Off-White founder gets inspiration from the streets

Gone are the days when brands decide what is on-trend. Instead, consumers now dictate what is popular, says Virgil Abloh, founder of Milan-based high-end streetwear brand Off-White.

As such, the designs of Abloh, who is also rapper Kanye West's creative director, are inspired by what he sees people wearing on the streets, such as leather jackets and jeans, that he says have no branding on them.

He prints the Off-White motif - a long rectangular bar with diagonal stripes - onto the leather jackets, jeans and other clothes he designs, something he has been doing for the past three seasons' collections. He says he has not seen other brands put their logos on their jeans the way he has.

The 36-year-old says: "Usually, luxury brands educate consumers through advertising campaigns or runway shows and tell them what's cool. Off-White was started in the opposite direction."

Abloh was in town two weeks ago for the opening of Off-White's first store here - also the first in Southeast Asia - at 268 Orchard Road. The brand was started in 2013.

Off-White has two other flagship stores in Hong Kong and Tokyo. In the United States and Europe, it is sold at multi-label retailers such as Barneys New York and Colette in Paris.

The Milan-based brand sells high-end street wear. Photo: The Straits Times

Abloh, who is from Chicago, started Off-White because he saw a gap in the market for luxury streetwear. The brand's clothes and shoes are made in Milan and prices range from $90 for an iPhone 6 case to $3,090 for a leather jacket.

Abloh says: "Streetwear has been around for 20 to 25 years, but no one was writing about it and it wasn't at the forefront of fashion. Now it is, but there's no global retail done in a luxury fashion way."

Apart from being creative director, designer and chief marketing officer at Off-White, Abloh also DJs under the moniker Flat White and is the creative director of Donda, a creative content company by West.

And while he may look aloof - he declined to smile for pictures - he is friendly and humbly refers to his role at Donda for the past six years as "a glorified assistant who's worked a really long time".

His globe-trotting lifestyle has influenced the way he designs Off-White flagship stores around the world, which are inspired by the cities they are in.

For example, the concept of its first international store in Hong Kong, which opened last year, is the concrete jungle. For the design of the Singapore store, called Windows, he drew inspiration from the glass-walled mall of 268 Orchard Road.

The 1,722 sq ft shop, designed with a team of New York-based architects, resembles a concrete box with only a few windows that let people peek into certain areas of the store, but never its centre.

The Milan-based brand sells high-end street wear. Photo: The Straits Times

Abloh, who has a bachelor's degree in engineering and a master's in architecture, says: "We wanted it to have a modern mysteriousness. I wanted it to be an experience, otherwise, it's just clothes."

Reception to the brand here has been positive. On its official opening day, Sept 14, when Abloh was present to sign limited-edition T-shirts exclusive to the store, fans started queueing from as early as 8am, three hours before it opened.

Abloh, who has plans to open stores in New York and Toronto soon, says he picked Singapore for its "young and vibrant luxury consumer" market and that the demand for the brand was higher in Asia than elsewhere in the world.

Off-White has enjoyed doubledigit growth every spring and fall for the past three years, with the Asia-Pacific making up 30 per cent of its global turnover. The US market makes up 25 per cent of its sales.

Adding that he is interested to see how the Singapore market will develop over the next three years, Abloh says: "It's like being at home here. I see the kids here are dressed the same as kids in New York. I think with social media and everything, it's the same growth everywhere."

• Windows is located at 01-01, 268 Orchard Road, open: 11am to 9pm daily, tel: 6702-1313.

This article was first published on September 29, 2016.
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