VIRGIL ABLOH: DEATH OF A VISIONARY

VIRGIL ABLOH: DEATH OF A VISIONARY

In honour of Virgil Abloh, September 30th, 1980 – November 28th, 2021

Virgil Abloh revolutionarily bridged streetwear and luxe high-end fashion. Abloh dipped his toes into many pools in the 41 impactful years he spent with us. Abloh saw success in not only fashion, but also visual art, music, sports, and most notably activism. Above all, Abloh was a creative. His untimely death is devastating for many individuals and communities. Abloh undoubtedly led a life that has left a great legacy, and many things to celebrate.

Virgil Abloh, son to two Ghanaian immigrant parents, grew up outside of Chicago. He gained a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and later a Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. While earning his degrees, Abloh designed and sold t-shirts all while writing for a fashion and design blog called The Brilliance. Post-graduation, Abloh interned at Fendi’s Rome office, in the same cohort as American rapper Kanye West, where he earned five hundred dollars a month. Abloh’s role within the fashion empire? To fetch hot coffee and make photocopies, hardly tasks one would associate with Abloh’s, now, legendary name.  

Michael Burke, the Louis Vuitton CEO, recently told the New York Times, “I was really impressed with how [Abloh and West] brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way. 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.”.

It was during their time interning that Abloh and West began a collaborative relationship. The following year, in 2010, West appointed Abloh as the creative director for his creative agency brand, Donda. Thus began Abloh’s dabbling in the music industry, imagining, and designing the concept for Watch the Throne, a 2011 Jay-Z/West album. He was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Recording Package. 

In 2013, Abloh founded his first fashion house, Off-White, centring high-end streetwear. The brand’s birth garnered much attention, first in Europe at its base, then in Asia and North America. The branding is iconic and identifiable by using zip tie hang tags, items donning capitalized words in quotation marks, and barricade caution tape. This experimental branding and unprecedented streetwear/luxury juncture launched Abloh into mainstream success with a focal point on streetwear, similar to his projects during college on the Chicago scene. At Off-White, streetwear and luxury are combined in an unprecedented way. T-shirts sold for upwards of six hundred dollars, and Off-White displayed both men’s and women’s collections during international Fashion Weeks. While menswear for the brand was released an entire year before the womenswear collection, their womenswear gained traction quickly after Beyoncé wore a piece of his in Nicki Minaj’s video for her new song, “Feeling Myself.” Through his work in creating Off-White, he was granted the opportunity to collaborate with other brands, including a furniture line at IKEA and a shoe line with Nike. In 2017, the first Off-White retail location opened on New York City’s Mercer Street in SoHo. Before this, the brand operated eight physical locations in Asia, two in England, and one in Toronto, Canada.

Pitti Uomo is one of the world’s most important platforms for men’s clothing and accessories, portrayed in an annual show closed to the public. In 2017, Abloh was awarded a special feature slot for showcasing his collections in the show. The invite distributed for his slot was an orange t-shirt with life vest instructions printed on the front and a back that read “I’LL NEVER FORGIVE THE OCEAN,” a famous line by writer Omid Shams, who fled Iran for Europe. Abloh used his elevated global influence, branding, and show slot to emphasize international issues surrounding immigration and the need for cultural integration, partnering with artist Jenny Holzer to spark political commentary. As the lights dimmed in preparation for the show to begin, a compilation of poetic work from seven modern-day artists about conflicts in Syria and Palestine scrolled, projected on the walls around the runway. Here, Abloh was quoted saying, “Our work is weighted. It’s not just fashion for fashion’s sake… The show is the most important thing I’ve made to date, but you know, next year I’ll have something else”. His dedication in elevating and uprooting human rights issues was monumental, not only in fashion but for efforts in addressing varied forms of oppression and wide-ranging social projects.

2017 was, again, a politically charged period. Abloh took this time, shortly after the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, to promote his activist beliefs. He teamed up with artist Jenny Holzer for the second time to make a powerful statement and simultaneously fundraise for Planned Parenthood. Planned Parenthood is a non-profit organization in the United States that provides reproductive healthcare. It is an operation at risk of being dismantled by Donald Trump, who attempted to terminate Planned Parenthood’s funding and cut off millions of patients from the ability to receive affordable and safe healthcare. A limited-edition collection of t-shirts were released that featured Planned Parenthood’s mission statement between Off-White’s signature quotation marks: “Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise.” The undertaking of this project showed, once again, Abloh’s ability and willingness to counter and address political motives.

