When Virgil Abloh passed away in November 2021, it sent ripples through the world. Fashion insiders, celebrities, and fans collectively mourned the loss of the 41-year-old maverick who was subverting traditions and paving the way for a more inclusive — and frankly, cooler — luxury industry.
A designer who blurred the genres of luxury and streetwear, Abloh had served as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear since 2018 in addition to helming Off-White, the brand he founded in 2012. His touch permeated pop culture, from his use of quotation marks to the constant collaborations. LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault praised him as a “genius designer, a visionary,” while the New York Times called him “the Karl Lagerfeld for millennials.”
Unsurprisingly, news of his death spread quickly through China. Some fans posted goodbye messages on his Xiaohongshu account and left flowers at local Off-White stores. Others rushed to snag his iconic collabs as resale prices started to skyrocket within hours: pairs of the Off-White x Converse 2.0 sneakers doubled, and the Off-White x Air Jordan 1 “Chicago,” which usually sold for 63,000 RMB, leapt to 470,000 RMB ($69,650).
Eight months on, Off-White has appointed Ib Kamara as its new image and art director while Louis Vuitton continues to search for a replacement. But while the French luxury house long predates Abloh, Off-White was tied more closely to his cult of personality. So, how does a young company survive beyond its founder? And will Chinese consumers welcome the new leadership?
Off-White’s posthumous playbook
Like in the rest of the world, the Milan-based label gained popularity in China on the backs of celebrity endorsements. “The success of a brand is highly driven by the times it lives in,” explained Jinfan Zhang, a luxury communication specialist. “Accelerated by social commerce and Chinese fandom culture around 2017, Chinese street culture was thriving, reflected by the local millennials that were hyper-interested in the streetwear endorsed by Chinese A-list celebs like Kris Wu and Edison Chen.”
Then, of course, there’s Abloh himself. Although Zhang notes that a designer’s personal celebrity often has little influence on brand awareness in China, Joyce Gu, a market researcher at Cherry Blossoms Intercultural Branding, believes Abloh was a rare decisive factor in giving Off-White a foothold in the country. “Virgil Abloh kept interacting with his fans and sharing his inspiration, thus creating an authentic persona, not only as a designer but also as a mentor and motivator,” she told Jing Daily. “Abloh’s personality gives the brand a deeper level of vitality that drives Chinese consumers, especially the younger ones, to pay for it.”
That said, Off-White does have avenues to maintain relevance without him. For starters, it helps to have some of the biggest luxury players in its corner. In July 2021, LVMH acquired a 60 percent majority stake in the business, bringing the resources to help it expand into new categories such as homeware, eyewear, and beauty. There’s also Farfetch which, after purchasing luxury holding company New Guards Group in 2019, has helped Off-White achieve double-digit growth through digital channels.
Plus, Abloh didn’t leave Off-White without any creative guidance. “The number of ideas that we have directly from him — that were unmanageable on a daily, weekly and monthly basis [through WhatsApp] — it’s endless,” stated Off-White CEO Andrea Grilli to Business of Fashion.
The price of legacy
The Ghanian-American’s clout has trickled over to price tags as well. Take the Louis Vuitton x Nike Air Force 1 sneakers for example: representing one of the last sneaker designs of Abloh’s career, 200 pairs sold at a Sotheby’s auction for a record-breaking $25.3 million in February. When they were later made available to the public, the coveted kicks were priced as high as 93,000 RMB ($13,739), or more than double their retail price, on Chinese platform Dewu.
“Sneaker collectors continue to seek out the best of the best, and nowhere was that more evident than with this special sale honoring Virgil Abloh,” explained Brahm Wachter, Sotheby’s Head of Streetwear and Modern Collectibles. “Many of Abloh’s designs are really timeless, and he had a clear singular vision. When I think about collectibles, sometimes those are the things that matter most.”
This distinct aesthetic has boosted the value Off-White products too, with the recently released Off-White x Nike Air Force 1 Low “Light Green Spark” listed on StockX for over $3,000 (versus a $160 retail price). Outside of the sneaker realm, the artist’s Unique “Efflorescence” Desk achieved $151,200 in a Sotheby’s auction in May, reflecting continued interest in his works across categories.
The era of Ib Kamara
While Abloh’s popularity has bolstered certain products, it’s too soon to say how Kamara’s Off-White will fare. He is less recognizable in China than Abloh, but his appointment still generated a lot of buzz in Chinese fashion communities. Moreover, the Sierra Leone-born, London-based fashion stylist has been working with Off-White for years, and it’s unlikely the brand will stray too far from what consumers love about it.
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What should be of greater concern than this reorganization, Zhang points out, is the declining hype around streetwear — something Abloh himself predicted. With the resurgence of COVID leading to more “rational and more value-centric spending, Off-White along with other brands are living on a trend that may be gradually ousted by Chinese consumers,” Zhang said. Gu reiterated the changes to street culture, stating that the “exploration of diversity and the building of a core identity will remain the key to the longevity of the brand.”
How long Kamara sticks to plentiful collaborations and quotation marks remains to be seen. But while visuals may change over the years, especially as the brand develops multiple luxury lines, Abloh’s spirit will live on. Just as Louis Vuitton evolved after the death of its founder — becoming so much more than a luggage maker — so too can Off-White. After all, Abloh left a solid foundation in his stead.