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A Tribute to Virgil Abloh, the Visual Voice of a Generation

From a Louis Vuitton Advertising Campaign

Virgil Abloh (b. 1980) was a self-described “maker”, most notably of fashion designs for his brand Off-White and Louis Vuitton. He was a transformative figure in the world of high fashion and a trailblazer for a new generation of creatives.

Abloh grew up in Rockford, Illinois in a small city about an hour away from Chicago. He was a skater and DJ, the go-to in his friend group for house parties. Abloh’s parents immigrated to the US from Ghana. His mother worked as a seamstress, his father as a plant manager for a paint company. He studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, graduating in 2002. He then earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006. During his final year of studies, Abloh was gripped by the 2006 erection of the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, a temporary structure which featured an oval-shaped inflatable canopy that floats above the gallery lawn. Abloh said it “piqued my interest and opened my gateway into fashion.”

Serpentine Gallery Pavilion, 2006

Legend has it that Abloh and Kanye West first met in 2002, shortly after Abloh’s undergraduate commencement. Their orbits firmly collided in 2009 when Abloh and Kanye West took internships in Rome with the fashion house, Fendi. Right away, the industry took note of Abloh’s keen observations and fresh perspective. Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke told The New York Times, “Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since.”

In 2009, the year of the internship, Abloh and West attended the Paris Fashion Week. “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.

Virgil Abloh and Kanye West at Paris Fashion Week in 2009

In 2012, after working as creative director of Donda, West’s creative agency, Abloh launched his own fashion brand, Pyrex Vision. He purchased flannel Ralph Lauren tee shirts for $40, screen printed the word Pyrex and the number 23 on the back, an homage to his childhood idol MJ, and sold the shirts for $550. In 2013, he closed Pyrex Vision and founded Off-White, a multi-platform creative company whose main medium was fashion. He defined the brand as “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.” A polymath of sorts, Abloh pulled creative inspiration from various disciplines including streetwear, art, interior design, architecture, and music. As Time Magazine wrote, “in Abloh’s world, nothing was exclusive and everything could be connected.”

Abloh’s guiding focus was to be a designer who is current with the times, reflecting the values of the digital generation, specifically generations Y and Z. “From my perspective, I’m trying to stand for a generation. You know, each generation has designers who go along with it. I think it’s explicitly the fact that I split my time among many things that gives me the point of view to know [what I’m doing is] relevant.”

In 2016 and 2017, Abloh’s brand took off. He opened his first concept store in Japan, debuted a furniture collection in Milan, collaborated on an exhibition with artist Takashi Murakami, opened a store in New York, won the British Fashion Award for Urban Luxe Brand, collaborated with Warby Parker, Jimmy Choo, and most notably, Nike.

Nike / Off-White Jordans

Abloh’s work ethic was relentless. “For me, part of the reason that I’m here is because I would go into the [Louis Vuitton] store and not be able to afford what I wanted. That aspiration gave me my work ethic.” The success of Abloh’s Off-White brand led the universe to come full circle for Abloh. In 2018, he was chosen as the artistic director of the menswear collection for Louis Vuitton, the world’s second most valuable fashion brand (slightly behind Nike). He was also the first Black person appointed as a group leader in LVMH’s 30+ year history. Abloh was known as a humble, inclusive leader with a warm heart and open door. “My door is always open. There’s no hierarchy. I don’t shut the door and get people to ask permission to come in. You know, we’re a team. I just happen to have done a series of things that allow me to be at the head of it, so I take responsibility.”

"Yeezus" Cover Album Installation, High Museum in Atlanta, GA

In 2019, a retrospective of Abloh’s work titled “Figures of Speech” opened at the Contemporary Museum of Art in Chicago. The exhibition would later travel the country, including to the High Museum in Atlanta, where I had the opportunity to see it during the fall of 2019. The exhibition was unlike any I’d ever seen. First, there were more young people there than older people. Second, there was such a wide array of content, all of it gripping and thought-provoking. There was video projection of six young men standing together wearing Abloh’s signature Pyrex shirt. There was blown up cover art Kanye West’s album, “Yeezus”, which he created. On display was his gradient chair furniture, and stunning photography from his Luis Vuitton collection. I was so impressed, that I want back a second time with my grandmother, who was also very impressed.

Me and Grandma at the High Museum in 2019 visiting the "Figures of Speech" exhibition

Virgil Abloh’s legacy is multi-faceted. I think the best way to capture it is this. He was the visual voice of a generation. He found a way to describe, through fashion and art, the nuance of identity, race, class, and gender. He led the culture shift within the luxury industry to one where diversity is the norm. He was a hero to many. His impact can be seen and felt today, and will continue.

Abloh died on November 28, 2021 at the age of 41, after a two-year battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife Shannon and two children, Lowe and Grey.

Watch this great interview with Virgil Abloh from November 2017:


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