Words by Ella Sangster
Virgil Abloh is a name that is synonymous with innovation, boundary-pushing, and genius. Founder of Off-White and Louis Vuitton’s menswear designer, Abloh's impact on the fashion landscape was vast, but his influence over culture, as well as the lives of those who knew him personally, was far greater.
On Monday morning the world awoke to the news that one of the most significant fashion figures of this generation has passed away. Aged only 41, Abloh passed away on November 28th after privately battling a rare form of cancer. In a statement released via Abloh’s instagram account, his family expressed “Through it all his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered.”
The entire industry has felt the weight of his passing and the fashion world mourns the loss of one of this generation’s greats.
Louis Vuitton paid tribute to the iconic designer with a presentation of his Spring/Summer 2022 collection in Miami this morning, December 1st (AEST). Titled ‘Virgil Was Here’, the show was held in coincidence with Art Basel Miami Beach, a global art fair celebrating art, culture, music and design.
As to be expected, the collection was incomparable. Abloh’s work has always displayed uniqueness and ingenuity, conveying messages of promise and optimism.
‘Virgil Was Here’ was, at its core, a testament to the genius and creative spirit of Virgil Abloh.
Abloh’s final collection for Louis Vuitton shined against the backdrop of the Miami skyline, and as models weaved between trees placed throughout the runway, the notably somber tone of the event began to lift.
For the collection, Abloh looked to chess for inspiration, using it both symbolically and thematically. The clash and coordination of tradition and modernity, tailoring and tracksuits, spoke to the inability of cultural facets to stand alone as black and white. The entities that make up a culture will always battle in a strategic way, as they do in chess, and together they make a final product; the grey area, the off-white.
Accordingly, the collection was embedded with chess-like symbolism. Tall top hats akin to a chess pawn, armour-plated tops and balaclavas mimicking a knights coif, and extravagant, full skirts fit for a queen.
The dream-like nature of the show was continued by the glorious colour palette and bold silhouettes. Colourblocked cyan and lime green hues gave way to tie-dye gradients and bright metallics, as well as fuschia, canary yellow, and sunburnt looks.
These illusory motifs and street-wear inspired pieces were juxtaposed by bespoke tailoring. The clean-cut looks in monochrome shades served to directly “battle” the psychedelic pieces, and continue the high-low concept.
At both Off-White and Louis Vuitton Virgil Abloh traditionally used his collections as a vessel for socio-political commentary, and this show was no exception. A tribute to the role of black culture in shaping contemporary style, Abloh blended streetwear and luxury in a way that illustrated the increasing interconnectedness of the two. Accordingly, the collection explored the inherent influence of black culture and fashion in spaces where PoC have typically been excluded.
Gender binaries were also cast aside, with boxy, masculine jackets layered over tulle or hoop skirts, acknowledging the beauty in androgyny, gender-fluidity, and unapologetic self-expression in the modern world.
Throughout his career Abloh has always been at the forefront of digital pioneering and an advocate for the role of fashion in the metaverse. The rise of the digital age was illustrated by matrix-style sunglasses in candy colours, as well as metallic colour schemes and padded space boots. These cyber accessories popped against the grand new-romantic silhouettes.
All in all, the collection made for an evocative commentary on binaries, and a celebration of breaking them.
The show closed to a standing ovation as fireworks illuminated the Miami skyline, a striking commemoration of the life and legacy of the most notable agents of change across fashion and culture of this generation.
Born to Ghanian immigrant parents, Abloh grew up on the outskirts of Chicago. His mother, Eunice, was a seamstress and his interest in his craft developed at a young age. It is rumoured that Abloh skipped his college graduation (after studying a degree of civil engineering) to meet with the then-manager of Kanye West, John Monopoly. This meeting would mark the beginning of a friendship and ongoing collaboration between Abloh and West.
Despite skipping out on his graduation, Abloh went on to continue his studies, completing a masters degree in Architecture. It is during his time studying here, at the Illinois Institute of technology, that the Rem Koolhaas building is constructed. Of the building, Abloh told Vogue in 2018 that it “piqued my interest and opened my gateway into fashion.”
