What a life Virgil Abloh lived.
The Illinois native, Ghanaian American left an indelible mark on the fashion industry, pop culture and art world all before his death from cardiac angiosarcoma on Nov. 28.
From working extensively with Kanye West in the late 2000s to molding New York City’s SoHo street-style scene with projects Pyrex Vision and Been Trill; establishing Off-White; countless collaborations; turning the global nightlife scene on its head with numerous DJ sets; art exhibitions; literature, and taking over Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear, it’s difficult to sum up Abloh’s breadth of work to a few highlights. Having popularized the title “multihyphenate,” condensing his work would be a disservice to his influence on music presentation, fashion and design. But what is obvious is the quotation marks — his signature — will forever be remembered as his mark on the world.
Born in Rockford, Ill., Abloh graduated with a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received his Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Though he was a trained architect, his career has deeper roots in the skate, music, streetwear and blog scenes.
Abloh told GQ that he started DJing at the age of 17, touted skate brands like Alien Workshop, Santa Cruz and Droors as his favorite brands and got his first glimpse into the convergence of skate and streetwear through New York City streetwear brand Alife. While studying at university, he worked on clothes with Chicago music producer Jay Boogie and Custom Kings, and contributed to Chicago blog The Brilliance.
He met Kanye West’s music manager John Monopoly and his cousin Don C, who were both looking for designers to work with West going forward. Abloh said during NBA All-Star Weekend in Chicago in 2020 that he skipped final thesis presentations at the university to meet with West at an autograph signing. In 2007, West hired Abloh and they briefly worked on West’s first fashion project, Pastelle, together.
From there, he interned at Fendi with West in 2009 and would later attend Paris Fashion Week, an experience that has been immortalized by the Tommy Ton street-style photo of Abloh photographed with West, Don C, Taz Arnold, Fonzworth Bentley and Chris Julian. He was officially named West’s creative director.
Also in 2009, he opened Chicago store RSVP Gallery with Marc Moran and Don C in Wicker Park, offering luxury and contemporary fashion and streetwear brands like Chanel, Comme des Garçons and Bape; showcasing artworks by Takashi Murakami and Kaws, who designed the cover art for West’s albums “Graduation” and “808s and Heartbreak,” respectively, and hosted events featuring rappers close to the team, including Pharrell Williams and N.E.R.D., Kid Cudi and Lupe Fiasco, among others.
RSVP Gallery is a pivotal moment in Abloh first stepping into the limelight, but a true showing of his visions began with West and Jay-Z’s “Watch the Throne” tour in 2011, which he designed the stage for with artist Es Devlin. West’s team chronicled the behind-the-scenes moments of the tour and one episode titled “The Band” is devoted to Abloh and the music men of the tour, including Mike Dean, whom he shares a laugh with about breaking hundreds of light bulbs during rehearsal due to the bass.
While West was the face of the convergence of high fashion, hip-hop and art, Abloh was the maestro, making big ideas and visions come to life — like the mountain stage for West’s “Yeezus” tour in 2013 — and curating cool, most notably in New York City, through his Been Trill DJ collective with designers Heron Preston, Matthew Williams, Justin Saunders of JJJJound and soccer player Florencia Galarza.
In 2012, he launched Pyrex Vision, a streetwear brand produced partly from deadstock Ralph Lauren products and apparel pieces that served as the impetus of streetwear’s fashion takeover. Brands like Supreme and Stüssy had already exhibited classic skate and streetwear in New York City, but Pyrex, Hood by Air and Abloh’s second venture, Been Trill, proposed elevated streetwear that paired well with, say, Riccardo Tisci-era Givenchy T-shirts.
After Pyrex, Abloh made his next step in the fashion realm with Off-White. He launched the brand in 2013 and established his signature marks, like zip ties, quotation marks, slant stripes and barricade tape, which would exist in brand collaborations. A Pyrex shirt, hoodie or shorts at one point were highly sought-after pieces for their mystery and exclusivity, and Off-White picked up where that project left off. Soon, the streets were full of denim shirts and leather jackets with slant stripes and the word “White” across the shoulders.
Off-White was a finalist for the LVMH Prize in 2015, alongside Arthur Arbesser; Sébastien Meyer and Arnaud Vaillant of Coperni; Faustine Steinmetz; Craig Green; Demna Gvasalia, of Vetements at the time; and winners Marta Marques and Paulo Almeida of Marques’ Almeida and Simon Porte Jacquemus, respectively.
Though the brand did not pick up the prize that went to Marques’ Almeida or the special prize won by Jacquemus, Off-White did score countless collaborations with Levi’s on the company’s Made & Crafted line; with Nike first on their “The Ten” series that included reinterpretations of 10 of the sportswear company’s sneakers, and with Ikea on furniture for a collection called Markerad that featured products like bags, clocks and mats with words like “Sculpture,” “Temporary” and “Keep Off.”
