When Virgil Abloh wanted to break into luxury fashion aged 29, he had already amassed enough clout to launch his own label. Instead, he told the FT this year, he went to Rome and began an internship at Fendi, to learn “how fashion brands really work, versus how I thought that they worked”.
That display of humility, curiosity and open-mindedness was characteristic of Abloh, who died on Sunday, aged 41, after a private two-year battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
The creative director of Louis Vuitton men’s since 2018 and founder of high-end label Off-White, Abloh was regarded as the most powerful black man in fashion. He collaborated widely and with remarkable success across industries and mediums, designing shoes for Nike and furniture for Ikea, which earned him comparisons to Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld and Marcel Duchamp, the artist, writer and chess player he often cited as an influence.
Friends and colleagues have described him as “positive” and “easy-going”, with an unrivalled work ethic and an uncanny ability to define what is cool. Where other designers saw rules and limitations, he saw possibilities. “He’s not bogged down by draconian codes and gatekeeping and rules,” said Tremaine Emory, a music and nightlife producer and friend of Abloh’s.
He nurtured and promoted other talents, including the designers Heron Preston and Matthew Williams, who is now the creative director of Givenchy, another LVMH brand.
Abloh was this year promoted to a wider role at LVMH, with the promise of launching new LVMH brands and partnering with existing ones.
“We are all shocked by this terrible news,” LVMH chair and chief Bernard Arnault said in a statement announcing his passing on Sunday. “Virgil was not only a genius designer and a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom.”
“Virgil was not only a friend, great collaborator, creative genius, visionary and disrupter, but also one of the best cultural communicators of our times,” Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke, who hired Abloh, said in an emailed statement. “He paved the way for future generations. As a devoted supporter of his community through his charities and passions, he was an eternal optimist who believed anything was possible.”
A first-generation American born of Ghanian parents, Abloh became well-known in the early 2000s as a DJ and Kanye West’s creative partner, nabbing a Grammy nomination for art directing West and Jay Z’s Watch the Throne album in 2011.
An architect by training, he launched streetwear label Pyrex Vision at the end of 2012, rapidly selling out of a line of illustrations screen-printed on to deadstock Ralph Lauren flannels priced at hundreds of dollars apiece. Although it closed less than a year later, it paved the way for the launch of the more successful Off-White, which was acquired by LVMH this year.
Alongside labels such as Vetements and Y/Project, Off-White helped break down the barrier between mass streetwear and high fashion, mixing deconstructed streetwear staples such as hoodies and T-shirts with tailored separates and Diana, Princess of Wales-inspired gowns, sometimes in a single garment.
His accessories were works of conceptual art, often scribbled with phrases that made one rethink their essential function — there were handbags labelled “Personal Property” and “Sculpture”, and status sneakers emblazoned with the words “For Walking”.
He maintained an unusually direct dialogue with fans via Instagram and Twitter, developing an online community around his brands that others have since attempted to emulate.
Abloh was not a traditionally trained fashion designer, and his appointment at Louis Vuitton was met with scepticism within LVMH and across the industry. Critics sometimes said he had not introduced anything original to fashion.
Abloh instead saw himself as a “mirror”. With Off-White, he told me in a 2016 interview, he wanted to create “a luxury version, a designer version, of what I see in the street”.
“I’m trying to make art on a commercial scale. That’s what Off-White is, it’s rooted in art and architecture but mass, like Canal Street, so people buy it.”
Over the past two years, Abloh spent the greater part of his time in Rockford, Illinois, where he grew up, with his wife Shannon, whom he met in high school, and their two young children. He also expanded his philanthropic efforts, establishing the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund in 2020 for fashion students of black, African-American or African descent.
“Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,” his family quoted him as saying in an Instagram post on Sunday.
Up until the day of his death, Abloh had been working on his last menswear collection for Louis Vuitton, which will show in Miami on Tuesday.