When I first met Virgil Abloh, I remember coming away feeling like he was a breath of fresh air. It was 2014, and the designer had just pivoted from purist streetwear-focused Pyrex Vision to his then-fledgling brand Off-White. It was refreshing to hear such unadulterated blue-sky thinking, free of industry-weary cynicism.
He candidly made parallels between our respective ways into the industry — him from his civil engineering and architecture background, me from a 1.0 wave of fashion blogging. “I feel like those restrictions about what a designer should or shouldn’t do are from a previous era,” he said to me in an interview. Hence, the word “designer” never seemed to fit what he truly encompassed. The contrarian statement “I’m not a designer” became something of a catchphrase for him.
The sudden announcement on Sunday that Abloh, at the age of 41, had passed away from a rare form of cancer (cardiac angiosarcoma), sent shockwaves around the world. Not least because he battled the disease privately whilst still working prolifically on collections as artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear and at Off-White, as well as countless collaborations.
Tributes have been flooding in from all industries; from creatives to celebrities to chief executives to legions of fans from all walks of life. On Tuesday, his life and legacy were celebrated at a presentation of his final Louis Vuitton collection at the Miami Marine Stadium, where a red LV hot air balloon hovered in tribute and they played a recording of him saying, “life is so short that you can’t waste a day subscribing to what someone thinks you can do versus what you CAN do”.
Abloh was so much more than a designer in the traditional sense. What he did crossed the boundaries of purist fashion, touching art, music, architecture, food and more. But first, back to the beginning.
Born in Chicago to Ghanaian parents (he picked up many of his technical skills from his seamstress mother), Abloh studied civil engineering in Wisconsin and did an architecture MA at MIT. After graduating, he was spotted by fellow Chicago native Kanye West and so began a creative partnership that would last the rest of Abloh’s life.
Embarking on their concurrent journeys into fashion, both Abloh and West headed off for an internship at Fendi in Rome in 2009. About their time at the storied fashion house, Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke once said, “I was really impressed with how [they] brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way. Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi.” Soon after, Abloh joined West’s creative agency Donda and went on to art direct West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne album.
Along the way, Abloh married Shannon Sundberg, who he met at senior school and had two children, Lowe and Grey. In, 2012, he set about bringing streetwear to fashion’s fore through his work with the Been Trill collective, and by setting up his own labels Pyrex Vision and Off-White, which was soon worn by the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé and the Kardashians.
His trajectory was nothing short of meteoric, as well as unconventional. Abloh didn’t much like the way categories in fashion like streetwear and luxury were delineated, and so he sought to blur the lines and blend the worlds. Beyond taking streetwear to new heights, Abloh also saw opportunities to put his stamp on products in the most unexpected of places. There are few that could apply their design ethos to an Ikea Frakta bag, Evian bottle and pair of Jimmy Choo shoes all at once.
When Abloh dropped soundbites like his “three per cent approach” — that design can be changed to a degree of three per cent and become something new — it would infuriate fashion traditionalists, who would critique his lack of understanding.
When it was announced in 2018 that he would become artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, eyebrows were raised, even as the appointment marked a seismic moment in the industry — becoming the first black man to take up the creative reins. He went on to prove his naysayers wrong and his tenure at Louis Vuitton was a commercial success. But, more importantly, he has paved the way for anyone who feels they don’t fit the mould of what the fashion industry looks like to say, “maybe I can”. “I’m always trying to prove to my 17-year-old self that I can do creative things I thought weren’t possible,” he said.
Abloh readily admitted to imposter syndrome, which went hand in hand with the “I’m not a designer” sentiment. Who could blame him, when coming up against entrenched attitudes towards new technology and diversity in the fashion industry? It’s something that many can wholeheartedly identify with.
Whether it’s the internet making the space more democratic and allowing new voices to emerge and prosper, or globalism forcing executives in Paris or Milan to examine the diversity of their talent pool, Abloh embraced it all. And he fought hard to be heard in a space that so often felt like it didn’t accommodate outsiders.
He was a regular on the audio-only social network Clubhouse, often entering rooms about art, fashion and food at will, dropping unfiltered commentary, listening and participating and encouraging would-be young creatives to believe. “You can do it too,” read the caption under his first Instagram post after his Louis Vuitton debut. He was one of the first high-ranked creative directors to connect with his community; the first to truly converse with his followers as opposed to speaking down at them.
Beyond the landmark moments and milestones, Abloh will be remembered by many as a generous human being who gave his time and spirit freely. The litany of screenshotted DMs on Instagram that have been posted since news of his death are the legitimate receipts of his boundless enthusiasm and kindness. He touched many without even meeting them in real life.
Kanye West was at the showing of his final collection on Tuesday night. There will be unfinished projects on the go, collaborations in the works, ideas that were gestating in his fervent mind, never to be birthed. But his greatest legacy is perhaps that just by existing as he did, Abloh changed the game by showing that boundaries are meant to be broken and ivory towers can be stormed.
Through his “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, encouraging the next generation of black designers, we must see to it that true diversity is reflected in creatives entering fashion’s fold and beyond. Abloh trailblazed his way to new frontiers. Now let’s make those frontiers truly open to all.