Fashion and politics are unhappy bedfellows, but Virgil Abloh made valiant attempts to reconcile the two at his S/S 18 OFF-WHITE show, held at Florentine trade show Pitti. Abloh has quite the mandate to try and raise awareness - he is one of fashion’s few black designers, and the son of a Ghanian immigrant. Plus, his every move is watched keenly by thousands, maybe millions, of young people, who will have followed this show via Instagram as we invited guests sat looking upwards at giant words projected on the side of the Pitti Palace by artist Jenny Holzer. Models were minuscule in comparison. The message? Some things are bigger than fashion.
Abloh hopes that young people will see the texts Holzer projected and Google and research the topics they discuss. Few brands have such a youth following as Abloh. Compare his audience with that of Dior’s, who will have lapped up Maria Grazia Chiuri’s ‘We Should All Be Feminists’ T-shirt and you’ll see why Abloh’s work is urgent. He’s not preaching to the converted, but galvanising kids just entering their teens and sending the message that being aware and engaged is cool. That’s not pointless. Just look at the recent role the Grime community played in the UK in getting young people out to vote and spreading the anti-austerity message of Jeremy Corybn and the Labour party. An unprecedented 72% of 18 to 24 year olds turned out. The Conservatives lost their majority.
Holzer selected works by Syria-born poet Ghayath Almadhoun, Polish poet Anna Świrszczyńska, who wrote widely on her experiences during World War II, Iranian writer and director Omid Shams, amongst many others. All of them dealt with personal experiences of war and migration. The clothes echoed the themes. An orange t-shirt, given as a gift to attendees alongside the invite. came emblazoned with the text 'I’ll never forgive the ocean,' a comment on the number of refugees drowning as they risk everything for a better life. The bulk of the collection built on Abloh’s existing skill for twisting the core garments worn by stylish young men into pieces that can command a high fashion price point. He does this increasingly through fabrication and finish, but built his career doing it by branding, whacking logos and graphics on his pieces. He’s still got an interest in words - many of today’s pieces came bearing the show’s title, Temperature - and he saw parallels between this and Holzer’s approach.
Some people will scoff and scorn, saying that Abloh is no artist or shouldn’t try to address such grand, significant themes. They’ll remind readers that Helmut Lang got their first with the Holzer collaboration. Or that Raf Simons pioneered some of Alboh’s core garments. They should reflect a bit more before being so dismissive. Abloh is trying, growing and maturing season on season. He is breaking barriers, starting conversations. When so much of fashion prefers to talk to itself, safe inside a polished, protected bubble, his efforts should be celebrated.