Remembering Virgil Abloh, an Unstoppable Force in Fashion and Beyond

The multihyphenate designer, entrepreneur, and visionary passed away after a battle with cancer. Below, we track Abloh’s unlikely rise to prominence from Chicago-born fashion entrepreneur to Kanye West collaborator and Louis Vuitton menswear director.

Virgil Abloh. Photography by Delfino Sisto

The world reacted with shock and sadness at the news that Virgil Abloh, a pioneering force in any creative field he touched, died at age 41 after a battle with cancer. The multi-hyphenate designer, entrepreneur, and visionary enjoyed a meteoric rise from his early beginnings in Chicago, where he was born to Ghanaian immigrants and fearlessly pursued his obsessions with streetwear, art, and culture, eventually becoming one of the fashion industry’s most influential voices. His unlikely success story emerged as the central theme of his prolific career: “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,” reads a message posted to his Instagram. “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.” 

Since he burst onto the scene as Kanye West’s creative director in 2009, Abloh became a gravitational force within contemporary culture, helping bring streetwear to the forefront of the fashion industry. He also garnered much attention for his numerous gigs, creative collaborations, and frequent jet-setting, which became somewhat of a template for enterprising creatives to replicate. Spearheading his own label Off-White, which he launched in 2012, he went on to serve as the menswear artistic director at Louis Vuitton, formed partnerships with artists like Jenny Holzer and Arthur Jafa, and designed champagne bottles, turntables, rugs, sneakers, furniture, and everything in between while moonlighting as a lauded DJ. His artistry—and commercial prowess—was even celebrated in a retrospective at MCA Chicago.

In a panel discussion with Heron Preston and Surface during Art Basel Miami Beach 2016, Abloh shed light on why he takes on multiple projects at once: “I grew up in a way that was like, ‘You can only do one thing.’ Even in the art world, I’m still kicking the tires this week. If you’re an artist, you probably shouldn’t DJ and do clothing because in the yesteryear, it was hard for your brain to be like, ‘Wait, you do that and that? You suck.’ You’re not an amazing artist if you’re a chef, or something like that. My idea for creativity is to do the most at the same time because one thing inspires another. I think a lot of it as a phone: I can have twelve conversations at one time. Your brain can design a t-shirt, it can pitch a presentation, you can do visuals in this [Faena Dome]. You can do a lot, and that’s what the misconception is now. People are stuck in this mentality that you can only do one thing, nine-to-five, and you can’t have a side project.”

Below, we track five key moments from his illustrious career.

Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, and others outside the Comme des Garçons Homme show in Paris in 2009. Photography by Tommy Ton

The Kanye West Years

Abloh earned his master’s degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where a building by OMA’s Rem Koolhaas galvanized his interest in fashion. He then began interning at Fendi, striking up a creative partnership with Kanye West that disrupted the Italian house’s status quo and captivated Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke. Following the stint at Fendi, Abloh became creative director at Donda, West’s creative agency, and art-directed the album Watch the Throne by West and Jay-Z, earning him a Grammy nod.

Early garments for Pyrex

Off-White Makes a Splash

In 2012, Abloh launched his first brand, Pyrex Vision, by selling deadstock $40 Ralph Lauren shirts screen-printed with the word “Pyrex” for $550. Next came the debut of Off-White, a Milan-based fashion label that combines ideas of streetwear, art, and music and, as he put it, hovers in “the gray area between black and white.” Off-White quickly became a fashion-world force, showing men’s and women’s collections during Paris Fashion Week as early as 2014 and being named a finalist for the LVMH Prize the following year. 

Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2019. Photography by Alessandro Lucioni

Taking the Reins at Louis Vuitton

Abloh was tapped to succeed Kim Jones as Louis Vuitton’s top menswear designer in 2018, becoming its first Black artistic director and one of a very few to ever helm a French heritage house. Even while keeping up with fashion’s nonstop seasonal calendar with critically and commercially successful collections, Abloh continued working with West, leading Off-White, and securing collaborations with Evian, Nike, and Takashi Murakami.  

“Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

The Museum Treatment

At this point, Abloh was shaping culture. His name had become synonymous with his many collaborations—Möet, Vitra, and Moncler among them—that almost always sold out within seconds. In 2019, he enjoyed a landmark retrospective at MCA Chicago that documented his commercial prowess. “His projects unfurl with intention, precision, critique, historical awareness, and cultural sensitivity,” chief curator Michael Darling said at the time. “When taken out of the buzzy, frothy context of luxury fashion, celebrity mannequins, and hip-hop one-upmanship, a very measured vision emerges.”

Off-White studio. Photography by Delfino Sisto

More Commercial Success

Meanwhile, Off-White was charting new territory, with Abloh making forays from fashion into homewares and experiential retail. His gains attracted the attention of e-commerce giant Farfetch, which purchased New Guards, the ownership company whose crown jewel was Off-White—for $675 million in 2019.

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