The Startup
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The Startup

“Off-White” and On-Brand​ | Marketing to the “Me” Generation

I’ll admit right now that when Virgil Abloh — long-time Kanye West collaborator, underground DJ and creator of high fashion brand Off-White — was named artistic director of menswear at behemoth luxury design house Louis Vuitton, I was a bit taken aback.

In my student days, I was really into streetwear — not to the point where I’d queue up outside London’s Supreme store prior to a seasonal drop, but I followed the trends religiously on both Instagram and Reddit, even having a few choice pieces in my own collection. I’m not as ardent a follower as I once was — quite frankly, I think it’s slightly unhealthy to hold strong interests in any community which revolves coveting expensive items you can’t really afford, but to each their own; I still hold a great deal of respect for the creative aspects and artistic roots of the scene.

During this time, I inevitably encountered Off-White — I wasn’t impressed.

To me, it was that brand with the uninspired ‘X’ logo and a somewhat forced, in-your-face aesthetic usage of quotation marks and script — the kind of designs adorning footballers’ chasing that ‘edgy’ look solely to impress their teammates as they walk into training Monday morning.

So, when Abloh was tapped as the visionary spearhead to bring LV into the 21st century, I was sceptical to say the least. I began following him on Instagram, started consuming interviews — I still didn’t get it. How did this softly spoken Illinois native, who consistently wore plain t-shirts and seemed more interested in being a DJ than running a fashion house, come to control the menswear arm of Louis. Vuitton.

Slowly but surely, like the prolific spread of Off-White iconography throughout popular culture, an understanding began to seep into my ever-widening appreciation for the magnitude of what Abloh has achieved.

The Most Influential Architect in Fashion

Virgil Abloh was born September 30th, 1980 just outside of Chicago, Illinois. A first-generation immigrant of Ghanaian descent, he quickly became immersed in the iconic cultural movements at the heart of Rockford’s flourishing migrant community — delving into rock, punk, rap, skate, fashion; influences which, to this day, echo throughout the wide spectrum of his creative endeavours.

In 1998, he began to DJ under the aptly foreshadowing “Flat White” (what a name, right?), playing festivals & fashion parties, at one point even opening for Travis Scott. It was through these pursuits that Abloh made the most important connection of his career: Kanye West.

Virgil worked as a creative consultant for West, designing him a collection of tour merchandise, prior to graduating with a master’s degree in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

His transcendence to high fashion occurred hand-in-hand with West when the pair interned together at Fendi; an experience that formed the basis of understanding which allowed Abloh to embark upon his own journey within the industry. It began with the explosive Pyrex, a streetwear undertaking which involved screen printing dead-stock Polo flannels, and ended with the founding of Abloh’s very own, Milan based fashion house: Off-White.

The Zeitgeist and Louis Vuitton

quoted in the New York Times, Michael Burke — CEO of Louis Vuitton — spoke on Virgil & Kanye’s time at Fendi:

“I was really impressed with how they brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way. Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since.”

I think Michael’s words speak volumes about why Louis Vuitton hired Abloh.

They sit as one of the predominant French fashion houses, eclipsed perhaps only by their Spanish peer Balenciaga.

Theirs is a brand synonymous with luxury, wealth and class — well, sort of.

The problem facing brands, particularly fashion houses, that employ this type of iconography can be attributed to one word: exclusivity.

When you market a product where the unique selling point is supposed to be the perception it affords you, and the only barrier to entry is money, you create an avenue for widespread devaluation, often through consequences associated with the pursuit of that perception.

The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, your product starts to disperse through second-hand channels. Secondly, a large counterfeit market inevitably crops up to service the desire for your product, but at a lower price point.

Just over a year ago I travelled to Marrakech, staying in the heart of the Souk; a sprawling market which envelops a large swathe of the city. Counterfeit goods are rife, to the point that the most common items I saw hanging were as follows:

1. PSG x Air Jordan Football Shirts

2. Louis Vuitton

3. Gucci*

4. Burberry

*The Gucci scarf I bought from a nice gentleman just off the main square is 100% legitimate though, I swear.

And they were pretty good fakes, too. I’ll tell you right now that at least 60% of the people boarding the plane back to Seville had Louis Vuitton duffel bags.

What I’m trying to illustrate is that when a well-established brand like LV sells a ‘classic’ aesthetic which is easily imitated by a counterfeit market, and that market becomes saturated, its appeal has been tainted. The knock-offs are so widespread that the luxury connotation has been eroded — to the point that the seed of assumption will be either you own a fake, or that you paid an extortionate mark up for something you could get for 30 bucks from a nice gentleman in Marrakech.

Now, don’t get me wrong — you can absolutely still enjoy wearing Louis Vuitton, fake or otherwise, and immerse yourself in the original marketing line of Luxury, Wealth, Class — but the reality I just described flies in the face of those values which high fashion has traditionally stood by and sold on.

Brands like Supreme, the undisputed king of streetwear, are more successful in forging this perception because, in part, it’s not their main priority. The artistic credentials of Supreme stem from grass root skater culture that, when coupled with a much harsher supply restriction, artificially creates an aura of exclusivity — one that’s augmented by a resale market which mimics the off-the-shelf ‘luxury’ price point of Louis Vuitton. There are still plenty of Supreme fakes, but a lot of these tend to be the easy-to-replicate, iconic ‘box logo’ or, unsurprisingly, the collection they created in collaboration with Louis Vuitton– not the subtler pieces, the ones which don’t as bluntly declare “I’m wearing Supreme, look at me!”.

