Virgil Abloh, the designer behind Off-White has had quite the year. Besides designing his first mens' collection for Louis Vuttion and his own label, he also found time to collaborate with Ikea, debut swimwear, and dress Serena Williams for the US Open. Now, amid the news the label is suing brands for its use of quotation marks and red zip ties — an Off-White signature, apparently — the team is finally celebrating a job well done with its belated Christmas party in Italy. But Abloh’s team is drawing some criticism.
On Tuesday, Abloh shared a behind-the-scenes look at the party and the Off-White team in attendance for his 3.8 million followers on Instagram. It didn't take long before people began to point out the lack of diversity at his company, calling particular attention to his picture featuring all the brand's art directors. "Not going to lie, I thought Virgil Abloh would have some Black people working with him but I'm not surprised," one user wrote on Twitter. Another person tweeted "they call it 'Off-White' but it seems all white to me. What's up Virgil Abloh, you don't employ Black art directors?"
While the fashion industry's urgent need for more diversity and inclusion does not rest solely on Abloh's shoulders, this scenario speaks to a bigger issue: placing one token person of colour at the top of the food chain isn't enough. When Louis Vuitton appointed Abloh as its new artistic director for menswear, it looked like a glimmer of hope. Maybe he would be able to do the work to diversify the luxury landscape? A look at Abloh's background says no.
It was Kanye West that first introduced the fashion industry to Abloh, who worked as the rapper’s fashion advisor and creative director for 14 years; the two even interned at Fendi together. “I was working and then all of a sudden, I got a call from Kanye West,” Abloh told System magazine of meeting the man who would change his life. “He said: ‘Hey, I heard about this kid in Chicago who can design and understands music and culture.’”
But while West doesn’t shy away from offering his controversial takes on race and politics, Abloh on the other hand, has acknowledged race more subtly. As he explained to System about his first fashion line, Pyrex, “I use my project to talk about race in the most non-literal terms. As soon as you talk in literal terms, people’s brains shut off.” He later took a similar approach with Off-White. “I came up with Off-White as a means to talk about race. Off-White is in-between black and white, but my version of in-between is tainted with my opinion,” he told System magazine“It’s a blank canvas, a piece of off-white material that millions of artists can shape to give it value and meaning. Off-White is a modern version of a fashion brand. It’s a Trojan Horse for me.”
We've seen what happens when fashion houses do not what to have frank discussions around race and culture. It's how missteps like Gucci's balaclava resembling blackface happen. It's how H&M did not have the proper context to why putting a monkey on a Black child model was offensive. But in both cases, the brands took steps to diversify their staff. Gucci created an external counsel with Dapper Dan leading the charge to "unify and strengthen our communities across North America, with a focus on programs that will impact youth and the African-American community." H&M hired Head of Inclusion & Diversity for North America, Ezinne Kwubiri to foster a more inclusive culture within the company. "The advantage of having a diverse workplace is that you are bringing people in that are coming from different backgrounds, with different thought processes, and experiences," he said at the time. "And if you create a diverse space, people need to feel comfortable enough to be vocal and this is where the big part, inclusion and belonging come in." Companies need to have different genders, races, sizes, and ethnicities represented on every level who are empowered to enact change — not just in junior positions and not just in token senior roles as the face of the company.
While Virgil's appointment is a step toward greater inclusion in the fashion industry, it's time for the king of the remix to shake up his staff.
We reached out to Off-White and the brand declined to comment.