It was little-known that Virgil Abloh had been battling a rare form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma, since 2019. He decided to endure it privately: challenging, given his immense presence across fashion, art, music and culture. Yet, despite Abloh’s influence as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, founder of Off-White, plus his position as one of the key designers of the Internet generation, the news only became public in a statement posted yesterday, announcing the designer’s death at the age of 41.
Today, we celebrate a designer of brilliantly unconventional merit. Illinois-born Abloh started his career as a civil engineer graduate in 2002 and it wasn’t until his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006, where he received his Master of Architecture, that he first became interested in fashion. At the time, the clothes he cared about were rooted in subcultures, favouring brands such as Alien Workshop, Santa Cruz, Droors and, of course, Nike, the trainer mega-brand with which he would later collaborate. Alongside his friend Chris Eaton, he’d draw shoes and pitch them to the company. “Nike would be like, ‘Oh, we don’t accept designs,’” he’d able to joke in 2019.
Abloh began working on designs at a T‑shirt print shop in Chicago, where he subsequently met Kanye West for the first time. By 2007, West had hired Abloh as a design consultant, working across the rapper’s DONDA creative agency. The pair ended up interning together at Fendi in 2009 and, although West was already world-famous at the time, they were tasked with getting coffee and running daily errands. It was during this time that Abloh first caught the eye of Michael Burke, CEO of Louis Vuitton.
After working for West as art director, designing album art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), Watch The Throne (2011) and Cruel Summer (2012), Abloh launched his own brand, Pyrex Vision (2012). His first step into design of his own, Abloh released a small collection of hoodies, basketball shorts, socks, and flannel shirts, as well as, famously, reworking old Ralph Lauren by adding his own logo. It was all part of the designer’s “three per cent approach” – creating a new design by changing an original concept by three per cent.
After art directing 2013’s Yeezus, Abloh rebranded Pyrex as his own Milan-based brand, Off-White. The rest, as they say, is history: one owed to the designer’s fierce dedication to reinventing how people view streetwear. “In a large part streetwear is seen as cheap,” he told the Business of Fashion in 2016. “What my goal has been is to add an intellectual layer to it and make it credible.”
His first collection, Youth Will Always Win, was released in 2014 and set a steely precedent for what would become Abloh’s design style: luxurious yet incredibly open-minded, playful, irreverent and deeply thoughtful, with youth at the helm of his design decisions. Around this time, Instagram was just kicking off, and Abloh seemingly predicted the image-obsessed audience he would be selling to.
The mega-moment in Abloh’s career was when he was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections in 2018. Taking over from his friend Kim Jones, he became the first Black person to head up the house and only the third to lead a French luxury fashion house, ever. Abloh’s vision was always diverse, celebrating unheard voices and tapping into what young people were actually interested in. For his acclaimed debut Vuitton collection, he recruited London skaters Blondey McCoy and Lucien Clarke to walk. He’d then have Clarke design the first skate shoe for the house, telling Highsnobiety that “I’d like to think skateboarding and fashion is one entity. I’ve never seen it as separate worlds”.
The collections that followed were steeped in fantasy. His cast became hyper-coloured superheroes: men walked down runways in skirts, Kai Isaiah-Jamal became the first Black trans model to walk in a Vuitton show, and models of all backgrounds were presented as exquisite, rich film characters. Abloh wasn’t just designing collections. He was creating a bold, radical and new creative vanguard.
In an Instagram post he made after his 2018 debut show, which has been widely shared after the news of his death, Abloh is shown taking his final bow on an acid yellow runway, back turned to the camera. The caption is “you can do it too…” What connects many of the messages that have been posted since last night is deep respect: his influence on a generation of young people who grew up believing they could do it, too. Perhaps, within his extraordinary talent, that was Abloh’s message all along. The accessibility of his vision was all part of the magic.