Do it for the Culture

So, what does this mean? In short: marketers need to step beyond the constraints of traditional consumer-product marketing.

Take a retailer like Abercrombie & Fitch; a cautionary tale of what we’ll call ‘old fashioned’ (pardon the pun) marketing concepts. A&F was a brand built upon perception; adhering to a cookie-cutter, surfer aesthetic with a particular physical ‘look’. Their brick & mortar stores often had a closer resemblance to high-end night clubs as opposed to clothing retailers; for one thing, they were both fronted by attractive, occasionally shirtless models.

This attracted consumers, yes, but it also let those consumers visually ascertain the ‘type’ of person who was supposed to wear AF, i.e. someone classically ‘desirable’. Robin Lewis, author of ‘The New Rules of Retail’ went as far to say that Abercrombie’s attitude stemmed from then-CEO Mike Jeffries opinions on the matter — that he “doesn’t want larger people shopping in his store, he wants thin and beautiful people … he doesn’t want his core customers to see people who aren’t as hot as them wearing his clothing. People who wear his clothing should feel like they’re one of the ‘cool kids.” a stance which was reflected in their hiring policy, with Jefferies’ himself stating they only targeted “good looking people”.

This breed of exclusivity, once the kind of perception marketers could only dream of (I’ll tell you right now that when I was a teenager, working at A&F or Hollister was an unspoken status symbol), became a huge detractor in an age which champions individuality as opposed to ‘fitting in’. To their credit, A&F has since replaced their CEO and done away with this ethos, pivoting their business to be much more inclusive and inviting, but I imagine they still struggle with the remnant impact of such a point of view on their wider brand.

I’d like now to contrast this traditionalist approach with two individuals who go by the names of ‘Imran_Potato’ & Billy Eilish.

‘Imran_Potato’ is the Instagram handle of Imran Moosvi, who sprung to fame through the creation of insane custom clothing pieces, reworking high fashion articles and iconography in a Frankenstein-esque manner, dissecting classic designs to forge fresh interpretations which lean heavily on borrowed, logo-heavy aesthetics.

Billie Eilish Pirate Baird O’Connell — or Billie Eilish — is a performer who, at the age of 18, has amassed over 60million Instagram followers. Billy is a vocal artist and a pretty good one at that, but it’s not why I follow her; I follow her because of a style which she herself describes as “judge me” — one that’s filled with the kind of customs Imran creates.

The emphasis on this style of high fashion iconography resonates well within the Trap community; Trap being an off-shoot of Hip Hop and the music genre which both dominates & defines current taste, representing a scene almost entirely built upon a hedonistic-level pursuit of material wealth. These outlandish designs perfectly weave the ideal of luxury, championed by high-fashion, with the creative spirit and individuality adored by the ‘clout’ generation. The likes of Imran, Billy and the Trap scene propagating these logos will have done more for the likes of Louis Vuitton & Gucci than any multi-million dollar ad campaign — I guarantee it.

Enter Virgil Abloh, with his aforementioned connection to Hip Hop & Trap through Kanye West. Abloh arguably rose to widespread prominence when he collaborated with Nike on a set of their classic shoes, one which included the much-beloved Air Jordan 1. Virgil took this widely adored classic and distilled it to its core; he broke down the various aspects of the shoe & applied the Off-White styling to each individual component (think “LACES” printed on the, you guessed it, laces) before stamping his house signature onto what would become a piece of footwear infamy: “AIR” — these Jordan’s now carry a value of $1000+.

This radical design, the deconstruction of something iconic into the base elements which originally made it so special, is once again the perfect allegory for what appeals to our individuality centric culture — it’s why Virgil can write his name on literally any pair of shoes and their market value will triple; he’s essentially fashion Banksy.

Is it any wonder that Louis Vuitton hired him?

Individual-esque: The Best a Marketer Can Get

But Aston” I hear you cry “this is the first time I’m hearing about this, it all sounds rather niche” well to that, dear reader, I’d reply: have you ever heard of Wimbledon? Yes, the tennis tournament — well, every athlete sponsored by Adidas in last year’s competition wore gear designed in collaboration with a brand called Palace (oft-referenced as ‘the British Supreme’).

PSG, the titanic Parisian football conglomerate, played all their Champions League matches last season in a kit bearing the Air Jordan logo; they’ve also been collaborating with the Japanese high fashion brand BAPE, a streetwear staple — part of their goal to be the most fashionable club in the world. These decisions aren’t being made for bragging rights on the pitch; PSG is harnessing the fashionable reputation of their city-namesake to market on a desire for stylistic individuality merged with the tribalism of club football.

Multifaceted creatives like Virgil Abloh embody this approach of expression, collaborating with partners that empower them to channel this ideal through any outlet they see fit; that can be a pair of Nike sneakers or an IKEA rug.

Outside of fashion, you may have heard about Gillette’s recent ad campaign; one which set the internet alight by centre-staging a commentary on the place of male privilege in society. This from a ‘macho’ brand like Gillette was polarising, sure, but the combination of no publicity being bad publicity’ and the internets’ collective memory being similar to that of a goldfish, make it a hugely successful marketing move.

The bottom line is this:

The fashion we wear, the brands we consume — they reflect the choices we make and effectively represent who we are.

To successfully market something in the age of individuals, you need to appeal to what makes them individual.

It’s no longer about how you want to be perceived.

It’s about who you are and what you stand for.

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Aston Whiteling

Aston Whiteling

I'm a perfectionist with realistic expectations, a recovering Sales Engineer turned Product Marketer, and I'm trying to be more cynical about being cynical.