In today’s 'designer streetwear' world, there are few logos so gut-punch recognizable as Abloh’s suite of lines and arrows. With just six years of life, “Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh” has become one of the world’s hottest fashion brands, both admired and admonished for it’s of-the-times approach to high-end fashion.

It is this approach—manifested in graphic tees, luxury sneakers, and celebrity endorsements—that is partially responsible for winning the hearts and wallets of the world’s most fashion-savvy. It is this approach—and the aforementioned hearts and wallets it’s won—that arguably even contributed to the designer’s recent appointment at Louis Vuitton.

Yet, for all the thinkpiece-induced fervor over Off-White’s taming of the zeitgeist, there is one fact that is both decidedly aged (and decidedly un-fashion): the brand’s famous logos were inspired by the mid-’60s rebrand of a Scottish public airport.

In the 1950s, Britain had a problem. The postwar boom years had introduced millions of Britons to the wonders of the automobile. The country’s roadways—many originally built for horses and wagons—simply could not accommodate the swell. To make matters worse, municipalities were at that point responsible for providing their own signage, meaning a motorist in a hours-long jam could pass county lines and see entirely different directions, warnings and advisories.

For Britain to clear congested roads, it would need high-speed, American-style motorways. For Britain to keep those motorways free of flaming wreckage, it would need coherent, unified signage.

The task of developing that signage fell on Margaret Calvert. Calvert, then-assistant to designer Jock Kinneir, had previously worked with Kinneir to design signage for Gatwick Airport. Yet, it would be the duo’s work on the UK roadways—including the “Transport” typeface and now-iconic roadsigns, many of which are still in use half a century later—that would make the duo stars.

Calvert’s road signage was first tested in 1958. Despite some mild pushback, the signs soon came into use nationwide. The duo’s fame grew. By the early ‘60s, Kinneir and Calvert were engaged to create a similarly “low-key” identity for the British Railway system. Their resulting typeface—“Rail Alphabet”—was meant to provide viewers on a platform with a clear, effective break from the busy advertisements that surrounded station signs.
Rail Alphabet, which was soon adapted for airport usage, was available in six thicknesses, or weights.

The heaviest weight of Rail Alphabet was the descriptively-named “Black.” The lightest weight of Rail Alphabet was “Off White.”

In 1964, Kinneir Calvert Associates (Calvert, no longer an assistant, was now a partner in the business) was engaged by the operators of the new Glasgow Airport to produce “a flexible system, one that could be easily expanded and adapted to meet changing conditions and needs.” The system included white letterforms (“the same as those used for British Rail”) and, most notably, a high-contrast, modernist symbol, “reminiscent of the St Andrew's Cross, with arrows pointing in and out.”

The cherry on top: Calvert and Kinneir also designed “a livery [paint scheme] for the airport's vehicles, forklift trucks and flight ladders” consisting of the arrow logo juxtaposed with “yellow striped tops so that they are clearly visible from the air.” The entire Glasgow project is profiled in a 1966 Design article.

Considering Abloh’s undergrad degree in civil engineering, it’s likely he encountered the world of public works projects through his syllabus’ subject matter alone. Considering his master’s in architecture, it becomes improbable that he did not encounter the work of Calvert, who—along with Dieter Rams, Massimo Vignelli and Charles Eames—helped to define an era of design thinking. Given Abloh’s acknowledgment of Rams, it becomes harder to believe he had not at least chanced upon Calvert’s work at some point prior to launching Off-White (the brand, not the font weight).

Off White. The “Arrows” logo. The juxtaposed stripes. Twice is coincidence. Three times is a pattern.

None of this is to discredit the work that Abloh and his team have put into building Off-White as a brand. To those following and wearing the brand, the line’s bold graphics are appealing, and the clothes themselves are aspirational. Off-White is, and will likely remain, a phenomenon. Connections may seem obvious between Calvert and Abloh, but it is unfair and peevish to begrudge Abloh’s success.

If anything, one could argue that Abloh’s success partially derives from his ability to recall and reference. Some of the brand’s most popular garments feature reprints of works by Renaissance artists, a literal fusion of 'high art' and 'pedestrian' garment (or 'genre' of garments, aka streetwear). The popular “WHITE” back-print is even believed to be borrowed from a Maison Margiela jacket dating back to the brand’s Fall/Winter 2002 collection.

The fashion world is filled with stories of multi-talented auteurs, of Renaissance men (and women) who find inspiration across every facet of their lives. Hedi Slimane is a photographer. Karl Lagerfeld once illustrated a children’s book. Given that Abloh himself is—among other things—simultaneously an artist , advisor and international DJ, his ability to sample, reuse and ultimately reinterpret existing successful works could be the secret behind his thoroughly modern success. The question remains: In today’s world of publicly-traded fashion houses and #drop #hype, does that difference—between artiste originator and savant remixer—actually matter?

At the 2013 Alliance Graphique Internationale London Open, a 77-year-old Calvert advised her audience on the headspace needed for creative success: “It’s about knowing who you are designing for.”

Considering Off-White’s success in our logo-driven world of luxury streetwear, one could argue Abloh was following that advice to the letter. There are worse ways for a brand to take off than seeking inspiration from an airport.

Special thanks to Eric TerBush for his help producing this article.

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Tags: graphic-design, off-white, virgil-abloh