Lucio Fontana, an Italian sculptor prominent in the first half of the 20th century, spearheaded a fringy strain of contemporary art called Spatialism. In Spatialist practice, paintings were slashed into ribbons with razor blades. The slices would expose jagged edges of canvas, transforming the drawings — intentionally — from common-or-garden brushstrokes into muscular, dimensional sculptures. In his thirties, Fontana was a member of the Corrente utopia — a tribe of Milanese abstract expressionists set on muddying the boundaries between artistic disciplines: industrial design; portraiture and performance. They were frontiersmen in that sense.
Fontana’s Spatialism was the core inspiration behind “You Cut Me Off”, fashion mastermind Virgil Abloh’s new AW16 collection as Off-White, in which thick layers of cotton and nylon are wrenched apart at the hems. The open wounds meant crowds at his Paris Mens Fashion Week show could literally peer into the layers. Abloh’s clothes became pointed objects, leching back at the front row like the oil-black gargoyles in Rodin’s Gates of Hell. The Chicago designer’s work has always been multidisciplinary; graduating with a Masters degree in Architecture from the Institute of Technology in Illinois, he’s as interested in building design as he is fashion. “The title fashion designer itself is a time period thing,” he tells me, name-checking groundbreaking Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, the madman behind the contortionist, palatial CCTV headquarters in Beijing. “I’m approaching fashion from an architecture modern practice perspective, more than anything else.”
Since launching in 2014, Off-White has become one of the world’s definitive modern menswear labels — bridging a gap between the workwear-industrialism of hip-hop attire, the trans fashions of Eckhaus Latta and Vejas and the frayed-edged formlessness Marques’Almeida and Clare Barrow. In “You Cut Me Off”, wavy denim garms are trussed together by heavy-duty polyester belts, Abloh cross-checking his outdoorsy AW15 line “Don’t Look Down” — which had a vintage mountaineering focus — with the black and yellow caution patterns of the interior of 90s Manchester superclub, The Hacienda. Abloh is a man of culture clashes, blending streetwear staples with high fashion finishes. One of “Don’t Look Down”‘s most striking pieces was what Abloh refers to as the Wall Street Coat (Patrick Bateman on an office hiking trip along the Rockies, anyone?). I reluctantly put forward the idea that his clothes carry a kind of underdog spiritedness — a street-savvy sartorialism, which harks back to his days as a Supreme-loving fashion nascent; when Alien Workshop, Vision Streetwear and Nom de Guerre were Abloh’s haute couture. What does Off-White’s clothing tapestries say about his generation of post-austerity, post-gender? Is streetwear really this era’s high fashion? “There is a convergence happening,” he assures me. I’m off the hook. “The generation gap [between] those buying fashion and those influencing fashion has become shorter and more of a mix of what makes us tick.”
Listening to Abloh talk of his intersectional interests — the point at which his training and love of street culture converge — you get a taste of the kind of lofty conversations he must have with Kanye West, his friend of 13 years. Just like the designer, West (Abloh is the rapper’s Creative Director — offering him style advice and helping with events productions) is a cross-platform creative, with one foot in the fashion world (West owns his own label, Yeezy), alongside his mainstay music pursuits. “Designers, in general, have had to become more cross-discipline,” Abloh comments. “It’s the nature of modern times.” The pair are renaissance pop culture figures in that sense; building their empires out of tasteful cosigns and surrounding themselves with like-minded and well-connected zeitgeist connoisseurs. Ye isn’t the only A-list rapper flanked by an influential style guru: A$AP Rocky has Ian Connor, Nikki Minaj has famed choreographer and actress Laurieann Gibson. You get a sense it won’t be long before Abloh hires his own head of creative, chasing hook-ups across the globe and sliding into Dazed’s next 100 list. The message behind these modern methodologies is at once inspiring and terrifying: feel free to build your own utopia, but with social media free at the touch of a button, there’s nothing holding anyone back from taking over the world.
“There is a new ability to be exactly DIY,” he continues, referring to the internet. I ask him who would likely populate his utopia; his nuclear bunker. He offers up two names: Justin Sanders, who operates the minutely-updated alt-lifestyle photoblog JJJJound.com, and Heron Preston, the transatlantic clothesmaker behind HPC Trading CO. And you can bet the two burgeoning acts he recommended to for Rollacoaster’s Utopia issue – graf-obsessed fashion designer Ryan Hawaii and hip-hop experimenter Ta’East, who he first reached out to on Twitter — would be there, too. “Utopia can exist in modern times in the smallest scale. Subcultures and niche groups build walls of their own utopia,” Abloh says. “There is a euphoric feeling in fashion, music and art-utopia at the moment.”
Abloh is partly to thank for streetwear’s rulebook-tearing resurgence. But he’s not just starting fires on the runway; his global DJ sets under the nom de plume Flat White pack a fidget-techno kind of punch. He dropped disgusting grime, Miami Bass and deep Awful Records cuts to a London crowd at a Boiler Room slot last year and, seven days later, spun a set at notorious four-to-the-floor club The Mid, in Chicago’s West Loop district. How much does Abloh’s penchant for clashing different styles together play into his DJ sets? “I often say that my DJ sets are like going to the gym or a game-show for the brain, in terms of creative direction,” he remarks. “It’s essentially creative problem-solving: one song forces you to think of another. I’m a child of Benji B deviation.”
There’s little doubt that fashion is in a weird, nebulous place in 2016. Behind the scenes, style’s most influential are playing puppet-master to some of the generation’s biggest celebrities and are, in the process, becoming famous in their own right. Virgil Abloh — with his softy-harsh, harshly-soft Off-White orienteering — is positioned at the bottle-neck of this tension. Treading ground as a fashion innovator, a youth culture documentarian and the rising phenomenon of celebrity Creative Director, he’s fast becoming a very modern kind of pop martyr.