LVMH, the French holding company that owns Louis Vuitton, said on Sunday that Abloh had passed away earlier that day after several years’ private struggle with the disease.
“We are all shocked after this terrible news,” said LVMH boss Bernard Arnault. “Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary; he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom.
“The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow, and we are all thinking of his loved ones after the passing of their husband, their father, their brother or their friend.”
Fans reacted with shock and sorrow to the announcement, while celebrities including Luther star Idris Elba, musician and producer Pharrell Williams, and British rapper AJ Tracey paid tribute.
In a post on Instagram, Abloh’s family said: “For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma. He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture.
“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 open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design…
“We thank you all for your love and support, and we ask for privacy as we grieve and celebrate Virgil’s life.”
An outsider prodigy barred from posh fashion shows
Abloh, the child of Ghanaian immigrants who grew up in Chicago and trained as a civil engineer and then an architect, made his name through collaborations with the rapper Kanye West, with whom he began working in 2002 at the age of 22.
“We got into about 60 per cent of the shows,” Abloh said about that time in a 2017 interview with W Magazine. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there.
“We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
After a stint as the creative director of Mr West’s design agency Donda, and art director for Mr West and Jay-Z’s 2011 album Watch the Throne, Abloh launched his own Milan-based streetwear brand in 2013 called Off-White.
Though he had no formal training in fashion, he had learned much from his seamstress mother and took omnivorous inspiration from art, music, architecture, politics, furniture design, and clothing both high and low.
He ascended quickly, winning a British Fashion Award and collaborating with Warby Parker, Jimmy Choo, Ikea and Nike while opening shops in New York and Tokyo.
By 2018 Off-White was named as the second hottest fashion brand in the world – behind only Gucci – by the Lyst Index, which uses online shopping data and social media “sentiment analysis”.
That was the year that Abloh was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections, the first African-American to win such a role. “It is an honour for me to accept this position,” he said at the time.
Off-White, he said, “is for the 17-year-old version of myself – whereas Vuitton is for the 37-year-old I am today”.
Meanwhile, he gained respect as a DJ, starting out with house parties in high school and later playing a nightclub residency at the Wynn luxury resort in Las Vegas, as well as two radio shows.
‘For so long I didn’t see designers that looked like me ’
Abloh spoke often of wanting to inspire younger generations with his example, saying there was an “air of impossibility” to his journey. “I’m always trying to prove to my 17-year-old self that I can do creative things I thought weren’t possible,” he once said.
In 2019, he told The New York Times: “For so long I didn’t see artists or designers that looked like me in spheres of high art or high fashion, so I believed I couldn’t do that. But now, in this moment, in a way, I’ve become part of the establishment.”
He drew frequent inspiration from social media influencers and embraced so-called Hypebeasts, a slang term for young men with money to burn who obsessively pursue every new product in street fashion.
The former, he said, “don’t realise the power they have – they could become more relevant than fashion brands”, while the latter were a powerful new influx into the art and fashion world whose hunger proved they “knew better than the establishment”.
Explaining his fusion of youth culture into high fashion, he told W: “I don’t come from where I’m supposed to come from. So I have to prove that this is design, that this is art, that this is valid.”
By showing off streetwear in art museums, he hoped to “democratise the museum” by bringing in new audiences, but mused ruefully that it might only be presenting an “elite version” of youth culture.
‘I want to see systemic change, not reactionary change’
In his later years, the rise of the far right across the world, the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 brought out a more explicitly political strain.
He worked with the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, known for projecting stark political and philosophical statements onto public buildings, on a show addressing immigration and the refugee crisis.
He provoked a backlash by denouncing looters during the George Floyd protests and appearing to only donate $50 (£37.48) for demonstrators’ legal fees, but later apologised for the comments and clarified that he had donated $20,5000 to bail funds and related causes.
That July, he raised $1 million to provide new scholarships for black fashion students, later saying he had been disturbed by fashion companies issuing shallow declarations of solidarity while he sat in meetings and calls that seemed ignorant of the crises going on outside.
“Nobody knows how to talk about race,” he told Vogue in October 2020. “It’s so deep in our hearts, so full of different experiences. Or, in most cases, people don’t even know what it could be to feel like you’ve been oppressed.”
He said he had often seen his career as a Trojan horse, saying: “My power is to show Black talent, Black people, and Black people inside of my output.”
Now he seemed to be wondering if that was enough. “I want to see systemic change, not reactionary change,” he said. “I want to see the HR department empathise and sympathise with why this is an important issue, before they do it for PR…
“Does the fashion industry have a race problem? Well, it’s so systemic and deep that it can’t even look at itself when it represents itself.”
Tributes from black stars across the world
In the background, since 2019, Abloh was also battling a rare and aggressive form of cancer known as cardiac angiosarcoma, where tumours form in the walls of blood or lymph vessels usually starting in the heart.
Fans were shocked and dismayed by the announcement, with one post on Instagram by the Louis Vuitton brand account receiving almost 250,000 likes within its first hour. “[Abloh] made Louis Vuitton fun again,” said one comment.
“My heart is broken,” said Pharrell. “Virgil, you were a kind, generous, thoughtful creative genius. Your work as a human and your work as a spiritual being will live forever.”
AJ Tracey tweeted: “RIP Virgil, you did so much for all of us and showed me so much love early on. Thank you for everything.”
In a statement on Instagram, Questlove wrote: “The teachable lesson here is disrupt. Provoke. Be controversial. Push buttons. Be a conversation piece … live as a true artist.”
The Hong-Kong-based fashion and media firm Hypebeast said: “Thank you for your distinctive vision and for inspiring a generation.”
Virgil Abloh is survived by his wife Shannon Abloh, his children Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh, his sister Edwina Abloh, and his parents Nee and Eunice Abloh.