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Virgil Abloh, barrier-breaking designer, is dead at 41

  • >> Vanessa Friedman, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-11-29 08:34:09 BdST

Virgil Abloh, the barrier-breaking Black designer whose ascent to the heights of the traditional luxury industry changed what was possible in fashion, died Sunday in Chicago after a two-year battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He was 41.

His death was confirmed by his family.

The artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear as well as the founder of his own brand, Off-White, Abloh was a prolific collaborator with outside brands from Nike to Evian, and a popular fashion theorist whose expansive and occasionally controversial approach to design inspired comparisons with everyone from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons.

Abloh transformed not just what consumers wanted to wear, bridging hypebeast culture and the luxury world, but what brands wanted in a designer — and the meaning of “fashion” itself.

For him clothes were not garments but fungible totems of identity that sat at the nexus of art, music, politics and philosophy. He was a master of using irony, reference and the self-aware wink (plus the digital world) to recontextualise the familiar and give it an aura of cultural currency.

“Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,” his wife quoted him as saying in an Instagram post. He believed deeply, she wrote, “in the power of art to inspire future generations.”

“Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said in a statement.

A workaholic who maintained a punishing schedule and moonlighted as a DJ and a furniture designer, Abloh nevertheless seemed to glory in having his fingers in as many pies as possible. Indeed, he referred to himself not as a designer but as a “maker,” in acknowledgment of his own omnivorous creative mind.

Just in July, he had been promoted to a new position within LVMH that would allow him to work across the group’s 75 brands, making him the most powerful Black executive in the most powerful luxury group in the world.

It was a nontraditional job for a nontraditional personality who was more interested in carving a new path in an old industry than following in anyone’s footsteps.

Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear, with Gigi Hadid, at the 2019 CFDAs in New York, June 3, 2019. The New York Times

Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear, with Gigi Hadid, at the 2019 CFDAs in New York, June 3, 2019. The New York Times

“Virgil is incredibly good at creating bridges between the classic and the zeitgeist of the moment,” Michael Burke, chief executive of Louis Vuitton, told The New York Times when Abloh was named to the luxury brand.

Ikram Goldman, owner of an eponymous Chicago boutique, described him as a “hero.”

Virgil Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, on Sept. 30, 1980, to Nee and Eunice Abloh, Ghanaian immigrants, and grew up immersed in skate culture and hip-hop.

Though he did not formally study fashion — he studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and received a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology — his mother was a seamstress, and she taught him the basics of her trade.

When he was 22 Abloh met Kanye West. That relationship set him on the road to Paris when, in 2009, West signed a deal for a sneaker collaboration with Louis Vuitton, and he and his creative team, including Abloh, headed off for fashion week and became the talk of the season. (A group photo of West, Abloh and their collaborators outside a show went viral online and was even satirised on “South Park.”)

“Streetwear wasn’t on anyone’s radar, but the sort of chatter at dinners after shows was like ‘Fashion needs something new. It’s stagnant. What’s the new thing going to be?’ That was the timeline on which I was crafting my ideas,” Abloh later told GQ. That was also when he and West began a six-month internship at Fendi, making $500 a month and learning the business from the inside out.

In 2010 he became creative director of Donda, West’s creative incubator, helping turn West’s ideas into actuality (his laptop was described by rapper Pusha T as “a library of everything that was aesthetically beautiful and relevant”).

Two years later Abloh and two other men he had met through Donda teamed up to create Been Trill, a DJ and creative collective. That later mutated into a brand called Pyrex Vision, originally conceived as an art project with clothes, which then became Off-White — a twisty, collaborative creative journey that became a trademark of Abloh’s, along with his use of quotation marks and winking allegiance to what he called in The New Yorker “the 3% rule” and in a Harvard lecture “cheat codes”: the idea that you can take an existing design and change it just a bit, and it will qualify as new.

And though the fashion world was happy to initially categorize Off-White as a streetwear brand and shove Abloh into that box, from the beginning, he told GQ, “I was adamant: This isn’t a streetwear brand. This isn’t a contemporary brand. This is designer, just the same way that X, Y, Z are designer, where you say their name, and it carries this whole esteem and emotion to it.”

To that end, he brought his runway shows to Paris, applied for the LVMH prize for young designers (he was a finalist in 2015), and embraced both women’s and menswear.

Though his work met with a mixed critical reception and raised eyebrows among the designer community, some of whom considered it more “copying” than “creative,” his influence was unarguable, spreading in part through his early and astute embrace of Instagram (at his death he had 6.5 million followers). Rather than go to the establishment, he understood he could go straight to consumers, and then the establishment would come to him. By 2018, Louis Vuitton had. Not long after, Time magazine named Abloh one of the most influential people of the year.

In 2019, Abloh — who seemed to be always in the air between Illinois, where his family continued to live, and Paris — was briefly grounded due to what was attributed to “exhaustion.” While that may have kept him in one place, it didn’t seem to slow him down at all.

He opened a major exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago titled “Figures of Speech,” and the next year, after the social justice protests of 2020, established the “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund,” raising $1 million to encourage Black students in fashion. Earlier this year LVMH increased its stake in Off-White to 60%, a sign that the brand had the backing to move to the next level. In May, he dressed Spike Lee for his role as grand jury president at the Cannes Film Festival in bright pink and sunset-toned suits and made him the talk of the festival.

Even as Abloh was hospitalised with the illness that would kill him, he had plans to travel to Miami for a Louis Vuitton menswear show.

He is survived by his wife, Shannon Abloh; his children, Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh; his sister, Edwina Abloh; his parents — and a legacy he identified during his first Louis Vuitton show, held in the gardens of the Palais Royale in front of an audience that included West, Rihanna and ASAP Rocky, as well as 1,500 students.

“There are people around this room who look like me,” he said to The New York Times. “You never saw that before in fashion. The people have changed, and so fashion had to.” He made it so.

© 2021 The New York Times Company