Orbituary | Virgil Abloh also showed that being black is no barrier
We woke up to highly OMG news this morning: Virgil Abloh is dead. The revelation that “shocked” even his employer at LVMH, Bernard Arnault, has been flooding our news feed with the same urgency as the passing of a head of state, with his eponymous Instagram account announcing six hours ago, “We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved Virgil Abloh”. It also revealed that Mr Abloh “battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma”. He was diagnosed with the illness in 2019, just a year after he was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections. Cardiac angiosarcoma, according to John Hopkins University, are tumours that form in the heart. Mr Abloh was 41.
So determined was he to make a deep mark in the world of luxury fashion, and fashion at large, that he kept his diagnosis secret and soldiered on. Even a three-month break that he took before the autumn/winter 2020 show was not clue that he was seriously ill. Under his watch, the menswear of Louis Vuitton was more successful than it ever was, even when the collections were designed by his friend and mentor Kim Jones, who reportedly recommended Mr Abloh to the LV position when Mr Jones vacated it to go Dior. The American designer was already making waves stateside with his own label Off-White, but it was the LV role that brought his “elevated take” (the oft-repeated description) of streetwear to the hallowed corridors of Louis Vuitton and the attention of the world. Even Mr Jones’s collaboration with Supreme (the one that got it all rolling) paled in comparison to Mr Abloh’s I’d-be-damned-if-I-don’t attitude towards luxury menswear.
The emotional hug between Virgil Abloh and Kanye West at Mr Abloh’s debut collection for Louis Vuitton’s menswear in 2018. Photo: Getty Images
His appointment at LV shocked the world then as his death does now. It was not that he was the first black American to hold the design reigns at a French house. The general consensus was that Mr Abloh was not quite the designer that many have come to associate with those helming a storied fashion label even one without an haute couture heritage. We too were not certain he was the right choice, and we are still conflicted about his output for LV. Yet, he would come to be described as the “Karl Lagerfeld of the millennial generation”, courtesy of Vanessa Friedman, whose 202O New York Times article compared him to the late Chanel designer. Mr Abloh was not delighted with the parallels drawn. He responded via Twitter, “i’m going to do an academic lecture about this article one day. just figuring out which one. riffing online is far too low hanging fruit for such an easy and massive “case & point”, igniting, unsurprising, a Twitter war among fans and not.
Virgil Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois in 2018 to parents who immigrated to the US from Ghana, West Africa. His father was in the paint business and his mother was a seamstress, and from her, Mr Abloh learned to sew. Despite this initial interest in a component of dressmaking, he chose to graduate in civil engineering and, later, with a masters in architecture. According to him, it was during his second time in university when he came face to face with an on-campus building that was being constructed. It was designed by Rem Koolhas, the Dutch architect who had been behind many Prada stores, including the first-ever US flagship, the Prada Epicentre in Soho, New York City. It is not certain if Mr Abloh had then seen any of the Prada stores, but it was generally excepted that his love for fashion took root at that time.
Virgil Abloh’s first clothing label Pyrex Vision. Photo: wehustle.co.uk
According to one Vogue report, it was rumoured that on the day of his first tertiary graduation, Mr Abloh skipped the ceremony to meet Kanye West’s one-time manager John Monopoly. It is not known what was discussed, but soon after that, the rapper and the young graduate worked together. A fast friendship took shape between the two men and dreams of conquering the fashion world began to appear. In 2009, three years after gaining his degree in architecture, Mr Abloh and his mentor-turn-pal Mr West would find themselves interning at Fendi in Rome. A year later, he would become the creative director of Donda, the creative agency, not the tenth studio album (2021), that Mr West started. Concurrently, both fellows would make their presence felt in fashion, appearing, for instance, in Paris Fashion Week, and be photographed—at Comme des Garçons, no less and by Tommy Ton, who sent it to (the now defunct) style.com. Mr Abloh told W’s Diane Solway in 2017, “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there”.
