Arguably no one in modern history will be as admired for the amount of creativity and innovation in their art as Virgil Abloh. Illinois-born fashion designer, artistic director, producer and DJ, Virgil Abloh was known and very well respected across all avenues of art. Sadly, Abloh passed away on Sunday, Nov. 28 at the age of 41, losing a hard-fought battle against a rare form of cancer known as cardiac angiosarcoma. He kept the diagnosis private, so his sudden passing came as a shock to many hearing the news of his death.
Abloh was born in 1980 in Rockland, Ill. after his parents moved to the U.S. from the Volta region of Ghana. A UW-Madison graduate, Abloh studied civil engineering and pursued architecture in graduate school at Illinois Institute of Technology, the school that sparked his inspiration to get involved with fashion. This love for fashion would later blossom into a stardom and power status to which many other fashion designers aspire.
Abloh gained popularity from the start of his personal luxury fashion label, Off-White. Inspired by Ben Kelly’s signature barricade tape design, his idea behind Off-White was to bring streetwear and luxury fashion together and combine them into a cacophonous yet beautiful collection of clothing. One of the most famous elements of his brand was his all-caps stylized text with quotation marks plastered across products. For instance, his black leather cowboy boots had a large block of white text saying “FOR WALKING” up the sides of the boot, and his iconic shoelaces stamped with “SHOELACES” became a staple for many collections of his Off-White sneakers. These quotation marks make a statement of irony that he instilled in his work. As 032c’s Thom Bettridge states, “Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations in favor of the copy-paste logic of the Internet and its inhabitants.”
Off-White and skate culture began to feed off of each other’s energy. Abloh showed relentless respect for skate culture through his designs and promotion, and Abloh became an icon in skate culture through his work. In 2018, Abloh would take his fashion status to another level by signing as the first Black artistic director of Louis Vuitton Menswear. His appointment transformed Louis Vuitton by blending its traditional structure with modern aesthetics, and, along with the worldwide respect his name had already garnered, Louis Vuitton’s sales drove up 20% in the first quarter of the next calendar year.
His first fashion show for Louis Vuitton was also a display of how popular musical artists, especially in hip-hop and rap, had the utmost respect for Abloh. Kid Cudi, Blood Orange (Dev Hynes), Steve Lacy, ASAP Nast and Playboi Carti were among the artists that served as models on the runway for that show. Abloh also got involved with the artistic direction of other artists’ albums. For example, he contributed to the album design for Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Watch the Throne” (2011), along with West’s “Yeezus” (2013), one of the most iconic album covers (or lack thereof) in the 2010s. Our most recent “For the Culture” column describes several more album covers that he influenced.
Beyond artistic design for clothing lines and album rollouts, Abloh had a love for physical art and music. In 2019, Abloh helped curate and construct an art exhibition revolving around his artistic career titled “Figures of Speech,” which has since displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. The collection featured elements of his work through clothing, design, architecture and music. Among many other talents, Abloh was also known for his hand in producing and DJing music. As a producer, he worked with Lupe Fiasco, serpentwithfeet, Boys Noize, and remixed songs by the likes of Rema and Michael Kiwanuka. As a DJ, Abloh performed at Camp Flog Gnaw in 2018, Germany’s Melt Festival in 2019 and Coachella in 2019.
Abloh’s death delivered a painful blow to artists, musicians, fashion designers and millions upon millions of fans and admirers across the world. Pharrell Williams, Frank Ocean, Bella Hadid, Tiffany & Co.’s creative director Rabu Abu-Nima and Beyoncé were among the many celebrities that shared their sorrows and condolences to the world through social media. Off-White physical locations across the world, along with the Off-White website, were completely transformed to honor the life of Abloh. Clothing and merchandise were replaced by flowers,lights and many notes from those that worked with Abloh. People across the world will remember Virgil Abloh for the rest of their lives, and his legacy and impact will live on for many generations to come.