The Business of Fashion
Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
Agenda-setting intelligence, analysis and advice for the global fashion community.
MILAN — In 2017, Virgil Abloh, Davide De Giglio and Andrea Grilli all got the word “WOLF” tattooed on their right arms. “We were like a pack, we were like brothers,” said De Giglio, the quiet mastermind behind New Guards Group, the Milanese company that co-founded luxury streetwear sensation Off-White with Abloh, a trained architect turned Kanye West creative director. “Virgil was a legend, but first he was a friend,” said Grilli, Off-White’s CEO since 2019.
Piloted by Abloh, De Giglio and Grilli, Off-White became one of the fastest growing brands in fashion. But in November 2021, less than four years after the polymathic Abloh was recruited to luxury’s big leagues as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton, he died suddenly, at 41, after a private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare heart cancer. Now, Off-White is gearing up for its first show since the death of its founding designer, to be held tonight at Paris Fashion Week.
Louis Vuitton chief Michael Burke, who hired Abloh in 2018, has compared him to Karl Lagerfeld. “I saw the same visionary approach to life, the same attraction between designer and audience — not intellectual, but popular. They were both absolutely fearless about doing things differently, tireless in their work ethic, identical in their curiosity and equally plugged into the zeitgeist.”
But despite his genius, Abloh was always going to be “a chapter” in the story of Louis Vuitton, a 168-year-old luggage-maker that has become one of the world’s most recognisable consumer brands, alongside Apple, Coca-Cola, Disney and Nike. Vuitton’s leadership will no doubt find a way to turn the page, entrusting its men’s business to a new designer in due course.
For Off-White, where Abloh was practically the brand incarnate, the situation is very different. Losing a founder can present an existential threat to a young label, even one as successful as Off-White.
But the strength of Alexander McQueen more than 10 years after the 2010 suicide of its visionary founder suggests that, with a sound strategy and careful management, it’s possible for a young brand to not only survive but thrive after the loss of its creator.
De Giglio and Grilli both knew about Abloh’s heart cancer, and yet his sudden death last November came as a shock. “We never imagined that,” said De Giglio. “There was no planning.”
“I was fully aware of his condition from the beginning of his illness until the last day. But by that time, the cancer was well controlled and we were very positive about the future,” said Burke. “The timing of his passing was absolutely brutal.”
Luxury conglomerate LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, was enthused with Abloh’s work for the French house and eager to deepen their partnership. In July 2021, the group took control of the Off-White brand, activating provisions in its original agreement with Abloh to increase its stake to 60 percent. As part of the deal, LVMH also took a minority stake in Off-White’s operating company, which remains controlled by New Guards Group and its parent, the e-tailer Farfetch. The current licensing agreement between the Off-White brand and New Guards Group, by which the Milanese firm manages design, production, marketing and sales, will remain in place through at least 2026.
Now, De Giglio and Grilli, together with mentor Burke, plan to harness the legacy left by the late Abloh to turn Off-White into an “eternal” brand that Burke believes can grow to the scale of Dior, the couture house which became the cornerstone of the LVMH empire and whose fashion and leather goods business alone generated estimated sales revenue of $7 billion last year.
‘Like Dior in 1957’
“Off-White is in the position that Dior was in 1957,” said Burke. “Monsieur Dior had only been at the house for 10 years when he died. Off-White, too, was conceived almost 10 years ago. The question is: what has the founding father left? If the legacy is rich, authentic and steeped in values that go beyond fashion, the odds of turning a passing into something eternal are spectacular.”
Off-White’s next chapter is starting with a tribute show tonight at Paris Fashion Week, to be staged at the Palais Brongniart and livestreamed in over 100 storefronts across the French capital. Alongside Abloh’s final ready-to-wear collection, the brand will present couture-like “high fashion,” tease Off-White’s move into the lucrative beauty category and showcase a collaboration with Prada-owned shoemaker Church’s, projects Abloh was planning before his death.
“Off-White is like Dior was in 1957.”
But there is still much more in the “pipeline” of ideas that Abloh left behind, said Grilli. Much of this is captured in thousands of messages on WhatsApp, which the globe-trotting designer, who has called a “fully charged iPhone” his primary tool, used to stay connected with the Off-White team. “The connection with Virgil was mainly on WhatsApp. The number of ideas that we have directly from him — that were unmanageable on a daily, weekly and monthly basis — it’s endless,” said Grilli. “This is the legacy that we’re going to build around.”
