Fear and Clothing: It's neither black nor white - it's off-white
A weekly column on the vagaries and charms of fashion
I spent the weekend with friends in the bush. These friends by their own admission love to play game ranger, game ranger. And what a setting in which to play that game. Eden basically. So we are out and about in the game vehicle and they are engaging in all sorts of game ranger banter with each other over the radio – when something very fast and black and white streaks past the vehicle.
“What is it?” we cry with excitement.
“Could be an otter!” say our in-house rangers with authority.
We move forward and spot another vehicle. There is game ranger protocol with this stuff. “Permission to join the lock?” they whisper over the airwaves, the answer comes crackling back in the affirmative.
We move forward slowly and the other vehicle starts to leave.
Their ranger looks over. “What is it?” we all ask again. “Oh,” he says with a little intake of breath, “it’s a very rare sighting in the wild.” And with that mystery left hanging, he drives off. We inch forward till we have a clear line of sight. And there it is – the black and white rarity of the bush – a very large and feral domestic cat stalking its way across the veld.The cat must have taken off from one of the villages that border the Kruger Park and has clearly been living its best life in the bush for a while. Who knows how long it had been there but its entire demeanour was redolent with an insouciant street smart grittiness. Compelling albeit very amusing. It was wild. And it was executing a perfect reverse move on the general pattern of things.
It made me think about incongruous things that make perfect sense once they happen. Like the appointment of Virgil Abloh as the new menswear designer at Louis Vuitton.
You may not know Abloh, but he has been creative director for Kanye West since 2002 when he was 22 and his luxury streetwear label Off-White has become iconoclastic and immensely profitable in the few years it has existed. For three years he has shown at Paris Fashion Week. You know you have arrived when crowds of very fashionable people jostle each other on the Rue Cambon ( the original headquarters of Chanel) to get into the show.“With fashion you have to choose if you're high-end, contemporary or streetwear, men's or women's . Off-White is between black and white, there is no choice. It’s the idea that I wouldn't decide, which relates more to the consumer,” said Abloh in an interview with the Business of Fashion. He sounds like the black and white hunter of wild mice I mentioned earlier.Apparently the gap between high fashion and streetwear began to close about 10 years ago with the rise of cult brands like Shayne Oliver’s Hood By Air, Riccardo Tisci's streetwear-inspired Givenchy, Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga , Alexander Wang, Dior Homme's Kris Van Assche, and now Gucci and the ultimate street luxe label Vetements.
Kanye, the king of fashion-forward rappers, made street-luxe just by turning up and so it is no surprise that his visual partner, the architecturally trained and lesser spotted Abloh, is now bringing his canny street smarts to Louis Vuitton.
Every luxury company with an eye to the millennial consumer (shortly to be the biggest spender in the global economy) is looking for fashion credibility for street. All are exploring the marriage of high and low, the blending of black and white – the end of Manichean world views and bringing on the era of Off-White.
But has there ever such a thing as high fashion that lived in a rarefied world apart from the street? Any designer worth his or her salt has been looking at the street forever and a day and integrating what they see there into high fashion. Even Marie Antoinette wore a shepherdess's smock in happier days.
From Chanel to Yves St Laurent, the street in one form or another has been the mood board inspiring their every collection. And a glance at Bill Cunningham's 40-year-old archive of his On the Street Style columns for the New York Times is proof positive that the relationship between the street and the catwalk has always been incestuous. The haute has always flirted with the lure of the wild. The cat has always always been playing with the mouse, and sometimes it's a fieldmouse.