Other collaborations include Jimmy Choo, Moncler, Tsum, Byredo, Babylon LA, Ginori, Vilebrequin, Champion, Timberland, Dr. Martens and Umbro, among others. Rimowa president Alexandre Arnault went on record to say that Abloh wanted to collaborate with the company under its previous ownership and reached out again after LVMH acquired the company.
He teamed with retailers Ssense on athletic apparel; Sunglass Hut on a sunglasses collection; an exclusive capsule for Browns, and Le Bon Marché on a café. Outside of fashion, he worked with Evian on water bottles under his name for the company’s Soma collection; with Mercedes-Benz on Project Geländewagen for the G-Class automobile, and with artist Takashi Murakami on artwork.
Murakami would also give space in his Tokyo art gallery, Kaikai Kiki, to Abloh to present his work. The two partnered on numerous works and held a series of exhibitions together in 2018 at Gagosian Galleries in the U.S. and Europe.
In 2018, he was part of the appointment heard ‘round the world. Louis Vuitton named Abloh men’s artistic director, making the multihyphenate the first Black American to hold the position at LVMH. His first show also marked a new direction for the fashion house that tapped further into skate and street culture, which began in their collaboration with Supreme. Under his tenure, Louis Vuitton introduced a “creative conversation” with Nigo named LV2, as well as the house’s first skate shoe and signed their first skater, Lucien Clarke.
In 2019, he held his first solo exhibition, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art chronicling 20 years of his designs, inspirations and collaborations. The exhibit would travel separately from Louis Vuitton’s traveling men’s pop-up shops that landed in the U.S. for the first time in Chicago.
Throughout his time establishing Off-White and joining Louis Vuitton, he continued to work in music. He was nominated for a Grammy for album packaging for “Watch the Throne,” and he continued to do album packaging for West and rappers under West’s label G.O.O.D. Music, including Pusha T (Abloh creative directed Pusha T’s 2013 album “My Name Is My Name”), Kid Cudi, Big Sean and 2 Chainz.
Outside of G.O.O.D., he designed covers for A$AP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Westside Gunn and late rapper Pop Smoke, whom he invited to Louis Vuitton and Off-White shows and also shot a music video with for song “Shake the Room” with Migos rapper Quavo after the Louis Vuitton show.
Abloh also announced a nightlife residency at Wynn Las Vegas in the same year, but in September 2019 decided to take a break. He told Vogue: “I was just tired, so I went to the doctor,” he said. “Ultimately everything is fine, but the doctor told me ‘This pace that you’ve sort of pushed your body — to fly all these miles, do all these different projects — is not good for your health.’”
Abloh’s return to the public eye began with the Off-White fall 2020 show named Tornado Warning that opened with a performance by tap dancer Cartier Williams in a “I Support Young Black Businesses” T-shirt.
In July 2020, he launched the shirts and hoodies to kick off the quarterly fund-raising project with proceeds going to support Chicago CRED, an organization created to reduce gun violence that he had been in partnership with since 2017.
Also that month, he raffled the Off-White x Air Jordan IV “Sail” sneakers at Chicago shop Notre with Aleta Clarke to raise $187,000 for her nonprofit HugsNoSlugs that aims to eliminate gun violence and poverty.
Abloh raised $1 million with Off-White, Louis Vuitton, Farfetch, Evian and New Guards Group for his “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund created to provide scholarships for Black students in an effort to drive equity and inclusion within the fashion industry.
Abloh launched a series called Free Game, a section on his website where he discusses how to start a brand, and joined the Fashion Scholarship Fund board in 2020 to help the organization partner with HBCU. “My heart and my vision is for the kid that might not be on the college track,” he said in October 2020. “I’m looking at the 14-year-old from an inner city that’s interested in fashion and wants to create.”
He said to WWD for the appointment announcement: “Everyone is like, ‘How can the fashion industry respond to the Civil Rights Movement now and the global pandemic?’ And it usually comes down to very practical things. My show in January started with the shirt ‘I Support Young Black Businesses’ and that was my main message, but it wasn’t like fashion media took to it. But post-George Floyd, there’s an awakening and the messages from my comrades like Kerby Jean-Raymond, Grace Wales Bonner, Martine Rose, Shayne Oliver, Telfar Clemens, No Sesso, the list can go on of amazing designers that aren’t getting the same media coverage or platform as other designers. I’m extremely fortunate and privileged to be able to do what I do on the stage that I do, but that doesn’t come without my work existing in this special case scenario, which you view it.”
Shortly before Abloh’s death, LVMH acquired a 60 percent stake in Off-White and granted him a bigger role at the company to work on their wine and spirits and hospitality categories.
One of his last appearances was in November at the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize 2021 at the National Museum of Qatar, where he presented the entrepreneur of the year award to Amina Muaddi.
Abloh has amassed a number of quotes over the years, and once said that “Fashion is one of the greatest vehicles to merge music, art, architecture, design, typography — it’s a wide enough canvas, or a big enough sandbox, to touch all the different things that I’m into.”
He proved this to be true over and over again. What a life he lived.
With contributions from Jenna Greene and Luis Campuzano.