The good folks over at Highsnobiety recently covered the 10 Most Important Streetwear Moments. While a good list, with a range of interesting discussion points pertaining to streetwear and its growth, one particular event was glaringly missing. Not many times does a single event radically change the dynamics within an industry, but such is the case in this instance. Find out how the Champion of the Youth, Virgil Abloh, pulled off one of the greatest fashion come-ups of all time, and the ensuing rise of a culture influenced by a moment of art meeting entrepreneurialism.
Setting The Stage
In 2012, fashion hung in a precarious position. Hedi Slimane was just taking control of the reigns from Stefano Pilati at Saint Laurent, Kanye and Jay-Z were deep into their Watch The Throne Givenchy dipped extravaganza, and streetwear was that thing that NYC cool kids and Fairfax fanatics participated in – by no means a mainstream discussion topic, from a high fashion perspective.
Enter: Virgil Abloh.
Abloh, a civil engineering major from the University of Wisconsin in Madison and owner of a masters in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology, started working for up and coming rapper – at that time – Kanye West in 2002. Virgil was present for the ascent of Kanye through his various fashion phases, including the infamous – but now revered to a degree – 2009 Paris Fashion Week photo. Needless to say, Abloh utilized this time to soak in the sartorial knowledge typically reserved for the jet-setting dilettantes of the world’s wealthiest families. Then in 2012, Abloh found himself struck by an idea.
All Is Fair In Fashion & Art
Over the course of what had to be numerous transactions, Abloh managed to turn a clearance item to deadstock. The flannels were originally $79.95, but at the time were marked down to a mere $35.99 – a bargain some might say. Then, Abloh “screen-printed the word “Pyrex” and the number 23, [Michael] Jordan’s number, on the back, and sold them for $500.” As you could imagine, once it was uncovered the garments were indeed the discounted Rugby versions, with a slight Abloh-approved patina, some people were left miffed by the act. “No One Pyrex Should Have All Those Rugby Flannels,” read a Four Pins headline. “Did Kanye’s Creative Director Mark Up A Ruby Flannel By $470?,” posited another media outlet. Seemingly the entire fashion community was dumbfounded by Virgil’s offering. How could someone take something, slightly alter it, and then justify such an astronomical markup?
The Duchamp of Fashion
At this point you might be utterly mystified as to why a photo of a urinal is on a luxury fashion website, well the reason is simple: Virgil’s stroke of fashion genius was the equivalent of Marcel Duchamp’s artistic maneuver entitled Fountain, seen above. Duchamp, in 1917, took an ordinary urinal, turned it on its side, placed it on a pedestal, and wrote “R. Mutt 1917” on it. He then submitted the piece to the American Society of Independent Artists first exhibition, where it was swiftly rejected. Not surprisingly, the piece led to impassioned discussions concerning “what is art?” Duchamp continued this thinking with other objects in a project called “readymades,” which questioned the norms of the art world. Similarly, Virgil by taking an ordinary flannel and slapping on his own version of “R. Mutt 1917” fostered heated exchanges over what is luxury fashion in today’s society. While some will disagree that Abloh’s flannel project wasn’t artistic, and merely an act of economic thievery, they’d be wrong.
“I embraced the fact that I didn’t have those means, but I still had a vision, which I think was very in response to the times and in response to streetwear. It was very modern,” explained Virgil in an interview with The Coveteur.
Virgil didn’t have the means to embark on his fashion dreams to the degree of which he would want. Therefore, he saw an opportunity within the market and pounced. He was able to turn a single moment of misfortune from Ralph Lauren into a now full blown, critically acclaimed, and prospering fashion line: Off-White.
When Pyrex Vision first started, Virgil cited the Clipse lyric “Pyrex stirs turn into Cavalli furs” as an inspiration. This was the dream: from nothing to something. Virgil buying up the Ralph Lauren flannels, for cheap, printing on them, and then using that to further fund Pyrex got the wheels moving. After that, he was able to snowball the momentum into Off-White, which continues to gain credibility, and recently debuted for the first time in Paris.
The significance of Virgil’s flannel project was in what it did for the youth. He re-ignited the dream of nothing to something. The reason seemingly every kid now, who has on a pair of Acne jeans, Raf Simons sneakers, and Off-White hoodie, links to his Big Cartel page in his IG is because of Virgil: he laid the blueprint of how to make it.