“The next two years, we are going to go full-speed,” he said. “The fuel being poured into the brand, it’s for decades, for centuries. Virgil would have wanted us to do it. He always said this has to be a multi-generational brand; our kids need to go on Rodeo Drive and Rue Saint-Honoré and see it.”
From start-up to global sensation to stabilisation
Off-White rocketed to success soon after its launch, powered by a highly profitable blend of American streetwear and high-end Italian manufacturing. “Chanel meets Supreme,” as Abloh put it to De Giglio. A set of high-visibility signifiers — including diagonal stripes, arrows, tape and pithy text in quotation marks — helped make its simple but well-made t-shirts, sweatshirts, sneakers, belts and bags appealing to fashionistas, hypebeasts and luxury clients alike, especially as they were priced lower than the luxe streetwear statements of peers like Demna Gvasalia’s Vetements.
Then, there was a constant stream of collaborations with everyone from Nike to Ikea, which kept the brand in the conversation. “What Virgil did for Nike was exceptional. It was almost like a religion,” said Grilli. A focus on emerging markets also contributed to the label’s rapid rise. The brand was just as likely to launch stores in fast-growing shopping hubs in Asia as in traditional Western fashion capitals.
But it was ultimately the charismatic Abloh who animated Off-White, injecting it with hip-hop’s penchant for sampling and remixing, skateboarding’s sense of community and a desire for social progress just as a new generation of consumers was acquiring greater purchasing power and looking not just for cool-looking clothes, but something to believe in and belong to.
By 2018, the year Abloh joined Louis Vuitton, Off-White was “officially the hottest brand on the planet,” surpassing the likes of Gucci and Balenciaga, according to the Lyst Index, which measures brand heat based on sales, search and social media data. Off-White maintained its leading position, placing first or second for eight consecutive quarters. But as the streetwear trend waned, Off-White began to cool, placing fourteenth in the third quarter of 2021. (At the same time, sales of Abloh’s more sophisticated offering for Louis Vuitton were exploding).
Abloh had seen the shift coming, telling Dazed in late 2019 that streetwear was “gonna die.” “He was the one saying streetwear is dead, not in terms of culture but aesthetic,” said Grilli. “And we were already noticing some signs from the market.” The brand embarked on a revamp, working to elevate its seasonal collections with some success. Retailers report privately that Off-White’s share of sales has slipped since its early days. But some say its more tailored ready-to-wear has gained traction, as its logo-driven streetwear offer has cooled.
“Everyone knows hype can fade, and sales have slowed on the more obvious items, but the more elevated ready-to-wear works now,” said Tiffany Hsu, Mytheresa’s vice president of fashion buying for womenswear.
At the same time, with the support of New Guards owner Farfetch, Off-White has rapidly expanded its direct-to-consumer e-commerce business and reduced its wholesale exposure, boosting its margins. Today, the brand has 78 boutiques from Hong Kong to Mykonos, selling everything from hoodies to umbrella stands.
In fiscal 2020, total sales were €306 million, up from €273 million the year before, though earnings before interest and taxes dropped from €98 million to €90 million, according to a recent filing with Milan’s chamber of commerce. New Guards declined to comment on whether that filing was an accurate reflection of the brand’s global business.
A future without Virgil
Now, Off-White faces the challenge of moving forward without its creator. His legions of fans didn’t flock to the brand’s drops just to purchase product; they came to hang out with their tribe and Abloh was the chief. How can Off-White maintain that unique positioning without Abloh to animate it?
“The positioning of Off-White is beautiful for us and it’s still selling very well,” said Selfridges buying and merchandising director Sebastian Manes. “But Virgil was so present and meant a lot to many people. He was as big as the brand. It’s hard to dissociate the two.”
Grilli, too, sees Off-White and Abloh as inextricably linked. “Off-White is Virgil and will be forever,” he said. But despite his creative genius and almost superhuman energy, the peripatetic Abloh — who often hopscotched around the planet from meeting to meeting, DJ gig to DJ gig — worked extensively through a loyal team, providing early direction and final approval, and otherwise mostly leaving the design work to his deputies. Creative directors often work this way, but Abloh was more hands-off than most, sending input via WhatsApp messages from the other side of the world.
