Photo by Myles Kalus Anak Jihem via Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.
Last Sunday on Nov. 28, 2021, Off-White founder/designer and artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection, Virgil Abloh, passed away from a rare form of cancer at only 41 years old.
A celebrated and beloved designer, Virgil’s artistic career spanned and intersected multiple institutions — from fashion to architecture to art and music — all while being unfearful to disrupt and reimagine the strict culture of luxury fashion aesthetics by incorporating modern streetwear influences and challenging gender norms. He designed a dress for music artist Kid Cudi for his SNL performance and created a glittering harness for actor Timothee Chalamet for the 2019 Golden Globes, which was later remade for Michael B. Jordan.
Whether DJing for venues around the world, redesigning the popular Nike shoes we know of today or designing IKEA furniture for first-time homeowners in mind, it was clear to anyone that his mastery of ideation and creativity would be a once-in-a-generation rarity to come by.
The Chicago native, born on Sept. 30, 1980, grew up interested in art and fashion from an early age. As the son of two Ghanian parents, he spent time with his mother learning the tricks of her trade as a seamstress, according to his official biography from VOGUE magazine.
Fast forward to his college career, where he studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and completed his undergraduate degree in 2006. Although he is perceived as a fashion designer first and foremost, his background in architecture and engineering lended him a unique approach to art and fashion; he was cited in Architizer to be influenced by the work of modernist German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. However, it wasn’t until being approached by fashion influencer and rapper Ye (formerly known as Kanye West) to work at his Donda agency after working with him at their Fendi internship in Rome in 2009 that projected Abloh into the top echelons of the fashion world.
He was able to break glass ceilings placed on Black artists in an exclusive industry like fashion in rapid succession. In 2018, he the first Black creative director for the French fashion house Louis Vuitton in its 167-year history, created the fan-favorite streetwear brand Off-White, and designed album cover artwork for numerous contemporary music artists such as Ye, Jay-Z, ASAP Rocky and the late Pop Smoke. He was also recognized in Time Magazine as one of the most influential people of the year in 2018.
One of the ways in which the late designer stamped his signature on his work unlike anyone else was his use of quotations on objects in thick black text, with phrases like “For Walking” on his shoewear, as well as using zip ties on his pieces, such as the Nike x Off-White sneakers or the cult-favorite Off-White belt. Although the self-referential iconographies in his work has been perceived by some critics as being lazy and “not persuasive” in an attempt to signify the source of goods, the simplicity of his signature mark on his creations can be easily recognized around the world and, therefore, an effective branding strategy.
One can look at the late designer’s life and see that he was truly a jack-of-all-trades in the creative realm. However, the common denominator that encapsulates his multifaceted career was that the architectural lens he used to examine art and fashion allowed him to question and refine cultural norms, resonating with his millennial consumer base. Much of his aesthetic had to do with functionality and calling attention to what is already there, as well as being able to show the design process, which can be exhibited in his work on Lil Uzi Vert’s album cover for “Luv is Rage 2.” In an interview with Fader, Abloh explains that the album cover feels like “you can peel it off” and that “a whole generation of kids will see themselves in the work, and do the work themselves, too.”
However, the album cover that became the most iconic example of Virgil’s design process was for Ye’s “Yeezus” album, consisting of a super-minimalistic concept of a clear cover case showing the “Yeezus” album and a red piece of tape, which Abloh had mentioned represented an “open casket,” marking the death of the physical CD format as streaming services have changed the way people consume music. The idea for this simplistic design came after 10 iterations by other artists collaborating on the design were rejected, including a sculpture submitted by George Condo.
What should especially be noted about Virgil’s legacy in fashion was his devotion to mentoring young Black designers in an industry that lacks diversity, working to remediate the uneven playing field. In 2020 after George Floyd’s murder, Abloh worked with Louis Vuitton to raise $1 million for his Postmodern Scholarship fund for Black students wanting to break into fashion. He also established a mentorship series titled “Free Game” with free educational resources on building a brand, as well as created a two-month Nike program for 10 artists with workshops and additional resources.
In commemoration of Virgil’s life, Louis Vuitton hosted his final Spring-Summer 2022 collection in Miami, appropriately titled, “Virgil Was Here.” The runway show consisted of other influential figures in the fashion and music world, such as Ye, Kim Kardashian, Bella Hadid, Kid Cudi and more. A short video can be seen playing before the beginning of the runway show, depicting a young Abloh as he rides his bike through Chicago, focusing on the industrial aspects of the urban landscapes that his work was known for and the curiosity that revolved around his artistry. The video ends appropriately with the young Virgil Abloh stepping into a hot air balloon and overlooking the city beneath him in fascination, ending with a black screen titled, “Virgil Was Here.”
Nikki Haslett is a fifth-year English major with a minor in Journalism. NH890081@wcupa.edu