Virgil Abloh reimagined a fashion designer’s profile, blending streetwear, music, and high fashion and breaking glass ceilings to become the first black creative director of Louis Vuitton.
Abloh, 41, died Sunday after a long battle with a rare form cancer called cardiac angiosarcoma. Few people know that he was battling it since 2019.
Abloh’s partnership with Kanye West pushed him from Chicago’s skate and DJ culture to the tops of the fashion industry. He first launched his own label Off-White and then moved to Paris, where he is now at the top of the luxury sector.
He was diagnosed with cancer just one year after being appointed head of menswear at Louis Vuitton. This made him the first African-American to hold an artistic director position at a French fashion house.
He did not let that stop him from working a hard schedule, remoulding the label in his own image, merging streetwear and celebrities, while also being a DJ and furniture designer at IKEA.
He often said, “Everything that I do is for my 17-year-old self,” as he drew on the influences of his youth to bring new life to the catwalk.
Accidental designer Abloh was born to Ghanaian immigrants. He studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But his career took an unexpected turn when his design ideas caught West’s attention. West hired him as his creative chief in 2007. In their quest to reinvent high fashion, the pair took up an internship at Fendi in Rome in 2009. Pyrex Vision was Abloh’s first clothing label. It was founded in 2012. He told GQ that he didn’t decide to become a designer. Pyrex was an idea I had in my head, and I needed clothes to support it. Off-White quickly emerged from Pyrex, which was a mix of urban style and high-end tailoring. The trademark diagonal stripes of the brand were combined with ironic messaging, often using quotation marks to indicate fashion terms. This all contributed to Abloh’s youthful appeal. He also embraced Instagram at a young age, with 6.5 million followers as of the time of his death. GQ called his 2017 Nike collaboration “the Official Sneaker Of Celebrities Everywhere”. Many more tie-ups followed, ranging from Jimmy Choo to Moncler to McDonald’s. This was the end of it. Abloh was chosen to replace Kim Jones, who was a pioneer in luxury streetwear and left Louis Vuitton to become a fashion house that attracts younger customers.
His death was a reflection of the fact that Abloh had yet to arrive and still had much to offer.
Bernard Arnault (chief executive of LVMH), the group that owns Louis Vuitton, said in a statement, “We are all shocked at this terrible news.”
He said that “Virgil was more than a genius designer and visionary. He was also a man with a beautiful mind and great wisdom.”
Abloh was poised to be a strong voice for change in fashion, vowing to “to expand opportunities and foster greater equity in the industries that we serve”
He presented his first show at Louis Vuitton, March 2018, with models from all over the globe strutting down a rainbow runway.
Abloh was subject to backlash after he expressed anger at the rioting that followed protests against George Floyd’s murder in the US in 2020.
However, this did not diminish his stature as a pioneering figure.
“RIP VIRGIL ABLOH. You will be remembered by all. God bless you, my friend,” tweeted Kylian Mbappe, a French football star.
Pharrell Williams, an American singer, wrote this on Instagram: “Virgil, you were a kind and generous creative genius your work in human life and your work in spirituality will live forever.”
Riz Ahmed, actor tweeted “Gone too quickly but your legacy lives on. You changed culture and stretched the boundaries of what it means to be a professional. We are grateful for your support of so many. We were able to see the possibilities because of you.”