But, there they were, and in no time, they caught up. In 2011, a Grammy nomination started the ball rolling. Mr Abloh was asked to art direct Jay Z’s Watch the Throne album. He enlisted Riccardo Tisci, then at Givenchy and who was thick with the community of hip-hop stars, as well as the Kardashians, to design the cover. A year later, the Grammy attention led to Mr Abloh’s first clothing line Pyrex Vision—the now-famous gathering of deadstock Ralph Lauren shirts silkscreened with the massive number 23 (as homage to his fave basketball star Michael Jordan) and daringly hawked for US$550 apiece. Pyrex Vision lasted for about a year. And then Off White c/o Virgil Abloh was born, in, unexpectedly, Milan. He made quotation marks the most desirable punctuation. And soon Off-White products with textual indentification became a thing. When we look back now, it is hard to remember design distinctions of Off-White other than those words in sans-serif font. Even his debut store here had “WINDOWS” for a shop name.
Fan tribute: this morning, a pedestrian wears an Off-White X Nike football tee from 2018. Photo: Chin Boh Kay for SOTD
Mr Abloh has up till now approached his clothing design with the flair of a graphic, rather than fashion designer. Much of the text-as-motifs used in Off-White recall those of Pyrex Vision, themselves rather post-Junya Watanabe and Undercover. When he added those massive, arrowed crosses to the rear of the Off-White tops, they became more desirable than any monogram then. Text-emblazoned garments, both bottoms and tops, became the brand’s hot-sellers and established Mr Abloh as the designer to watch. But just as important, his rise as a black man in fashion was far more rapid that his fellow intern at Fendi, Kanye West, who debuted Yeezy Season 1 in 2015, two years after Off-White’s founding and a year after the later’s womenswear line was showed during Paris Fashion Week. In 2017, his partnership with Nike—The Ten, which saw him re-interpret the Swoosh’s 10 “iconic” silhouettes—sealed his destiny as the designer who could do no wrong. And the main man to lay the path for other Black designers to follow suit. Not even Pharrell Williams, with his association with Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld on one end and Adidas on the other, could be close.
In 2018, Louis Vuitton came acalling. By then, the brand had already dipped its toes into the bubbling streetwear pool with the Kim Jones-initiated collaboration with Supreme. The launch here at their ION Orchard store amounted to a near frenzy, with shoppers from the region coming specifically for the event. That would be a foretaste of what was to come of Mr Abloh’s unexpected appointment. Streetwear was a burgeoning retail category and luxury fashion would not want to be excluded. Mr Abloh’s debut LV show, had hype and hoodies to delight those for whom, a snazzy sartorial existence could not be so without them, as well as tailoring and utility vests to delight the dandies and Alyx fanboys alike. On the prismatic runway set in the grounds of the Palais Royal, on which Black models dominated, streetwear devotees saw their god-man rose to the occasion.
The fibreglass image of Omari Phipps, Virgil Abloh’s personal pick to represent the LV man at the launch of Mr Abloh’s collection for the French house. File photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD
Mr Abloh took his position at LV proudly and seriously, wearing his Blackness on his sleeves. His subsequent LV shows amps up the Black aesthetic, not just in the clothes, but also in their presentation, as well as in the environment in which the buzzy products are sold, as evident, for example, at the LV pop-up stores in January 2019, erected to give fans and followers a heads-up over Mr Abloh’s first looks for the brand. The store in Tokyo’s Harajuku had a massive structure of the model Omari Phipps stretched across two floors of the glass building. It was unmistakable that a Black man had come to revive LV, just as inclusiveness and street style came to the fore simultaneously among the fashion conscious and the community of hypebeasts who considered everything he did unquestionably “genius”.
Despite the massive global fame that his supporters said were equal parts passion in his work and the self-belief that he had come to change things or, at least, shake them up, Virgil Abloh’s career was riddled with industry doubt of his design talents, charges of hype-dependency, and, more seriously, a string of supposed plagiarism. Just last August, the Belgium designer Walter van Beirendonck alleged that his designs/ideas were knocked off by the LV artistic director. This, and other similar accusations, Mr Abloh flatly denied. In responding to Mr van Beirendonck’s accusation, he issued a statement to say, “They are a hate-filled attempt to discredit my work”, which, to some, played the thinly-veiled race card. Despite the industry’s distrust in the provenance of his design ideas, consumers would not be discouraged, or uninfluenced. Louis Vuitton remained hugely popular and profitable. The pertinent and urgent question is, who will take over Virgil Abloh? Will it be another Black man? If that’s crucial to the brand identity of LV, who would that guy be?
Illustration (top): Just So