In 2009, Abloh would join Kanye West as interns at Fendi in Rome. The pair were incredibly disruptive, in the best possible way. Abloh brought a certain fire to the historic house, with no fear of pushing boundaries or going against the cultural zeitgeist of the time. His impact at Fendi was immortalised by Michael Burke, CEO of Louis Vuitton, who told The New York Times, “Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi.”
Shortly after his stint at Fendi, Abloh, along with Kanye West and other friends, showed their faces at Paris Fashion Week. The squad were captured in images that would go on to become iconic; symbolic of a changing industry where diversity would be demanded and creativity would no longer be stifled by prejudice.
Speaking to W Magazine, Virgil recounted his experience at PFW, 2009. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
In 2010, he was officially appointed as the Creative Director of Kanye West’s agency, Donda, and two years later he launched his first brand, Pyrex Vision, before closing it a year later to launch Off-White.
Off-White was an amalgamation of concepts relating to streetwear, luxury, art, music, and travel, conveyed through a fashion medium. The now-iconic brand celebrated the beauty and pervasiveness in life’s grey-areas, and would go on to feature in music videos by Beyonce and Nicki Minaj, as well as in the wardrobes of supermodels Bella Hadid and Winnie Harlow, just to name a few.
Off-White continued to grow and flourish, and with it, so did recognition for the man behind the brand.
Abloh collaborated with acclaimed artist Takashi Murakami, Warby Parker, Jacob the Jeweler, Jimmy Choo, and Nike. During this time his status as a pioneer of contemporary fashion became evident. His ability to transgress trends, shift mediums, and create art that was not only beautiful, but impactful, earned him The British Fashion Award for Urban Luxe Brand in 2017.
In 2018 Abloh was named the new Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton menswear. Throughout his time with Louis Vuitton he merged heritage with history-making, maintaining the brand's integrity whilst pushing beyond the confines of modern ideas and definitions of what fashion could be.
Through his work with both Off-White and Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh’s status as one of fashion’s greats has been well and truly cemented. His art is evocative and unequivocally iconic, and his presence in the fashion and cultural landscape is irreplaceable.
In the days since his untimely passing friends and fans of Virgil Abloh have taken to the internet in droves to commemorate the fashion aficionado.
The designer was a trailblazer of contemporary art and fashion with an unprecedented impact on pop culture. His ability to synthesise and communicate ideas through his work allowed him to be a force for change with the industry and the world at large.
Of Abloh’s symbiotic relationship with pop culture, luxury brand strategist Ana Andjelic says “[Abloh] skillfully absorbed culture, and culture is now going to skillfully absorb his creations.”
Throughout his career Abloh blurred the lines between fashion and other spaces with which it had always been closely aligned, but not in conjunction with. This includes art, music, and even interior decor. In doing so he prompted conversations and pushed consumers to question what can be qualified as fashion and who can exist within fashion spaces.
Most famously, Abloh has been at the forefront of the push for representation and inclusiveness in the fashion industry. Despite the ongoing appropriation of black culture in modern design, fashion houses have notoriously lacked diversity behind the scenes. Abloh’s work was an inherent celebration of black culture, and through his ongoing collaborations he used his platform to elevate other creatives who were previously excluded from dominant fashion narratives. His support of young talent was furthered by his involvement in the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center, which houses a youth mentorship program.
Further, as the first black artistic director for Louis Vuitton Abloh became symbolic of a changing industry that would no longer accept the bare minimum from brands in regards to diversity.
His forward-thinking and curiosity has inspired a generation of fashion fans. Abloh’s eclectic, cross-cultural approach to design has become the norm in fashion today, and encouraged young creatives to push the boundaries of what can be considered art.
His influence was summarised in a commemorative Instagram post by Jeff Staple on Monday; “Virgil Abloh taught us how to dream.”
Virgil Abloh is survived by his wife Shannon, and his children Lowe and Grey. His influence will undoubtedly remain omnipresent within fashion, and culture as whole, as his legacy lives on through all who he inspired.