Virgil Abloh did not take a conventional path to his eventual appointment as the artistic director for Louis Vuitton. His unfortunate passing has been marked by celebrities and fashion icons, and his voice and presence will be missed in an industry increasingly defined by diverse voices.
Abloh began life as a child of Ghanian immigrant parents, born in 1980 in Rockford, Illinois. He studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Maddison in 2002, earning his bachelor’s degree. He then progressed to a master’s in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006. After completing his education, he met Kanye West in 2009 while he was working at a screen-printing store. They both interned at the LMVH brand Fendi and formed a bond.
Perhaps his first impactful work was his collaboration with Kanye and Jay-Z on the 2011 album Watch the Throne. He was nominated for a Grammy for his work as the artistic director for this project. In the same year, he was appointed as creative director for Kanye’s company Donda. During his tenure, he was responsible for some of the most iconic album art in hip-hop, like Watch the Throne, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Yeezus. He also created the covers for A$AP Rocky’s LONG. LIVE. A$AP, Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2, Kid Cudi’s Wzrd, 2 Chainz’s Based on a T.R.U. Story and more.
Abloh founded the fashion house Off-White in 2012, where he served as CEO until his passing. It is here that his impact on culture and fashion can be most obviously seen, as his foray into clothing is largely responsible for the bridging of streetwear and luxury fashion that has emerged over the past decade. Off-White brought Abloh recognition from peers and contemporaries in the fashion world and drew the interest of Louis Vuitton. The legendary fashion house appointed Abloh as artistic director in 2018, a role he would fulfil for the rest of his life. He became the first African-American to take this position.
A Shock to the World
His death has come as a shock to the world. After a diagnosis of cardiac angiosarcoma (a particularly rare and aggressive form of cancer) in 2019, he elected to battle the disease privately. A statement posted to Abloh’s Instagram reads:
“For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma. He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture.
Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design. He often said, ‘Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,’ believing deeply in the power of art to inspire future generations.”
The artist is survived by his wife, Shannon Abloh, and their two children, Lowe and Grey, as well as his parents Nee and Eunice and sister Edwina.
“We are all shocked after this terrible news. Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” LVMH Chief Executive Officer Bernard Arnault wrote in a statement shared to social media. “The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow, and we are all thinking of his loved ones after the passing of their husband, their father, their brother or their friend.”
Diversity & Inclusion – More Than Just Words
For many, Abloh transcended the worlds of fashion and music, his work holding importance to the culture and the world that is difficult to truly quantify. A passionate advocate of diversity in the spaces in which he worked, his philosophy was to prioritise change across creative spaces, at a time when the rest of the world was beginning to see just how vital the voices and perspectives of those who have been historically marginalised by the industry are to the future relevance of it.
“For me, it’s less about being radical than being honest,” Abloh told Numero in April 2021. “Honest with respect to the history of the world as it really is and not as we’ve been told it is all these years. It’s a holistic approach. I don’t think of diversity as a simple added extra mixed in with my work but as an essential component. That can clearly be seen in the stories I tell, the images I create and the people I hire.”
It is this elevation of diversity from the background of corporate buzzwords and occasional tokenism to a central and defining aspect of his design work that makes Abloh’s work feel essential, vital, and incredibly important in the social and political landscape of today. It also lends his work an air of authenticity that is sometimes missing from the broader fashion world. Rather than designers who grew up and went to fashion school then imagining what the blending of streetwear and luxury fashion might look like, Abloh’s experiences made him uniquely qualified to execute this vision in a way the industry had never seen before.
Nor did Abloh allow himself to be limited to fashion in the scope of his artistic practice, though. In fact, he took what could be considered a very post-modern approach to artistic creation. Covering fields from fashion, design, art, architecture, music, furniture design…his eclectic approach is another defining aspect of his life and work. From his early beginnings as a DJ helping him to first express himself artistically in his adolescence, one could see how this influenced his unique take on self-expression going forward – taking elements and fragments of the existing culture and reworking (or remixing) them into something that feels both familiar and unique.
“Perhaps the explosion of hip-hop should be seen as a metaphor for artistic democratization. Composing with samples, these fragments of culture, is to understand that creation is unlimited.”
His work is exhibited at the Art Institute of Chicago, he was invited to speak at prestigious institutions like Harvard about his artistic vision and featured in the most well-regarded art magazines. His view of artistic expression in this holistic, cross-media fashion made him stand out from many of his contemporaries, who so often allow themselves to be pigeonholed into a particular path or career. As much as his work has had an impact on both individuals and industry, so too is his personal perspective and philosophy a blueprint for the future of artistic expression.
This multimedia, multi-disciplined approach can also be seen in his wide array of collaborative works throughout his career. From his beginnings working on album art for the likes of Kanye West, Jay-Z, and Kid Cudi, working with like-minded individuals was an essential element in the special formula that made Abloh’s work so special.
But it was after the launch of Off-White that this collaborative philosophy really came to the fore. Working with companies like Nike, Levi, Jimmy Choo, Moncler, Dr. Martens and Champion, Abloh’s voice began to demand more attention from audiences worldwide as these brands worked with Abloh to create pieces that reflected the fresh perspectives on the worlds of fashion and art that he brought to the table.
In addition to collaborating with these established brands, Abloh also frequently collaborated with musicians and artists on multimedia endeavours. In 2017, Off-White partnered with A$AP Rocky’s label AWGE to produce a series of shirts printed in fluorescent green lettering that was later revealed on Instagram and nodded to the midnight raves organized by Alboh back in the day. Earlier this year, he worked with Nigerian star Rema for the drop Peace of Mind where he remixed a set and directed visuals for the (RED) album that went to support HIV/AIDS programs in sub-Saharan Africa.
