Art is important in streetwear. In a game that’s focused on graphic T-shirts, how a brand uses art and graphics can help or hurt its longevity. Vintage Polo Sportsman pieces that directly referenced images from 1940s outdoor magazines are some of Ralph Lauren's most sought after pieces. Supreme has been able to expand its audience beyond skateboarders by releasing collaborations with hyped contemporary artists like Damien Hirst and hardcore graffiti bombers like JA One.
Art collaborations are difficult to master, but Virgil Abloh has been able to execute collaborations in a meaningful way. Art is not simply used to boost his brand’s aesthetic. It’s being used to tell a story. Since Virgil Abloh first launched Off-White in 2013, he’s referenced artists ranging from 17th century Baroque painters to 1970s subway graffiti writers. Although Abloh is not the first to work with some of these artists, he undeniably has an eye for what will translate on a garment and what people will want to buy. We broke down the artists who inspired some of Off-White’s best art references and collaborations.
From collaborating with the SAMO-esque street artist “Jim Joe” on the Pyrex Vision film, to inviting several graffiti artists to paint the runway at Louis Vuitton earlier this year, it isn’t a secret that Virgil Abloh is a graff head. And his love for graffiti culture fully surfaced at Off-White’s Spring/Summer 2019 runway show when he revealed it was dedicated to the deified New York graffiti legend Donald “Dondi” White.
To this day, the late Dondi is still revered as one of the most influential graffiti artists of all time. A graffiti writer who had such an ill and unique style that he was dubbed "The Style Master General.” Born in East New York, Brooklyn, Dondi crushed entire subway lines in the ‘70s with top to bottom pieces that covered entire train cars. He became one of only a few graffiti writers able to successfully transition into showcasing and selling his work at art galleries. Today, the late Dondi’s artwork is highly sought after and rarely up for sale. Last year, a Dondi painting fetched $240,000 at an auction, and his sketches have sold for over $100,000. In an interview, Abloh said he learned how to draw by tracing Dondi’s work.
Instead of repurposing famous photos of Dondi’s graffiti on subway cars, Abloh dived into the artist’s sketchbooks. Out of all of Dondi’s artwork, his sketches and drawings remain to be some of his most fascinating art. Alien stick figures and deconstructed graffiti letters were hallmarks of these sketches. Dondi’s sketches of his iconic Children of the Grave whole car piece, his “Pre2” tag with a female swimmer, blueprint drawings, a blackbook piece of a mountain, a blackbook piece of the grim reaper, and other sketches were printed onto various garments for Off-White’s Spring/Summer 2019 collection. However, Off-White was far from being the first streetwear brand to ever collaborate with Dondi—Stussy and Supreme worked with the artist nearly a decade before.
It’s worth noting that graffiti and architecture are both rooted in iterative thinking. In both fields, a designer is constantly re-drawing iterations of their work until they hit the design they truly desire. You can see this through Dondi’s iterations of the letter “D.” Sometimes he would sketch the letter “D” as a shadow, draw an enlarged “D” that connected to a train car, or turn the “D” into its own character. So the connection between Abloh and Dondi seems even more fitting.
Giorgio de Chirico
Off-White’s Spring/Summer 2017 collection featured graphics that referenced Giorgio de Chirico’s art. It was a subtle nod by Virgil Abloh to commemorate the metaphysical school of art’s 100th anniversary. The metaphysical, an Italian art movement founded by de Chirico and Carlo Carra, is considered to be a predecessor to surrealism, which was made popular by artists such as Salvador Dali.
The Girogio de Chirico pieces Abloh references include a 1948 painting of an Italian square and de Chirico’s 1914 painting The Song of Love. Although Abloh’s love for de Chirico has never been formally explained, it could likely be connected to de Chirico’s affinity to paint Italtian architecture minimally within his work. The design of the Off-White store in Manila, Philippines, was reportedly inspired by de Chirico’s work.
Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir
The core influence behind Off-White’s recognizable arrows and diagonal logos can be attributed to the work of the British graphic designers Margaret Calvert and Jock Kinneir. The two designers are better known for designing road signs in the United Kingdom that became the model for road signage across the world. In 1964, Kinneir and Calvert were commissioned to make signs for the newly opened Glasgow airport. The symbol of the airport included an arrows logo that resembled the St. Andrews cross, which was borrowed by Off-White over half a century later. Off-White also seems to be inspired by the diagonals seen on top of airport runway trucks.
Off-White’s Spring/Summer 2020 collection brought forth a super hyped collaboration with graffiti and streetwear pioneer Futura. Pointman statues appeared on the runway along with dresses, denim jackets, Nike Dunk SB Lows, T-shirts, and tailored pieces featuring Futura’s art.
