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Finding a voice

Not so long ago, the fashion rumour mill had Virgil Abloh, the designer behind Off-White, possibly heading to Givenchy. The air has since been taken out of that free-floating balloon, but the mere existence of the conversation suggested that Abloh’s reputation for creativity and buzz had reached fairly heady heights. Thanks to his menswear, which currently forms the foundation of his brand, he has been on the short-list for the LVMH designer prize, which celebrates up-and-coming talent and rewards it with financial and advisory support from the French luxury conglomerate that owns Givenchy among other brands.

Because Abloh has long worked with Kanye West as his creative director, he also has the patina of celebrity. And because Abloh is black, he is a rarity on the official Paris fashion calendar.

What Abloh did not have was much experience in womenswear. In previous collections, he struggled with some of the basics, notably fit. Making the shift from street-inspired menswear to women’s clothes means wrestling with hips and busts, curves and proportions.

In the fall 2017 collection, Abloh seemed to have worked through those technical bugaboos. The clothes fit his models.

And aesthetically, it was a much more interesting show. Instead of walking along a plain runway, his models made their way through an evocative set – the floor covered in a blanket of brown leaves and the path lined with bare trees. Abloh set a mood that was romantic, mysterious and just a little bit spooky. Indeed, his finale had the models filing out in pitch blackness – only their flashlights guiding them, like something out of “The Blair Witch Project.” Had they changed clothes? Who knew if they were even still wearing clothes? It was nearly impossible to see.

Now, he simply has to find his particular voice in womenswear. At the moment, his clothes are a dressed-up mix of tailored skirts and jackets, as well as satin and lace dresses that look quite a bit like frocks that once appeared on the Givenchy runway under the direction of recently departed designer Riccardo Tisci.

Abloh seems to be getting tripped up by the same issue that distracts many menswear designers when they make the shift into womenswear. They don’t stay true to the aesthetic that brought their initial success – the aesthetic that made women ask: When will you design for us? Instead, they veer into clichés. Maybe it’s because they are creating clothes for the woman of their dreams and that woman is wearing towering heels and a tight dress; or, she is decked out in frills and fur. Meanwhile, the guys are getting the hip leather jackets with the distinctive Off-White stripes painted across the back, the cool jeans, the intriguing sweaters, the bravado, the swagger.

For fall, there were flashes of Off-White’s distinctive élan. There were super-cropped jackets, tiny bomber coats, fur wraps with white stripes and high-waisted jeans. They looked good. And they looked uniquely his.

Perhaps Abloh is making a point that not everyone in his generation of designers sees luxury in the form of elevated streetwear. Perhaps his heart really is in refined tailoring and romantic dresses. No one wants to pigeonhole him into a particular sensibility.

But the spotlight on Abloh is getting ever brighter. His potential is evident. An expectant audience is waiting. What does he have to say?

Washington Post-Bloomberg