Virgil Abloh was in the early stages of planning the women’s collection for his label, Off-White, when the Charlie Hebdo attacks occurred. The ensuing solidarity via social media—whether as hashtags or illustrations—got him thinking about the space shared by activism and design. By the time he arrived in Paris to present his menswear, the swell of expression and emotion had all but dissipated. “I felt it needed to be documented in art,” he said, surprised that the fashion community had seemingly compartmentalized the moment.

So he processed it for himself with sweats and a shearling bomber featuring drippy, hand-painted lettering in which “Dazed still confused,” “War is not over,” and a distorted peace sign revived the unease felt across college campuses back when hippies were revolutionaries and Hendrix was their voice. Abloh makes no pretensions about being an artist; further, his clothes are not intended as the sartorial equivalent of satire. But from the moment his first Pyrex Vision T-shirts cracked the street-style mold three years ago to his inclusion on the LVMH Prize short list last week, his steady ascent has largely been the result of an exceptional sixth sense for graphic imagery.

More and more, though, he’s hitting his stride in design. Here he relied on flares for continuity; for differentiation, they got their girth from a deep front vent rather than a classic bell-bottom. This detail also happened to dovetail with his Fall collection’s title, Split Ends. While Abloh recognizes the commercial imperative (hence the ripstop paisleys, bleach-blocked denim, and pitched-toe mountain boots), he’s more seduced by statement (a fox-fur coat pimped with athletic cuffs) and craft (a collaboration with Paris-based leather atelier LaContrie, which customized box-framed bags with openwork straps echoing Off-White’s diagonally striped logo). For now, Abloh remains dedicated to an achingly cool long and layered silhouette that, based on any standard tailoring primer, shouldn’t deserve praise. But he’s two steps ahead of the zeitgeist, and the medium is his message.

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