With Futura being one of the founding fathers of modern streetwear—as shown with his early brands like Not From Concentrate/GSF, Project Dragon, and Recon—it was only a matter of time for one of the biggest streetwear labels of today to link with the artist, whose real name is Lenny McGurr. The Off-White collaboration was revealed just weeks after Futura announced he was relaunching his cult streetwear brand, Futura Laboratories, earlier this year. Like Dondi, Futura was also apart of a small class of subway graffiti writers who were able to break into the fine art world in the early ‘80s. Although his work could be seen as a mix between artists like Wassily Kandinsky and Jackson Pollock, Futura art is simply Futura. Futura’s eye for blending spray paint together, plus his iconic and unique glyphs, is what makes him one of the most respected graffiti pioneers alive today.
Most of Futura’s graphics seem to be custom-made for Off-White, but one noticeable graphic printed on dresses, throw blankets, and suits was directly pulled from a backdrop that Futura painted for The Clash during their 1981 European tour. Other pieces in the collection pulled art from an untitled Futura painting that was sold for $30,000 two years ago. “I have a great relationship with Virg,” said Futura in an interview with T Magazine.
Virgil Abloh’s Pre-Spring 2019 collection included a number of pieces featuring the famous 1874 Edoaurd Manet painting Monet Painting in his Studio Boat. With an Off-White collection titled Impressionism, it’s pretty clear why Abloh chose to feature Impressionist artists like Manet within the collection. Manet was a French 19th century painter who struggled to gain recognition during his lifetime. The lofty art academies of France constantly rejected Manet’s paintings due to how realistic they were. Manet painted controversial images such as a fully nude prostitute lounging in a bed or of a bullfighter who met his demise. After Manet’s paintings were rejected by the Paris World’s Fair, Manet took matters into his own hands by building his own pavilion to exhibit his art outside of the fair’s entrance
So why reference the late 19th and early 20th century French art movement? Some Off-White pieces that showcase Manet’s painting also include printed text with Off-White’s definition of what Impressionism was. Off-White’s definition emphasizes how the art movement was launched through independent exhibitions by artists who were originally lamented by the conventional art community in Paris before it was heralded as a great art movement today. That sounds similar to the story of streetwear’s relationship with high fashion.
The artwork referenced by Off-White for this collaboration includes Jean-Michel Basquiat’s SAMO tags, a record sleeve cover Basquiat designed for Rammellzee and K-Rob’s 1983 album Beat Bop, a piece from Basquiat's Famous Negro Athletes series, AAAAAA, and Evil Thoughts. Although a Basquiat collaboration isn’t a super novel move by a streetwear brand, because everyone from Supreme to Uniqlo has licensed his work, it shows how enduring Basquiat’s artwork is today. Basquiat took over SoHo’s galleries in the 1980s with artists like Keith Haring and became one of Andy Warhol’s muses. Today, his work is constantly imitated and has recently sold for as much as $110.5 million. Why Basquiat’s paintings remain extremely popular today is because of the artist’s commentary on topics regarding race, police brutality, politics, capitalism, colonialism, and more.
Anton Raphael Mengs
The “Mariana de Silva” pieces from Off-White’s Pre-Fall 2019 collection are a direct reference to an 18th century unfinished portrait of Spanish writer Mariana de Silva by artist Anton Raphael Mengs. Mengs was an 18th century German painter considered to be one of the best artists of his time. No one knows why the portrait of Mariana de Silva was left unfinished, but the painting’s unique look has only increased its appeal. Three years ago, Anderson Cooper purchased the painting from an art dealer for $275,000.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Italian painter Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is Off-White’s most referenced artist. Carravagio’s late 16th and early 17th century paintings—such as the Madonna of the Rosary, The Entombment of Christ, Annunciation, Narcissus, Saint Jerome Writing, and The Seven Works of Mercy—have all been printed on Pyrex Vision and Off-White garments. Recent releases, such as the “Hardcore Caravaggio” pieces from the brand’s latest season, even feature a condensed biography of the artist’s life. Caravaggio was known as a controversial painter because of his painting’s gritty realism and his life as a criminal. Caravaggio sourced his models from the streets and painted them realistically, down to their dirty fingernails. Despite being commissioned to paint for churches and aristocrats, Caravaggio was arrested numerous times and eventually died while he was on the run from killing a man over a tennis match.
Although Abloh has never fully detailed why Caravaggio is a running motif in Off-White, Micheal Darling of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago briefly explains why Abloh was attracted to the Italian painter in the forward of the Figures of Speech book. Darling wrote that Abloh was “blown away” by Caravaggio’s innovative use of the painting technique known as chiaroscuro and how it changed history. Later on in the book, Abloh says that studying the Renaissance “rewired” his brain and that chiaroscuro made him realize that art wasn’t just for rich people.
Chiaroscuro refers to the technique of balancing light and dark elements in a painting to add more depth to 3D elements.The innovation that Caravaggio brought to chiaroscuro is known as tenebrism, which is a style of painting where a sharp contrast between light and dark is used to create a dramatic effect. Juxtapositioning this with the definition of Off-White being “the gray area between black and white,” Carravaggio’s work serves as a fitting symbol for the brand.