Virgil Abloh looms tall on the far end of a famous picture of Kanye West’s creative crew snapped in Paris during men’s fashion week in 2009. West had led them there despite a lack of invitations, very much wanting their exquisitely considered dapperness acknowledged by, and in, luxury fashion.
Marc Jacobs, then artistic director at Louis Vuitton, had just signed West to collaborate on a sneaker line, but he desired more. The picture shows the group to be sartorially worthy of inclusion and protests against their exclusion from the high fashion narrative; it poses questions about gatekeeping, about who gets top-level access and exposure. Abloh’s style is different from the other dandies, though; he looks more like an enthusiastic professor in red glasses, blue Moncler vest and yellow sneakers. “Streetwear” does not cover it – what Abloh is wearing ought to be described as lifewear or thoughtwear.
Less than a decade later, it was Abloh who became a Paris insider as artistic director at Vuitton, flagship of the LVMH luxury conglomerate. To the exasperation of couture authorities, he asked hundreds of students to his first show in 2018. Those kids had a power now, he explained, as they had long had it in music; they could declare a brand, like a band, uncool, and take it down. Or they could make it, as they had Abloh’s own label, Off-White.
Abloh, who has died of cancer aged 41, had been just such a style-conscious kid at the beginnings of the onscreen, online era, and he grasped its possibilities as they happened. When a student he delivered such perfect computer files for the T-shirts he designed to Custom Kings screen printers in Chicago that they offered him a job and contacts who introduced him to West, who was recruiting design talent for his music production.
Abloh used the internet to research arts and modes his education had not covered, making his laptop his college, and an ever-changing collage, of references and possibilities. He built Off-White through communicating directly with potential customers using Instagram instead of magazine advertising. He ran that label, and many collaborations (among them Nike, with work for Serena Williams, and Ikea, with designs including a rug patterned as the till receipt), via WhatsApp on his phones. And he respected his followers as the best informed and most discerning fashion audience, satisfied that his work inspired them to create for themselves when his prices proved beyond them.
Abloh’s parents, Nee and Eunice, emigrated from Accra, Ghana, in the 1970s to Chicago, where Nee was a paint factory manager and Eunice a seamstress – she taught her son sewing-machine basics. They lived first in the city, then in nearby Rockford, where Virgil was born. His introduction to the power of changing modes came through listening to his parents’ wide and deep LP collection, jazz, soul, folk, all of it good: he carried that sampling approach over into a lifetime of pro DJ gigs.
He was a child of two cultures. His parents spoke their own language at home and he had visited Ghana, aware how different were his life chances from his relatives’. But he also pursued African-American culture – graffiti, skateboarding, hip-hop, rap – with its custom fashions and reworked mainstream clothes. T-shirts were his lifelong passion and he amassed 5,000.
His parents considered engineering a reliable prospect, and after Boylan Catholic high school, Abloh got his BSc in civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and MA in architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. Though he exploited the skills and tools for making things that were available on the courses – “maker”, not designer, was his preferred way of describing himself – he credited his real education to his first on-campus encounter with an arts library.
His heroes became the artist Marcel Duchamp, who had recontextualised objects, and given other creators permission to claim a readymade thing as their own by changing it just a few per cent (Abloh was unworried by accusations of appropriation, and felt creativity did not mean starting with a blank page every time); the architect Rem Koolhaas, whose stores for Prada connected buildings and clothes; and Jacobs at Vuitton, especially for his invitations to surprising guest artists, such as West in 2009.
By that year, Abloh had moved from a job with an architectural practice to being full-time consigliere, strategist and ideas broker to West. Together they went to Rome, to earn $500 a month for half a year as interns for Fendi, and to London to consult Louise Wilson, the sage of Central Saint Martins, who dissuaded them from studying fashion formally, since they already knew more about its practice and the industry than most college intake.
In 2010, West made Abloh creative director of his mysterious new enterprises ensemble Donda; Abloh designed the West-Jay Z album cover Watch the Throne in 2011, supplied tour ideas and curated costumes.
Abloh’s initial clothing venture, Pyrex Vision, in 2012, was meant to dress an art project. Its greatest success was silkscreening surplus Ralph Lauren flannel shirts with the Pyrex logo, which increased their price from $40 to $550. That encouraged Abloh to set up Off-White in 2013, with headquarters in Milan, a store in Hong Kong, and collections with catchy imagery shown in Paris. Abloh was sure that his audience deserved the same elevated level of industry attention as establishment fashion, and in 2015 entered – and was a finalist in – the LVMH new designer prize.
In 2018, Vuitton went beyond copying the street ease Abloh had introduced to menswear, and offered him Jacobs’ former artistic directorship; in 2020, LVMH also granted Off-White substantial financial backing. Abloh’s ceaseless curiosity and fluidity in different disciplines promised he would not run out of ideas; Figures of Speech, the exhibition the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago awarded their local boy made good in 2019, flowed with them.
Despite travelling for 320 days some years, his home and heart remained in Chicago, where in 2009 he had married his high-school sweetheart, Shannon Sundberg. He kept a diagnosis of the rare cancer cardiac angiosarcoma a secret for two years, and worked on enthusiastically.
Shannon, their children, Lowe and Grey, and his parents and a sister, Edwina, survive him.