“He was very pragmatic, he trusted people. Trust is the number one quality that Virgil had,” said Grilli. “This allowed him to achieve what he achieved. Virgil was a maestro leading a perfect orchestra, and we’re super confident in the team in terms of executing his legacy.”
Currently creative decisions on product are made by head designers who each oversee categories including women’s, men’s, shoes, bags, knitwear and jewellery. “Every division has its own conductor,” said Grilli. “The team has been working with Virgil for six to seven years.”
Burke, too, has faith in the team at Off-White. “There’s been plenty of time for Virgil’s values to take root in the psyche and soul of the company,” he said. “Are they embodied in the studio? In the company? The answer is a resounding yes. And Andrea and Davide are the strongest team in Italy.”
While the licensing agreement between New Guards Group and Off-White’s new owner LVMH can be renegotiated or terminated in 2026, both parties say the alliance is cemented for the long term. “Contracts are contracts, but the wedding is super solid, now more than ever,” said Grilli.
Critically, the backing of LVMH gives Off-White plenty of breathing space to find the right creative configuration for the future, said Burke. “They are under no pressure to quickly come up with a singular answer. The coming seasons will give us indications as to what the right answer is.”
“It’s a defining moment when you have to replace the founding father. Yves Saint Laurent replaced Mr Dior, but Virgil’s passing doesn’t need to lead to the hiring of a messiah à la Virgil. It’s not impossible, but it’s not the only outcome,” said Burke. “There has been no precise decision on succession. But the brand has many cultural aspects — music, sport — and this allows us to go down different avenues, and going down one doesn’t preclude doing another a few seasons later.”
Grilli and De Giglio currently favour the notion of a “collective” to take the brand forward. “It’s going to be a group of people, a movement, a collective,” said De Giglio. “Think about Linux, open-source: you can inject something new and the software pattern evolves.”
“Virgil’s passing doesn’t need to lead to the hiring of a messiah à la Virgil.”
Whatever comes next, the brand will remain firmly rooted in Abloh’s legacy. “It might sound crazy, but I talk to Virgil every day,” said De Giglio. “It’s my way of moving forward. I ask him questions. I study. It’s like a religion, you don’t need to have someone next to you if you know the rules.”
The “rules” that define Off-White may still need to be pinned down. “In the beginning, we said, ‘What’s your idea?’ And Virgil said: ‘No rules, that’s the plan.’ The only rule is no rules,” said De Giglio. But the trick, according to Burke, is defining the rules and then knowing when to break them, resulting in a brand that can stand the test of time without becoming boring.
More than a fashion brand
Whether Off-White can continue to scale and become a multi-billion-dollar legacy brand remains to be seen. Today, the fashion market moves far faster than it did in 1957 when Christian Dior died, or even when Alexander McQueen lost its founder, Lee, in 2010.
The success of Off-White’s next chapter may be less about conjuring the ghost of Abloh than fulfilling his founding vision for a brand not just about clothes but community.
A PowerPoint slide in Grilli’s office lists a series of keywords that encapsulate his priorities for Off-White: “Keep Surprising,” “Elevate,” “Dream,” “Journey,” “Values,” “Culture,” “Accessibility” and “Fun.” Clustered next to “Culture” are also “Art,” “Sport,” “Music” and “Couture.”
Grilli and De Giglio want to keep the brand fun and surprising, continuing Abloh’s practice of reaching beyond fashion into art, architecture, music, sport, even food. “Off-White is one of the few brands that can sell a mug, a rug, an ashtray and a leather jacket,” said Grilli.
This week, Off-White will tease its beauty line — a genderless range that’s more about self-expression than prettification and will be worn by the models at tonight’s show — as well as launch a collaboration with restaurant group Caviar Kaspia that will be a “100 percent takeover down to the tableware,” said Grilli.
“This is not a brand that is closed,” said De Giglio. “This is Off-White, come let’s talk. Virgil always said, ‘I want to open doors, to do something new with new people, with the kids.’ And the door is still open. We’ve suffered a big loss, but on the other side there is happiness.”
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