Throughout his unique career, Abloh was perhaps best categorised as a true renegade – someone who challenged the establishment in art and fashion and ultimately came to be instrumental in redefining it. His willingness to collide with culture wherever it found him – from the streets of Chicago, to nightclubs in London, and perhaps most importantly, as an early adopter of the paradigm-shifting potential and influence from the widespread use of the Internet.
Going back even 20 years, it would seem incredibly unlikely that a man like Abloh would climb to the heights of the fashion industry. But his irrepressible creativity and drive, combined with his own personal philosophy of diversity and change being essential in his work (at a time when the world as a whole began to embrace these ideas) make his rise seem in many ways inevitable. His barrier-breaking ascent into the stratosphere of the traditional luxury industry changed what was possible in fashion.
Abloh transformed what brands wanted in a designer. His work stood in defiance of what was once considered “traditional” and his singular creative vision – that of seeing fashion not as a separate, detached industry that was only accessible to the wealthy, but a token of identity that sat at the nexus of art, music, politics and philosophy. He was a master of using irony, reference, and a self-aware wink (plus the digital world) to re-contextualise the familiar and give it an aura of cultural currency. Essentially, he took elements of both the high fashion world most of us only get a glimpse of, combined it with a more grounded and realistic approach to clothing, and remixed them into something that would do what so many set out to but few achieve – change the way we see an entire industry.
“A lot of the time (when) fashion is sold to us, the archetypes are X, Y, Z. Often when we say ‘high fashion’ – fashion with a capital F – we mean the people cemented in the canon of fashion. I very much exist to challenge that, by simply being who I am and presenting my work.”
The impact of Abloh’s death is still being felt and processed throughout the world. Many of his collaborators, contemporaries and admirers have taken to social media to express their grief and shock, lamenting on a life too short while also celebrating what we were lucky enough to experience from him as a creative.
My heart is broken
Virgil you were a kind, generous, thoughtful creative genius
your work as a human and your work as a spiritual being will live forever
Sending love and light to your wife, children, family and day ones
you’re with the Master now, shine
— Pharrell Williams (@Pharrell) November 28, 2021
I wish we lived in a world where we could celebrate the living instead of celebrating them when they leave. Rest In Peace to my brother Virgil ! You were loved.
— Odell Beckham Jr (@obj) November 28, 2021
“I am heartbroken by the loss of my dear friend, and a friend to the world, Virgil Abloh.
He was 1 of 1. His kindness and energetic generosity left a lasting impression on every life he touched – he made everyone feel seen and special. He will be deeply missed, cherished, and celebrated by me and all the people and industries that have been lucky enough to work around & know the true supernova behind this man.”
The supermodel continued, “I picture him now like our Mickey Mouse .. forever with us, forever adored, forever magical, forever guiding us with that special Virgil FUN; I’m sure that’s how he wanted to be remembered, but still it will never be the same without him in the room.”
“Virgil completely changed the way I looked at street style and fashion, the way he looked at things inspired me deeply. I will never be able to fully express how grateful I am to have known him and worked with him, from walking on his runways to having him design my wedding dress and all the other amazing moments in between, I felt he was always rooting for me.”
She added, “He was someone who always brought life, charisma, love and fun to any situation, and every room he walked into. A once in a generation creative mind that is so rare and I’ll never forget his impact. We love you Virgil. ”
“A true inspiration in so many ways. Rest in peace @virgilabloh,” the fellow fashion designer wrote on Instagram. “Sending love and light to your beautiful family We will all miss you so very much x”
Though Kanye West has not made a public statement about the passing of one of his closest friends and collaborators — whom he met in Chicago in 2002 and later interned alongside at Fendi — the rapper dedicated his Sunday Service to Abloh.
During the service, West’s choir reportedly sang an emotional version of Adele’s newest single, “Easy on Me,” adding new, spiritual lyrics like, “I know your love flows like a river, and I could wash myself in it forever,” and, “I know there is hope in these waters, but I can’t bring myself to swim when I am drowning in my sin.”
A true trailblazer and one of a kind creative, the full impact of Virgil Abloh’s time on this earth will undoubtedly be discussed and unpacked long into the future. While his time among us was all too brief, what he did with his time – both in terms of the industries he worked in and the lives he touched – is something to be celebrated.
Virgil Abloh will be remembered by future generations as an uncompromising and brilliant artistic visionary, a proud voice that stood for a movement many consider long overdue in the world of fashion – both through his words and actions, he has in a number of ways changed what is possible for fashion and for those voices that have perhaps been previously ignored by the industry at large.
His commitment to representing diverse voices in his work – and doing so not just as a matter of corporate tokenism or ticking a box, but as one of the central pillars of his creative approach – is something that many try so hard to do, but few manage to manifest in a genuine manner. Virgil Abloh achieved this idea seemingly without much effort – it seemed almost a natural fit for him as a creative. This commitment is further reflected by his charity work; he raised $1 million for the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, which aims to support the next generation of black fashion industry leaders.
Coupled with his prioritisation of diversity, Virgil Abloh will perhaps be best remembered as a transcendent artistic force – not just a fashion designer, but a true polymath, a man who had a unique understanding of the nexus between art, the digital landscape, and what we wear as an expression of who we are. His experiences growing up and using sampling and remixing as forms of self-expression informed his approach, regardless of chosen medium. Using these familiar elements, and remixing them for a modern audience, will be something that will be appropriated and copied by fashion houses for years and potentially decades to come.
Ultimately, his loss is a tragedy – but we are fortunate enough to have experienced his one-of-a-kind vision in our lifetimes. Like others in FIB’s Renegade series, Virgil Abloh achieved success on his own terms – and in doing so challenged and changed the status quo of the industry.
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