Virgil Abloh, the founder of Off-White and the artistic director and designer of menswear at Louis Vuitton has died aged 41. Mr. Abloh's family released a statement on his Instagram that the designer has passed away in Chicago following a two-year battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
Known for his uninhibited designs, prolific collaborations and dedicated fanbase, Virgil changed the landscape of the industry and redefined what it means to be a fashion designer today. Born September 30th, 1980 to Ghanaian immigrant parents in Chicago, Abloh studied engineering with a masters in architecture before pursuing fashion design.
Abloh’s work explored the liminal space between music and fashion; as a DJ, creative director and graphic designer, he saw the value of these intersecting worlds. As a teen, he cut his teeth on the DJ circuit, his unerring love of sample-led music curation eventually extended to the auditory experience of his runway shows; immersive “soundtracks” fine-tuned according to location, industriously researched according to the audience watching, heightened by a crate-digging affinity for obscure, genre-spanning musical realms.
His symbiotic partnership with another visionary, Kanye West, began in the 2000s. Assuming the role of creative director of West’s DONDA creative house in 2010, Abloh was responsible for the art direction for the most era-defining rap releases: West’s sweeping odyssey ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ and 2013’s ‘Yeezus’ as well as West’s and JAY-Z’s ‘Watch the Throne’, for which he garnered a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package. Together they metamorphosed the rap, fashion and art worlds; bulldozing convention and class division, distilling pop and street culture, disinterring a world that was accessible yet always aspirational.
In 2011, Virgil Abloh founded the creative collective Been Trill and his first label Pyrex Vision. Making headlines and waves in the fashion industry with his controversial designs - repurposing deadstock Ralph Lauren and other clothing with what he would later dub “the three-per-cent approach”, Pyrex Vision would set the stage for Abloh’s Off-White in 2013 and countless collaborations with the likes of Nike, Evian and Ikea.
With the launch of Off-White, Abloh fought against industry preconceptions and prejudice of what constitutes fashion, streetwear and luxury, travelling to Paris to stage his runway shows. In 2015 Abloh applied for and became a finalist for the LVMH prize for young designers and was named menswear designer and artistic director for Louis Vuitton in 2018.
"There are people around this room who look like me," he told The New York Times the day of his debut menswear collection. “You never saw that before in fashion.”
Virgil Abloh was revolutionary in the way he endorsed the talents of next-gen creatives; he was diligent in his quest for finding the next “Virgils”, aggressively dismantling the notion of gatekeepers in an industry resistant to the change. “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself” Abloh’s family quoted him. He was dedicated to his vision and to creating new avenues for people who looked like him, remoulding pathways into fashion and what we expect of luxury and LVMH.
Abloh foresaw the cyclical nature of influence and inspiration, how it impacted the youth and how it could forge bonds within communities. He respected and revered Black pioneers, citing them often in his work: in June this year, Abloh recruited Wu-Tang Clan legend GZA for his 2022 Spring-Summer Louis Vuitton Fashion Show, accompanied by a film ‘Amen Break’ - the title a reference to one of the most sampled and recognisable six-second drum breaks in the great music pantheon. The 16-minute film featuring the likes of GZA, Goldie, Saul Williams, Issa Perica, Caleb Femi, Unknown T, Shabaka Hutchings and Malik Le Nost served as an acknowledgement of collective creative ownership and the power that comes with archiving and preserving Black history.
In 2020 following the murder of George Floyd, Mr. Abloh founded a scholarship fund to help Black students and to promote diversity in fashion. Louis Vuitton raised $1 million for his initiative and went on to hire three beneficiaries as interns. “The idea is to develop a trajectory I wish I had when I was starting out,” Virgil said at the time.
This July LVMH purchased a 60% share in Abloh’s brand Off-White and announced his promotion within the company to work across more brands spanning fashion, alcohol and hospitality - making Abloh the most powerful Black executive in the fashion industry. "I'm getting a seat at the table," Abloh told The New York Times.
“Virgil was not only a designer with a lot of genius, a visionary, he was also a beautiful soul and a man with a lot of wisdom,” Bernard Arnault, the chief and controlling shareholder of LVMH said in a statement.
Virgil Abloh is survived by his wife Shannon, children Lowe and Grey, sister Edwina and his parents.
Words by Sabrina Soormally and Shahzaib Hussain.
Image courtesty of Francois Durand, Getty Images.