Off-White, a five-year-old luxury clothing brand has beaten century-old brands such as Prada, Gucci, and Balenciaga. Off-White became the number one brand in the quarterly Lyst clothing brands index. The top ten is compiled by analysing over 5 million monthly shoppers that search 12,000 designers and stores online over three months. It takes into account searches, sales and conversions on Lyst and Google Search, brand and product social media mentions. Building a strong brand takes time, especially in a category like fashion that has no differentiated utility. That makes Off-White an interesting case study. In the last quarter, Off-White has moved up 33 positions and climbed to the first place. But where did this brand come from?

 

The birth of Off-White is unusual as the brand itself. Virgil Abloh, a graduate civil engineer with a masters diploma in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology, did an internship at Fendi in 2009. Here Virgil met a musician, singer, rapper, and producer Kanye West, and later became a creative director at Kanye’s creative agency DONDA. Virgil’s first clothing venture was called Pyrex Vision. Initially, it began as an artistic experiment, at least that’s what Virgil states. He purchased Ralph Lauren’s deadstock clothing: flannel shirts for $40; he then screen-printed Pyrex designs on them and resold for $550 per item. Designs were created for the Instagram generation with large and bold Pyrex prints on shirts and shorts. Another popular clothing item was a black hoodie with a Caravaggio’s The Entombment of Christ print on front. Kanye West, his wife Kim Kardashian and other Virgil’s celebrity friends significantly impacted and boosted Pyrex Vision popularity by simply wearing them. Soon it was selling at the most influential retailers across the globe along with other brands such as Givenchy and Celine.

Pyrex vision was worn by top celebrities:

Startlingly, just in one year, after a sudden and controversial success, Pyrex Vision was shut down. However, it revealed a gap in the market and a demand for a contemporary mix of luxury and streetwear. Virgil grabbed the opportunity and in the same year came back with a new brand Off-White: a high-end streetwear brand based in Milan, Italy.

Fast forward five years, the talented Virgil Abloh has become an artistic director of men’s fashion at Louis Vuitton, and his brand Off-White world famous, selling streetwear in 24 stores in the most affluent cities and at leading luxury retailers. Many articles celebrate the success of Virgil and Off-White, but let’s look at it as a perfectly crafted brand with very distinctive brand assets and interesting networking strategy.

In the fashion and design world, distinctive brand assets are a part of a design language. Virgil is exceptionally good at it. He shared his work ethos in a lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design  where a couple of points stood out that describes his approach to a creative execution:

The “3% approach” defines a decision system that takes something already familiar in the culture and changes only 3% of it. He claimed that creating something entirely new is avant-garde, and it is so disconnected from a current culture that hardly anyone would embrace it.

The second point is to speak simultaneously to tourists and purists. “If ideas are not shared with a broader audience, they are merely self-serving”. To translate his fashionspeak to marketingspeak: purist are heavy category buyers and tourists are light and occasional category buyers.

 

Distinctive Brand Assets

Off-White has created unique accessories and graphics that boldly stand out from other competitors in the same category. The luxury clothing category is oversaturated with brands fighting for customer’s attention. Every strong brand has developed design elements that make them distinct from the rest, these are not logos, but elements in a design language that are instantly recognisable and link to the brand. Seeing these design elements, a buyer can identify and connect the product to a brand in marketing, advertising or sponsorship. Distinctive brand assets work both for a company and a customer, it can be legally protected, and it aids customer to recognise the brand instantly. Unlike the art direction or certain classic wardrobe staples, brand assets won’t be copied due to a high risk of misattributing them to a wrong brand.  Moreover, in fashion, new trends or replaced designers lead to a change of art direction, but distinctive brand assets remain untouched; this way it guarantees the same brand recognition for the years to come.

Off-White from the start created and coherently used distinctive brand assets in all collections and collaborations. Virgil uses these assets in-line with his design principles: they are handled differently depending on the audience, fashion week collections are only subtly marked with hints of branded assets not to annoy fashion industry “purists”; while “tourists” can purchase fashion items from the online store or other retailers with bold, instantly recognisable designs.

Here are some of the distinctive Off-White brand assets, that are exceptionally salient and immediately connects to the brand: diagonal lines, words in quotes, graphics of arrows, and the industrial belt.

Networking and Collaborations

Distinctive brand assets work to the benefit of Off-White in a well-executed strategy of networking and collaboration. The Off-White brand, during its young age, has collaborated with tens of other highly recognisable brands tapping into their networks of potential shoppers. This way of increasing customer reach and creating unique PR moments that works for both collaborating brands is not new. The Supreme brand is probably best known for such collaborations that range from developing unique items from Louis Vuitton skateboard to New York city MetroCard. However, Off-White does it with more consideration and mostly stays within the clothing category.

During these collaborations, Off-White employs the 3% principle and changes collaborating brand’s product minimally by adding own design language and Off-White distinctive brand assets. Brands that work with Off-White get PR attention and association with hot, contemporary, luxury streetwear. It’s a win-win relationship. The list of collaborations is quite extensive, but it includes worldwide known brands such as Nike, Le Bon Marché, Ikea, Moncler, Levi’s, Jimmy Choo, Champion, Timberland, Sunglass Hut, and even contemporary artist Takashi Murakami.

Here are some of the Off-White partnerships that helped to cement the brand into current culture.

Off-White is privately owned by the New Guards Group which do not disclose any financial data publicly. Nonetheless, the public and industry’s interest in Off-White and Virgil Abloh is enormous, and considering that the brand is merely five years old it is a remarkable achievement on its own. Virgil has proved that with the right attitude and strategy brands can be built fast even in exceptionally competitive environments.