Off-White’s Latest Collection Is Dedicated to Old-Guard NYC Graffiti Artist Dondi White
Off-White’s Spring 2019 collection featured T-shirts with White’s designs, signaling that Abloh is, once again, challenging the rarification of art.
Off-White Spring 2019 collection. Photo by BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images
On Wednesday, in Paris, Virgil Abloh showed an Off-White Spring 2019 collection of chopped-up denim, big white T-shirts that ballooned like sails, and jeans with a capacious, A-line cut that approached the vibe of a goth raver. It was a collection about youth (“There is a new freedom; I can embrace graphics again. Now it’s about a 17-year-old kid,” Abloh told Vogue), with a sense of teenage invincibility and arrogance, and the creative expansiveness that comes with it.
The collection also contained several references to artist Donald “Dondi” White—Abloh described the show as a tribute to him. White’s graffiti tags were scrawled on t-shirts and coats, and the block capitaled and Helvetica-ed name “DONDI” appeared in quotation marks over models’ hips.
Dondi White, born in 1961 in East New York, was a prolific graffiti artist in the 1970s and 1980s. He started the CIA (Crazy Inside Artists) Crew; later, he began working on canvas and showing at art galleries in Europe, and his association with Soul Artists Crew brought him into contact with artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring. On MTA trains in the 1980s, you could see “DONDI” spelled out in his signature chunky block letters, and his collages—cut-out sections of yellowed building plans, pencil and felt-tip pen drawings—appeared in galleries. In 1998, aged 37, he passed away from AIDS.
“Anything I would do on a train, I would do on canvas,” Dondi says in a cut scene filmed for the 1983 hip-hop documentary Style Wars. “I’m still using spray paint. I’m still using the same basic technique as painting trains.” He takes the cameraperson downstairs, into his work space, and spreads out layers of spray-painted canvases on the ground, over sheets of cardboard. One image of the letter “B” has been painted over a 1980 work called I Love New York, erasing the original. “I like it much better now,” he says.
As Abloh makes his much-anticipated debut at Louis Vuitton menswear, Dondi is an apt reference: a veteran of the NYC graffiti scene, he worked in fine art by skewing but not fundamentally changing his practice. His canvases aren’t just train graffiti, scaled down; they insert street art into the lineage of painting, adapting without compromising it. Abloh has been praised for elevating street style to the status of high fashion—and by referencing Dondi, we can see that they’re pulling off a similar feat.