Vancouver” deserves to be in quotes here because although this boutique is actually located in the City of Vancouver proper, what is generally called “Vancouver” is in fact a motley assemblage of twenty-one municipalities, one electoral area and one treaty First Nation. And you thought “GTA” or “NYC” were politically messy. [↩]
- This exclusive inclusivity (or inclusive exclusivity) is definitely a core value of the hypebeast/sneakerhead/millennial-luxury-consumer vein that Virgil’s so well tapped into. If you’re in the know, you’ll be the first to know, but if you’re a bit of a laggard, not to worry, the story will come to you, you’ll just have to pay through the nose to play along later. Not so different from Bitcoin, in that sense. [↩]
- It’s worth noting that about 3/4 of the 40-odd O/W boutiques worldwide are in Asia. And yet all the clothes themselves are manufactured in Italy and Portugal. More irony, no ? [↩]
- Having a massive “Off-White,” “Versace,” “YSL,” “CDG,” “Guccy,” etc. logo can’t but appeal to the (design) illiterate masses at the expense of the more sophisticated cognoscenti. If you’re doing it for the gram, though, such inelegant fish slaps are about par for the course (see the wildly successful “Supreme”). [↩]
- Introduced in 1965 by Pittsburgh Plate Glass, the first company to license the float glass process from Pilkington, this concept of all-glass curtain walls was marketed as “Total Vision Systems” and used medium-modulus silicone sealants to adhere the glass components to one another. Such systems are still employed today, mostly for the stick-built skyscrapers podia. [↩]
- Why does “fashion” feel like a bad word ? Goodness knows I’ve published worse on these pages. [↩]