Serena Williams looks stunning on GQ’s latest issue, one of four in its 2018 “Man of the Year” series. She is the sole woman honored. Equally stunning was the major miscalculation made by the magazine’s editors by inviting designer of the moment, Virgil Abloh, to customize the cover, which he did by crossing out the word “Men” and tagging the issue with the word “Woman”—in quotes.
For Abloh, who famously collaborated with Williams on her 2018 US Open wardrobe—which also featured a heavy use of quotations—it was likely just another instance of the on-the-nose branding synonymous with his label, Off-White. Indeed, his extra-meta clothing and accessories emblazoned with ironically obvious quotations have brought him international fame, numerous collaborations and a cult following. But given his lack of originality for GQ, he likely should’ve sat this one out, since his ill-advised tag drew more criticism than compliments.
After all, Williams’ femininity has been under scrutiny for the entirety of her famed career—even since the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia. In fact, while pregnant she even controversially asserted that giving birth would make her “a real woman,” causing this writer (among others) to wonder if the constant criticism had taken its toll on her own sense of womanhood.
So, the decision to place Williams’ gender in quotes on GQ’s cover was insulting at worst, and careless at best. But aside from the obviously problematic overtones of doing so, it also reveals a profound laziness on Abloh’s part and GQ’s editors, and a genuine problem with our brand-obsessed culture.
In this instance, in GQ’s thirst to be on trend, Abloh’s brand was allowed to unnecessarily eclipse Williams’. Instead of the focus rightfully remaining solely on her iconic stature and truly flawless cover look, it has been largely derailed by discussions about GQ’s intent. Her cover story hasn’t even been published yet, so there’s not even a substantial counterpoint to the discussion. While neither the magazine nor Williams has released an official statement on the controversy, GQ’s research manager, Mick Rouse, took to Twitter to defend the gaffe and, in the process, seemingly placed sole responsibility for any misconstrued context firmly in Abloh’s lap.
For all we know, Williams conspired to throw some of the insulting rhetoric she’s been subject to back on its face (we certainly hope so). But as others have pointed out, for GQ to assume widespread label awareness from an audience that may not even follow tennis but still loves the tennis phenom (*raises hand*) is a reach; perhaps far more of a reach than some—predominantly black women—taking offense to an easily avoided design fumble.
Which leads us back to Abloh, who, as his empire continues to grow (he is now creative director of menswear at Louis Vuitton), may want to consider how long he plans to ride this particular gimmick out. One of the major facets of successful branding is that it’s easily identifiable and clearly hits its mark. While we’re pretty sure Abloh would never intentionally insult his friend and collaborator Williams, that his intent has been seriously and hotly debated simply proves his branding failed to communicate, at least in this case.
Or, maybe GQ should’ve just given Abloh his own damned cover. Because Serena had that covered, all by herself.