It’s a Tuesday afternoon in Paris’s Montmartre neighbourhood, some 50 hours before Off-White’s spring/summer 2018 show, and Virgil Abloh is looking relaxed. Absent are the usual sounds of a studio on deadline – no shouting, not even the hum of sewing machines. Near the entrance, mannequins in full-skirted evening dresses stand assembled as if in a museum display. Next season’s bags and shoes, the latter swathed in plastic and designed in collaboration with Jimmy Choo, are arranged neatly on shelves. From garment rails hang double-breasted blazers and coats, alongside graphic jerseys and cycling shorts, the former emblazoned with “Woman” and “White.” A seamstress hand-stitches the waistband of a pink tulle skirt, while models wait in line for a casting session to begin.
“We don’t work late here, I don’t believe in making fashion in a stressful environment,” Abloh says as he manoeuvres through the mannequins, moodboard in hand. “As you can feel, it’s very relaxed.”
Abloh sets the board against the wall. On it are 29 photographs of Princess Diana in all states of dress: on a playing field in a t-shirt, baseball cap and jeans; opening a car door in dark slacks and a blazer; ensconced on a red chair at a 1981 exhibition in a floating, off-the-shoulder gown, her head tipped forward sleepily.
It’s nearly 20 years to the day since Diana died in a car crash only a few kilometres away, and, like a few other designers this season, Abloh had been inspired by the barrage of commemorative photos of her that have surfaced in recent months. In an era where the personas and wardrobes of public figures are tightly managed, Abloh was inspired by the free manner in which Diana experimented with her image in the Eighties and Nineties. “She was a strong individual that despite her position had her own personal taste and it came out through the clothes,” Abloh says, tilting the board. “There is no stylist at play here.”
Diana is a departure from muses past – and so too is the resulting collection. First, there are the evening dresses, dyed in lavender, marmalade, and cotton candy pink, with tight, ruched bodices and frothy tulle skirts. (Only the white-ringed zippers and the labels inside assure us these are Off-White.) Cuts and colours are softer and more feminine; trousers have been cropped and slimmed. This time, denim and streetwear, the two cornerstones of the brand, have been toned down considerably. But fans of the strong-shouldered suiting of Abloh’s past two seasons will find plenty more to covet here.
This season, Abloh has partnered with Jimmy Choo – a designer Diana patronised – on a collection of Cinderella-inspired shoes, including knee-high stiletto boots wrapped in black tulle and pointed-toe pumps encased in plastic to look like glass. Silk and satin evening bags with jewelled clasps are a clear nod to Diana. So too are a pair of long evening gloves, one black and one red, modelled after a pair she wore to the 1986 America’s Cup Ball. “Her personal taste was very out of the way from what she was supposed to wear,” he observes. “It’s an inspiration.”
As Kanye West’s closest creative collaborator since the age of 22, Abloh’s name became well-known on social media and in streetwear circles long before he launched Off-White in 2014. But he has been in the press with particular frequency lately. First there was the public rift with his design hero, Raf Simons, who, in a GQ Style interview, criticised Abloh as unoriginal. Then there was this summer’s announcement that he would be collaborating with Nike, putting his stamp on 10 of their most famous shoes. Most recently, word spread that he would soon be appointed creative director of Versace (which Versace denied, and to which he replied in this interview: “No comment”.)
After Off-White was named a finalist in the 2015 LVMH Prize, riffs on the label’s designs – to put it generously – began appearing in certain high street stores. But that doesn’t bother Abloh. “That’s amazing, that’s probably the biggest sign of approval, you know? When it is worth somebody generating on it, I take it as a sign of me going in the right direction.”
Though Abloh declined to speak about the Versace rumour, he says he does hope to helm a major luxury fashion house one day. “This is sort of my résumé,” he says, gesturing to the mannequins around him. But would he ever give up his other creative endeavours – which also include DJing and furniture design – to focus fully on fashion? “No, one thing informs from another,” he replied. “The consumers aren’t just looking at clothes, you have to be inspired.”