Virgil Abloh passed away at the age of 41 on Sunday in Chicago after a private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma cancer. The world of fashion and culture mourns his unmatched talent, vision, and energy, and his saturated life and legacy will go on to inspire dreamers like him. The multifaceted creative was a fashion theorist and philosopher; a bigger-picture, outside-the-frame thinker, who defined the modern idea of a creative director and what they contribute to culture. He shifted the idea luxury fashion by merging it with streetwear, being the first Black designer to helm Louis Vuitton, LVMH’s biggest brand, and welcoming a new generation of creatives to take the lead. A full life like Abloh’s cannot be simplified in text or quotations, though his carry heavy weight today.
“You can do it too,” he wrote on the day of his Louis Vuitton debut on Instagram.
Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois to immigrant parents from Ghana. His mother was a seamstress who taught him how to sew and his father managed a paint company. In 2002, he earned a degree in civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, before embarking on a Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. While at school, he met Rem Koolhaas, dutch architect and designer of several Prada runways, who sparked his interest in fashion as his “gateway.” Abloh’s budding passion prompted him to design T-shirts and write about fashion and design for the cult-classic 2000s blog, The Brilliance. During this time, he dove further into his interests, meeting future creative peers and collaborators, one of which named Kanye West. They met in a Chicago print shop working on their designs, in a moment of fate.
Abloh and West are known for their close friendship based in their Chicago heritage and boundary-breaking approached to art and culture. In 2009, the two interned at Fendi in Milan together which was described as a “disruptive” energy for the highly-traditional luxury landscape at the time. “Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since,” said Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke years later. That same year, the designer duo took Paris Fashion Week by storm, appearing at several shows including a famous image in front of Comme des Garçons, and making their presence at fashion’s newest visionaries known.
West’s faith and admiration for the designer is proven in parallel to his body of work. He tapped Abloh to art direct much of his discography, including 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Yeezus, and Watch the Throne, a project with Jay-Z that earned Abloh a grammy nomination for its design, among several other historic covers for prominent hip hop artists. In 2010, West asked Abloh to be the creative director of Donda, his creative agency named after West’s mother.
Abloh’s first clothing company Pyrex Vision launched in New York City from deadstock Ralph Lauren fabrics he screen-printed and sold for over ten timed the material cost. His flannel shirts donned the number 23 for his childhood hero Michael Jordan. Pyrex Vision folded after one year, as its purpose was for artistic experiment, not commercial success, and as commentary about the power of youth and their relationship with streetwear.
Abloh made streetwear luxury ushering into high fashion and thus, widening the scope of creativity that was attainable for valuable perspectives that were once excluded from the fashion world.
Off-White was founded by the designer in 2013 in Milan as a creative endeavor centered in the medium of fashion. Defined at, “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White,” and became known for his signature arrows, quotation stamps, and winking irony, earning a passionate cult following. He launched Off-White’s womenswear line in 2014 at Paris Fashion Week, for which he was a finalist for the 2015 LVMH prize. The company expanded to furniture when Abloh opened its first concept store in Toky0, Japan, in a line labeled Grey Area.
In 2017 Abloh leaned into his multi-talents through collaborations with Takashi Murakami, Warby Parker, and Jimmy Choo, the release in his first song of his DJ career, opening his first NYC storefront, winning the British Fashion Award for Urban Luxe Brand, and, a momentous milestone, his sneaker partnership with Nike called “The Ten.”
The iconic brand invited Abloh to reimagine 10 famous Nike silhouettes, for which he added zip ties, and exposed foam tongue, “AIR” and “SHOELACES” labels to the sneaker’s components, and a thick silver Swoosh that called back to Air Force 1’s origins. As a teenager him and his friends would sketch shoes and send them to the footwear company, growing up in the sportswear of ‘90s and looking up to superheroes like Jordan.
“What we’re talking about here is larger than sneakers, it’s larger than design culture,” said Abloh about the collection. “It’s nothing short of state-of-the-art design. These 10 shoes have broken barriers in performance and style. To me, they are on the same level as a sculpture of David or the Mona Lisa. You can debate it all you want, but they mean something. And that’s what’s important.”
Louis Vuitton enlisted Abloh in 2018 to proceed Kim Jones, now at Fendi, as he is the first and only Black designer to lead the maison. He brought fresh, youth-driven perspective to the historic French house, bridgings cultures to evolve one. “It is an honor for me to accept this position,” he said at the time. “I find the heritage and creative integrity of the house are key inspirations and will look to reference them both while drawing parallels to modern times.
Abloh’s first Louis Vuitton menswear show is hard to forget. It took place at the Palais-Royale gardens in Paris. He was embraced by a proud crowd of guest, wit longtime allies and A-list fashion lovers including West, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Kid Cudi, and Bella Hadid, alongside thousands of art students Abloh invited. Notably, he casted a diverse group of models for a show inspired by the American Dream. The collection is remembered for its translucent luggage, white chains, utilitarian themes, and a vibrant color palette (the catwalk itself was a blended rainbow – one of many nods to The Wizard of Oz). The show was a celebration in not only fashion, but pop culture, as the world rallied around a historic moment. West famously met Abloh at the end of the runway in a tearful embrace.
Abloh continued to design for Serena Williams Nike outfits at the 2018 US Open, collaborate with luxury luggage label Rimowa, post-modern furniture with Ikea, and Hailey Bieber’s 2019 wedding gown hat read the vows, “‘Till Death Do Us Part.”
In 2019, Abloh was invited to the board of directors of The Council of Fashion Designers of America, holding a leadership role as a new guard of American high fashion and in 2021, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton took 60% stake in Off-White. Though Abloh’s clear priorities pointed to the consumer, rather than the institution of fashion, his optimistic innovation and kind spirit won everyone over.
In his final years, Abloh committed to making space for new creatives to come through, by offering education, resources, and a guidebook for kids like him. In 2021, he opened his “Figures of Speech” exhibit across major US cities, first in Chicago of course, and created the “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund which raised million for Black fashion students. His fans and friends remember him for his generosity and support in their dreams too, as he even created virgilabloh.com/free-game/, a blueprint to creating your own brand.
He left gates that are traditionally kept for an exclusive group wide open, called in young artists, and etched arrows on the ground for them to follow in his legacy. Abloh’s wife Shannon wrote on Instagram Sunday, “Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to cultivate creativity in others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design.
He often said, “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,” believing deeply in the power of art to inspire future generations.
Louis Vuitton will present Virgil’s Spring/Summer 2022 show in Miami tomorrow, per his and his families wishes, with his final collection entitled “Virgil Was Here.”END
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