Virgil Abloh, the ground-breaking Black designer whose ascension to the pinnacles of the conventional luxury business altered the landscape of what was possible in the fashion industry, died on Sunday in Chicago after a two-year struggle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare illness. He was 41 years old.
Mr. Abloh was the artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear as well as the founder of his own brand, Off-White. He was also a prolific collaborator with outside brands, including Nike and Evian, as well as a popular fashion theorist whose expansive and occasionally controversial approach to design drew comparisons to everyone from Andy Warhol to Jeff Koons. Mr. Abloh was also a prolific collaborator with outside brands, including Nike and Evian.
The designer Virgil Abloh changed not just what customers wanted to wear by bridging the gap between hypebeast culture and the luxury sector, but also what businesses sought in a designer — even the very definition of “fashion.”
Clothing, in his opinion, was not a garment, but rather a fungible symbol of identity that existed at the confluence of art, music, politics, and philosophical thought. He was a master at re-contextualizing the familiar and infusing it with an air of cultural currency via the use of sarcasm, allusion, and the self-aware wink (as well as the digital world).
While Mr. Abloh was a workaholic who kept a rigorous schedule while also moonlighting as a DJ and a furniture designer, he seemed to take great pleasure in having his hands in as many pies as possible. Even his own self-description was “maker,” rather than “designer,” in recognition of his own voracious, creative mind, rather than “designer.”
As recently as July, he was appointed to a new role inside LVMH that would enable him to collaborate across the company’s 75 brands, establishing himself as the most powerful Black executive in the world’s foremost luxury megacorp.
It was an atypical profession for a nontraditional personality who was more interested in blazing a fresh trail in an old industry than in following in the footsteps of those who had gone before him.
Virgil Abloh was born on September 30, 1980, in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanaian immigrants Nee and Eunice Abloh. He grew up in an environment that was influenced by skate culture and hip-hop.
His mother was a seamstress, and she taught him the fundamentals of her trade, despite the fact that he did not pursue a formal fashion education. He studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and received his master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology before starting his own business.
Mr. Abloh first met Kanye West when he was 22 years old. Because of that friendship, Mr. West was able to get an agreement with Louis Vuitton for a sneaker collaboration in 2009, and he and his creative team, including Mr. Abloh, were able to go to Paris for fashion week and become the talk of the town. (“South Park” satirised a group picture of Mr. West, Mr. Abloh, and his colleagues taken outside a concert that went popular online.
Donda, Mr. West’s creative incubator, hired him as creative director in 2010. He assisted Mr. West in bringing his concepts to life (his laptop was characterised by the rapper Pusha T as “a library of anything that was visually stunning and meaningful”).
And, despite the fact that the fashion industry was eager to originally pigeonhole Off-White as a streetwear brand and force Mr. Abloh into that box, he was emphatic from the start, as he said to GQ: “This isn’t a streetwear company. It’s a lifestyle brand.” This isn’t a brand that’s popular right now. This is designer, in the same way as X, Y, and Z are designers, in the sense that when you utter their name, it elicits a strong sense of admiration and feeling from the listener.”
His runway displays were moved to Paris, and he put his name in for the LVMH award for emerging designers (he placed third in 2015), and he expanded his collection to include both women’s and men’s clothing.
Mr. West is survived by his wife Shannon Abloh, their two children, Lowe and Grey Abloh, his sister, Edwina Abloh, his parents, and the legacy he identified during his first Louis Vuitton show, which took place in the gardens of the Palais Royale in front of an audience that included Mr. West, Rihanna, ASAP Rocky, and 1,500 students.