In October 2018, Takashi Murakami and Abloh showcased the launch of paintings and sculptures bearing their respective branding trademarks in an exhibit titled “AMERICA TOO.” A seasoned visual artist, Murakami, draws from classical Japanese painting, Hollywood cinema, and hip-hop culture for inspiration. Abloh, on the other hand, a conventionally trained architect and engineer turned fashion mogul, was known for publicly deconstructing his creative processes to challenge and review existing aesthetic systems and distribution methods. This series of artwork showcases the profiles of both individuals from broader cultural spaces.

Abloh’s first single song, alongside Boys Noize, ‘ORVNGE,’ was also released in 2018. Despite everything else, he was a recognized DJ on the global scene, playing venues and festivals including Tomorrowland, Hï Ibiza, fabric, Circoloco, and more. In 2019, Abloh created a transparent compact digital music player for mixing in collaboration with Pioneer DJ. 

His collaborator said of his partner: “Abloh’s desire to bridge the gap between music, fashion, and the creative arts supports Pioneer DJ’s drive to explore the deep connection music can make and the harmony it inspires.” 

This product’s exhibition, titled ‘Figures of Speech,’ was, in turn, displayed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Off-White also released a limited-edition DJ controller (the DDJ-1000-OW), which established him as a respected DJ  again. In June 2019, he was officially appointed DJ residency at Las Vegas’ XS Nightclub. DJing was just another undertaking under the broadness of disciplines Abloh encountered.

The fashion mogul had experimented and engaged in industries including music and art while continuously fostering immense pride for Ghanaian origins. Association football, or soccer, is the most popular sport in Ghana and Abloh himself took great interest in it from a young age. When asked which jersey he had always wanted to design, he answered, without hesitation, the Ghanaian national soccer team. Abloh’s interest and investment sprouted generosity, personally funding, and encouraging a soccer team in Paris called Melting Passes, composed of undocumented migrants unable to join amateur clubs. Abloh’s passion for the Melting Passes group caught the attention of Vogue’s Editor-in-Chief, Anna Wintour. In turn, this allowed  Abloh to invite sixteen players from Melting Passes to the Paris Fashion Week Off-White show in 2018, wearing customized jerseys he designed for their team, produced and handmade by Nike. His interest in sports was unwaveringly reciprocated with athletes from all specialties sporting his sneaker designs and jersey motifs. 

At the US Tennis Open in 2018, Serena Williams was penalized under dress code violations for wearing a black skin-tight catsuit. The ensemble was worn to prevent blood clots by stimulating circulation developed after she had given birth only just the year prior, an impressive feat in itself. Many rightfully argued this ban was inherently sexist. One year later, for the French Open in 2019, Serena Williams sought to make a statement of disapproval for the ban via fashion. She sported a black-and-white two-piece set designed by none other than Abloh. She donned the set which had “Mother, Champion, Queen, Goddess” written on the zebra print in French. This exclusive collection was incredibly influential in sports but simultaneously aligned with Abloh’s political and activist beliefs.

In March of 2018, Abloh was named artistic director of menswear for fashion house empire, Louis Vuitton. A position like this one was a big deal. Since the label’s founding in 1854, Abloh was the first Black artistic director of menswear for the French design house. He held this position until he died in 2021. For his debut, Louis Vuitton show, Playboy Carti, Steve Lacy, A$AP Nast, Dev Hynes, and Kid Cudi walked the runway, five influential Black musical artists. He worked closely with many celebrities, especially as an artistic director. People including Timothée Chalamet, Rihanna, Hailey Bieber, Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Michael B. Jordan, and the late Chadwick Boseman all sported his envisioned designs.

Abloh was a combined graduate degree holder, creative director, fashion mogul, entrepreneur, visual artist, activist, musician, and sports figure. It seemed obvious when, in 2018, he earned his place on Time Magazine’s list of 100 Most Influential Individuals in the World. Appearing on this list is an extraordinary honour, and entrants are recognized for changing the world in some capacity. Other names that grace the list include politicians, actors, activists, athletes, scholars, and business titans. Abloh was one of two designers featured on the list that year.

Grievously, Abloh died on November 28th, 2021, at the tender age of 41, after a private battle with cancer. Abloh’s legacy will undoubtedly be multifaceted. He had a lasting impact, not only on the discipline of fashion but also on art, music, sports, politics, and culture. 

Darnell Lisby James, a fashion historian and curator, says, “his way of elevating street clothes so closely adjacent to the Black experience into a realm of fashion that historically negated it was quite astounding.” 

But more than that, he impacted the lives of the people around him. He is survived by his spouse, Shannon Abloh, his children, Grey and Lowe Abloh, and his parents, Nee and Eunice Abloh. Abloh’s mother taught him to sew at a young age and with that enthusiasm, drive, and talent he inexplicably affected entire industries and the people within them, thus ensuring his character and contributions will never be forgotten.

 HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: GQ

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