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It’s hard to pull off a good fashion show. There are the expectations of jaded attendees to contend with, many of whom have seen enough fashion week presentations to only allow any given show to hold their attention for so long. There are the considerations for how the event will play out online, too, and the pressure to create some Instagrammable moments that also translate well on livestreams and in pithy tweets. And then there are, of course, the clothes, that need to be memorable enough to make an impact, but still wearable, eye-catching, but not too gimmicky. It’s a lot, it’s often expensive, and there is a lingering air of “Is this really worth it?” when a designer could easily take a photo of the clothes they want to sell, post it on social media so shoppers know what’s coming, and call it a day. If you’re going to stage a successful runway show, then, you’ve got to really want it.
Virgil Abloh certainly swung for the fences with his Spring/Summer 2018 show last night in Florence, Italy, as a guest designer at the Pitti Uomo trade fair, the week-long menswear showcase that also featured runway shows from J.W. Anderson and Hugo Boss. Abloh received the gift and the burden of a prime closing night slot on the schedule for his Spring/Summer 2018 collection. Expectations were high. Industry types were all in town—as were influencers like Luka Sabbat and Sita Abellan—and they were ready to be wowed by the pre-ordained climax of an Off-White flexfest. The venue was majestic—Palazzo Pitti, a 15th century palace near the Arno River that is the definition of #RenaissanceGoals—and Abloh’s collaborator for the evening, the artist Jenny Holzer, has slowed her creative output in recent years, a fact that further added to the atmosphere of anticipation.
The show was held late at night, even by Italian standards, with a stated 9:30 PM start time that actually meant after 10:00. Guests filed into stadium seating facing the Palazzo, past signs that said “SILENCE” while opera music played over loudspeakers. It was dark, but even without any light other than the glow of iPhones and lit cigarettes—Europe!—the buzz in the space was palpable. Guests were ready for a show, and not even the lingering humidity of a 90 degree day could put a damper on that. (It turned out that the title Abloh gave to this collection, “Temperature,” worked on several levels.)
When the cigs were extinguished and everyone was seated, dual columns of scrolling text projected onto the façade of the Palazzo—the Holzer portion of the evening—began running simultaneously. It was hard to keep up with both sides (and even harder to do so while also attempting to take photos for the ‘Gram), but Holzer selected words and poems by artists who have fled their home countries in zones of conflict, including Omid Shams and Osama Alomar, and a piece by Anna Swir that was written during World War II.
Abloh had told The New York Times earlier that this would be a political show, and in that regard, he allowed Holzer and the voices she highlighted to take the evening’s biggest, boldest stance. “The houses on the left are burning, the houses on the right are burning,” read one passage. “The bomb is a flower, the bullet is a blossom,” read another. In the Times interview Abloh mentioned his inspiration for the entire project was his father’s journey from Ghana to the United States. Without knowing the personal backstory, it could be easy to interpret the Holzer intro as “yes, we’re all fucked.” On some level, it’s also Abloh’s attempt to grapple with yet another question plaguing designers presenting runway shows during Times Like These: Is it right or even possible to stake a claim to your influence and stage a massive fashion show without at least acknowledging that the world around us is on fire?
When models finally walked down the runway, it didn’t initially appear like Abloh was extending his political statement to the garments itself, although the crunch and swoosh of one look crafted from crinkly nylon was literally saying something loud. Looks and sounds, however, can be deceiving at first; Abloh explained to Vogue that this collection was his way of referencing the Syrian refugee crisis. “I was zero-ing in on a life raft, the colors, the warnings, the plastic,” he told the magazine.
The collection was mostly black and white, punctuated with bits of orange Day-Glo details and one particularly handsome floral print. Trousers were baggy, shorts were short. There were quite a few crop tops, and still more pieces that unzipped to expose models’ midsections, both of which suggested Abloh would like to push his audience forward away from tees and toward more edgy designs. The plastic Abloh mentioned was most memorably used in oversized tote bags, including one carried by show-closer Bloody Osiris. The accessories, in general, were a highlight. In addition to the bags, there was a Timberland collaboration, high-tops sneakers with tags that did look quite a bit like the flaps on a life preserver, and some seriously covetable red sunglasses. Abloh himself wore Off-White x Nike Air Jordans.
“I always felt that art should reflect the culture of the time,” he told The Times. “The responsibility we have is to record the events of history within an artistic expression.” He referred to the Pitti Uomo show as his Trojan Horse, the vehicle to set his ideas free behind the gates.
After Abloh took a bow and retreated backstage to greet well-wishers and friends—including Heron Preston in a T-shirt with a photo of Vladimir Putin on the front—the crowd dispersed into the balmy night, re-assembling at local bars, on street corners, or at the afterparty Abloh threw with his frequent collaborators at Levi’s. It was unclear whether or not Abloh and Holzer’s intended message was indeed memorable for attendees once they moved beyond the piazza, and whether it would trickle down to an awareness among customers buying Off-White in the spring that they’re wearing designs inspired by a humanitarian crisis. But, given the platform he had, you can’t say Abloh didn’t make a bold effort to leave his mark on Florence, and by extension, the rest of this troubled world