Barrier-breaking designer, Genre-bending artist, Visionary. After a two-year battle against cancer, Virgil Abloh died on Sunday. The prolific designer, who was the founder of Off-White streetwear label and Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director, has produced many memorable designs over the past decade. These range from Off-White’s “Little Black Dress” (which was on display at the 2020 “About Time” exhibit) to sought-after collaborations that have included everyone from Takashi Murakami to giant brands like Evian and Ikea.
Abloh, unlike many other designers who have achieved similar cultural success, always considered his place in fashion closer to the ground. Maybe because, regardless of the numerous accolades, he never stopped thinking of himself as an outsider – a “skater kid” from Chicago, an architect who didn’t go to fashion school, a DJ, a Black designer working in luxury fashion. Right now, what comes to my mind is the “You’re Obviously in the Wrong Place” installation I saw at Abloh’s retrospective at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. This is an expression that Abloh used to hear as he rose up the ranks of the art industry. It was one that I believe influenced his career.
The story of the creative is well-known. He was born to Ghanaian immigrants and began working with Kanye West in mid-2000s. In 2013, he founded Off-White in Milan, a brand that combines streetwear and luxury fashion. He was named Louis Vuitton’s male artistic director in 2018. It’s this position that marked the highest point of his designer career according to conventional standards of fashion. However, Abloh is not leaving behind the most significant legacy.
Abloh often said that everything he did was for the “17 year-old me.” This is the theme of most stories this weekend. These are stories about times when Virgil reached out and created a community to encourage others to pursue their dreams. He worked tirelessly for something greater than his own career. To open the doors to fashion and art for future generations so that people, like himself, would have a place to grow up in creative environments,” Edward Enninful wrote in an Instagram post following the news. “Your advice and encouraging words were priceless and will never be forgotten,” echoed designer Sergio Hudson, who, earlier this year, debuted his collection at NYFW after dressing Michelle Obama for Inauguration Day. “You assured me that my destiny was in my hands. All I had to do was go through the door. These words gave me the courage to ask for what my heart desired and push myself to achieve it.
Abloh will be remembered for marrying streetwear and luxury fashion in the years to come. He will go down in history for poking fun at fashion – see: Off-White’s signature scare quotes that challenged consumers to view everyday items as luxury ones – and exposing the ways in which high-end aesthetics are ultimately pedestrian pursuits. Louis Vuitton will remember him for his efforts to modernize luxury fashion by injecting young, modern touches into the brand, which has always been a firm believer in tradition and innovation. Abloh broke the boundaries of the industry’s notoriously exclusive, but he was as transparent about his design process than many have pointed out the Rimowa see-through luggage. This collaboration and the sharing of ideas was as important to Abloh as tangible end products.
Abloh was a teacher at London’s Architectural Association School, and mentored students through mentoring programs. However, his friends and colleagues say that he gave his knowledge freely to any person who came across him. In a 2019 interview with GQ, Benji B, who was appointed Louis Vuitton Music Director by Virgil, said that “What is most important about Virgil’s work”
Other creatives confirmed the fact that Abloh was no longer a gatekeeper designer, and made him a singular figure in their field. “Virg was a mentor to us all. If you had the chance to chat with him for even a moment, you would have known he dropped gems,” wrote HBFIT founder Hannah Fallis Bronfman on Sunday. “He would always leave me with a piece that was simple but profound every time we had a conversation. We are grateful for all of your gifts,” Eva Chen, former magazine editor, said in her post, “He always left me with a piece of advice that was so simple yet so profound.”
Abloh was a fashion designer who broke all the rules to create luxury fashion. Abloh’s contributions to fashion design and design through his creations are not forgotten. But it is his legacy, which will inspire every 17-year old to dream big, never doubt their abilities, and never be afraid to ask for help if they get in the wrong place, that will last forever.