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Virgil Abloh, Fashion Trailblazer for a New Generation, Has Died

The Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton men’s designer had been called the Karl Lagerfeld of his time before succumbing to cancer at 41.
Designer Virgil Abloh has died after a private battle with cancer. Getty Images.
Designer Virgil Abloh has died after a private battle with cancer. Getty Images.

Virgil Abloh, the founder of Off-White and the men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton, died at age 41 on Nov. 28, according to a statement released on Instagram, citing a “rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma.”

He had battled the disease since a diagnosis in 2019, according to the statement, “undergoing numerous challenging treatments.” In Sept. 2019, the designer said he was taking a break from a gruelling work schedule, which included flying around the world for DJ gigs, following doctor’s orders. He cancelled several events and appearances that autumn.

“We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved Virgil Abloh, a fiercely devoted father, husband, son, brother, and friend,” read the statement on Abloh’s account. He is survived by his wife Shannon Abloh and two children, as well as his parents and sister.

Abloh was a “genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” said Bernard Arnault, LVMH chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, in a statement. “The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow, and we are all thinking of his loved ones after the passing of their husband, their father, their brother or their friend.”

Tributes flooded social media on Sunday after the news of Abloh’s passing broke.

Kanye West with Virgil Abloh after Abloh's debut show for Louis Vuitton in June 2018.  Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Abloh had a highly creative mind and a prodigious work ethic. Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke called Abloh the Karl Lagerfeld of his time, a multi-tasking creative genius with business savvy and almost superhuman energy. He also broke boundaries in the tradition-soaked fashion industry and will be best remembered for bringing streetwear to the highest levels of the luxury market, as well as for being one of the few Black designers to helm a major luxury house.

Abloh reinvented the role of a creative director. “I’m not a designer,” he said back in 2018. Instead, Abloh recast the métier with the ethos — not just the aesthetics — of streetwear: hip-hop’s penchant for sampling and remixing, skateboarding’s sense of community and a desire for social progress.

Abloh also helped open doors to the ivory tower of luxury fashion to a wider cast of creatives, leaving a sort of guidebook for others to follow, rooted in digital tools, personal drive and no shortage of optimism.

A master of social media, he made it a point to engage directly with his followers, online and off, making them feel welcome in his world. His fans didn’t flock to his drops just to shop. They came to hang out. And he offered them not just product but processes: “cheat codes” and “trails of information” for how to launch brands of their own. “You can do it too,” read the caption under his first Instagram post after his Louis Vuitton debut.

He also mentored fellow designers, like A-Cold-Wall’s Samuel Ross, joined the board of the CFDA in 2019 and launched a “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund in 2020 to benefit Black creatives.

Michael Burke and Virgil Abloh host dinner at Fondation Louis Vuitton in July 2021 in Paris. Getty Images.

“Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design,” read the unsigned statement announcing his passing on Instagram on Sunday. “He often said, ‘Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,’ believing deeply in the power of art to inspire future generations.”

A trained architect born in the outskirts of Chicago to parents from Ghana, Abloh’s path to fashion was atypical. He studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison before going on to earn a master’s degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology and counted Mies Van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas as heroes.

He was first recognised for his work in fashion when he began working as Kanye West’s creative director and the duo interned together at Fendi under Burke, then the chief executive officer of the LVMH-owned fur and leather house. Abloh launched his first line, Pyrex, in 2012 before partnering with the company that would become New Guards Group to launch upscale streetwear sensation Off-White a year later.

Based in Milan, Off-White brought high-quality Italian manufacturing to American-style streetwear, drip-fed to consumers via social media and the tightly controlled releases favoured by the likes of Supreme. Abloh may not have invented luxury streetwear, but he certainly helped to popularise it — both through his collections for Off-White and through unusual collaborations with everyone from Evian to Jimmy Choo. In 2017, he launched a landmark collaboration with Nike, deconstructing ten of its signature sneakers.

Off-White quickly surpassed $100 million in revenue and Abloh became one of the most important tastemakers for a new generation of consumers, even though his work was criticised as unoriginal by some. Abloh, for his part, was playing a different game, embracing what he called the “three percent approach,” the notion that you only need to edit something three percent to make it seem at once familiar and completely new.

In 2015, Off-White was named a finalist for the LVMH Young Designers Prize. But Abloh’s influence reached a new level in March 2018, when he succeeded Kim Jones as the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, becoming the first Black designer to take the creative reins at one of the industry’s biggest megabrands.

His first show for the brand aimed to reboot Louis Vuitton for a new generation, featuring a diverse cast of models who walked down a rainbow runway wearing a collection inspired by the 1939 musical film “The Wizard of Oz,” a reference to the American Dream and Abloh’s own boundary-breaking journey along a personal Yellow Brick Road of sorts from Illinois to the Emerald City of Paris.

Abloh was a marketing savant, but his influence went beyond branding: the designer moved quickly to update the entire menswear offer at Louis Vuitton, whose commercial lines benefitted from Abloh’s streetwear-inflected contemporary cuts.

In July 2021, LVMH cemented its relationship with Abloh. It acquired a majority stake in the entity through which the designer owned Off-White’s intellectual property (the operating company is controlled by New Guards Group) and gave Abloh an unprecedented new role working across LVMH’s vast portfolio to “leverage together the group’s expertise to launch new brands and partner with existing ones in a variety of sectors beyond the realm of fashion.”

Abloh was characteristically busy until the end of his life, recently appearing in Doha to open the latest instalment of a retrospective exhibition of his work, Figures of Speech, that first opened at the Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019. On Tuesday, he was expected to present a Louis Vuitton runway show in Miami ahead of Art Basel to mark the opening of a dedicated men’s store.

Related Articles:

Virgil Abloh: ‘I Am Not a Designer’

LVMH’s Landmark Virgil Abloh Alliance, Explained

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