Reverberated throughout the fashion industry and beyond, this past Sunday marked an incredible loss with the passing of Virgil Abloh, a pioneer and a role model for Black designers, who represented a cultural shift across art, culture and fashion
By: Sarah Micho
Posted on: November 29, 2021
There aren’t enough words to describe the ever evolving multi-hyphenate that was Virgil Abloh. Both a felt presence and interlocutor in the fashion industry, he was a powerful force to be reckoned with, claiming a seat at the table with his historical appointment in 2018 as the first Black artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear line.
In 2013, he founded the now ultra-successful Milan based label Off-White, recognized for its unique product descriptor typography marked by quotation marks, crossed lines and x-shaped logos that have been sported by stars such as Serena Williams and Rihanna. His journey, however, doesn’t begin as a key player in the fashion industry but as an underdog who weaved through titles and job experiences prior to becoming a well-known and established public figure.
Born outside of Chicago in Rockford, Illinois, USA to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Mr. Abloh diverged towards the fashion world, even though he earned a degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s degree in Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.
"...all I want is for any young Black kid to achieve a shorter path to their career goals, and if I can help with an open source approach to opening doors or messaging 'how-i-did-it' along the whole way, then I've done my real job, not my actual job."
Like many children of African immigrants, his path into the creative arts was not one paved with gold nor afforded to him gratuitously, breaking into an industry notorious for its exclusion and gatekeeping of Black bodies, talent and genius.
While completing his master’s, Mr. Abloh was introduced to a curriculum established by Mies van der Rohe, formed from the notions of Bauhaus, that taught him to combine the fields of art, craft and design. These theories, merged with contemporary culture, helped make up his inter-disciplinary practice.
Once self-declared as, “I’m not a designer”, Mr. Abloh’s images and ideas were about world-building, one rooted vehemently in the now, youth culture and being at the frontier of fashion aesthetics while also advancing diversity as a key line of thinking and authentic way of living. His designs were spunky, going beyond the established look of Louis Vuitton, yet toeing the line through sophisticated aesthetics.
He rears off the traditional mold within the industry, having operated in various spheres across art, technology and fashion while developing a deep community that felt reciprocal and energetic to everyone in his orbit. His impact spans beyond his appointments to historical roles and helming successful fashion brands – he prioritized giving back to the community, notably to the Black community, recognizing the need for advocacy centered around Black justice.
During his lifetime, Mr. Abloh made sure to wield his influence and power as a visionary light that offered hope and opportunities to others. Notably, in 2020 he announced a $1 million scholarship fund - the Virgil Abloh™ "POST-MODERN" scholarship fund – to cover tuition and resources on fashion courses for Black students, in collaboration with Fashion Scholarship Fund. He created pipelines, collaborative spaces and cultural capital for Black designers to be uplifted. His work and drive to shape-shift, do things differently and break barriers has always been motivated by goals bigger than himself, as showcased by his Instagram post in July 2020, captioned:
“Anyone that’s ever been in a meeting with me, or a creative brainstorm, or even a random iMessage chat knows that I’m forever fighting for the '17-year-old-version' of myself. What that specifically means is... all I want is for any young Black kid to achieve a shorter path to their career goals, and if I can help with an open source approach to opening doors or messaging 'how-i-did-it' along the whole way, then I've done my real job, not my actual job. I'm putting money, my resources, and my rolodex where my mouth is.”
Multiple prominent figures, fellow peers in the fashion industry, friends and family have expressed their condolences, shock and grief at Mr. Abloh’s passing. After having been diagnosed in 2019 with a rare, aggressive form of cancer - cardiac angiosarcoma – Mr. Abloh continued to receive private treatment for his illness despite the pressures and attention his multi-hyphenated roles demanded of him in the public realm. His resilience, strength and silent struggle is one deeply recognizable as a lived experience of many Black people, specifically Black men.
With the racial disparity between White and Black Americans for cancer related mortality, over the past decade the American Cancer Society reports that Black Americans continue to have the highest death rate and shortest survival of any racial and ethnic group in the US for most cancers. These outcomes, influenced by racial segregation, lack of access to adequate care and overall neglect of Black health, remains a factor that must be considered when discussing the life and work of trailblazing Black icons like Virgil Abloh. As a Black man, living at the intersection of race, African identity and roots, his experience is one shaped by the forces outside of an individual’s control in a world with steep racial, class and gender-based hierarchies.
Humble, unpretentious and devoid of the feigned glamour that usually surrounds high-profile designers, Virgil Abloh will be remembered as someone who leaned into the art of the possible, harnessing the power of having been a ‘first’ in his field and using that energy to activate other firsts, unlocking limitless potential yet to be revealed.
Prior to Mr. Abloh’s passing, in July 2021, LVMH – one of the world’s largest fashion conglomerates – cemented a relationship with his brand Off-White. LVMH acquired a majority stake in his company, a move which represented an unprecedented level of access and leverage for Mr. Abloh to explore and effect sectors within and beyond fashion.
Rarely does an innovator and visionary light like Mr. Abloh’s dims lower after death. His legacy will continue to shine and be survived by the channels of opportunity he opened through his community-building initiatives and creations infused with passion through his work across his 41 years of life. Humble, unpretentious and devoid of the feigned glamour that usually surrounds high-profile designers, Virgil Abloh will be remembered as someone who leaned into the art of the possible, harnessing the power of having been a ‘first’ in his field and using that energy to activate other firsts, unlocking limitless potential yet to be revealed.