Why We Will Remember Design Wunderkind Mr Virgil Abloh For His Humanitarian Nature
Mr Virgil Abloh at the Louis Vuitton menswear show at Paris Fashion Week, 17 January 2019. Photograph by Mr Victor Boyko/Getty Images
For a man who helmed two of the industry’s most lauded brands, Mr Virgil Abloh was a world away from the archetype of a fashion designer. Born in 1980 in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanaian parents and raised in suburban Chicago, Abloh earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering before going on to study architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. After practising at a firm for two years, he made his first foray into fashion, opening a hybrid art space and menswear boutique, RSVP Gallery, in Chicago in 2009.
While this might not be the allotted path followed by most designers of his ilk, architecture and the atelier have often gone hand-in-hand – fashioning the linear forms and spaces of buildings has a natural ability to translate to garment design. Indeed, Mr Kanye West, who made a 22-year-old Abloh creative director of his agency in 2009, once said of his process, “I have all these ideas and Virgil is able to architect them because he is an actual architect.”
Following a series of other style ventures, he launched his game-changing streetwear label, Off-White, in 2013, bringing him to the wider attention of a media-savvy generation who were dressing in a way that reflected the shift towards a more casual, easy sense of luxury. Abloh frequently caused snaking lines on city pavements worldwide with his drops of collab sneakers with sports behemoth Nike – some of which required police intervention to pacify. But the apex of his career came in 2018, with his appointment as creative director of menswear at Parisian powerhouse, Louis Vuitton.
As a label that had long traded on the idea of old-world luxury, it was a bold call to appoint a man without formal fashion training, whose specialism was streetwear. The move raised eyebrows among the industry old guard, but the house of Vuitton needn’t had worried. His Midas-like ability to meld sub-cultural influences with high-fashion workmanship and communicate his work through contemporary channels made him – and Louis Vuitton – the undisputed zeitgeist of modern menswear.
Alongside his palpable talent as a designer, he was regarded for his amicable demeanour and altruistic nature. Ever the champion of the marginalised in society, Abloh’s response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 was the foundation of the “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, which supports black students in the fashion industry. This desire to support young, rising talent was particularly close to Abloh’s heart. “Virgil was one of the first people I profiled at the beginning of my career,” explains writer and MR PORTER contributor Mr Jason Okundaye. “I remember feeling the nerves of impostor syndrome. But as he spoke to me from his home in Chicago, he punctuated his discussion with compliments and affirmations that I was asking him great questions – and was consistently appreciative that I was a young, black interviewer. He promised to keep in touch and follow my career – which he did via Instagram and reading my writing. That vote of confidence allowed me to become bolder and take on big profiles. It’s just one story of how Virgil dedicated himself to black youth.”
“He promised to keep in touch and follow my career – which he did. That vote of confidence allowed me to become bolder and take on big profiles”
Ms Elaine YJ Lee, MR PORTER contributor and former managing editor of Hypebeast Korea, experienced similar. “Virgil once told me that he put words on all of his creations because he wanted fashion to say more. I had the chance to interview him thrice. Looking back, I realise I was able to interview him so many times because he was just that humble and approachable. Virgil was the only designer and creative of his stature who kept his finger at the pulse of culture high and low, literally all around the world. I am especially grateful to him for lending his time and talent to collaborate with creatives in South Korea, in the realms of music, sports and fashion.”
He never lost sight of what he saw as a privileged position of influence in the industry and wider society. In 2017, after journalist Mr Alex Frank reported for Vogue about a group of young skaters in Accra who longed for a proper skate park, Abloh “quietly and without fanfare” reached out asking how he could help realise that dream. With his assistance, the park was built this year.
Mr Teo van den Broeke, style director of British GQ, fondly recalls his unpretentious manner and the delight he took in his work. “I was fortunate enough to interview Virgil for a profile in British GQ, in the lead up to his inaugural show for Louis Vuitton,” he says. “I was a bit nervous to meet him, but I saw his generous spirit was obvious from the outset. Virgil spent several hours with me in his studio, talking me through each piece with the kind of gleeful excitement a schooler demonstrates when showing off their homework.”
As was typical of his unassuming persona, he kept the diagnosis of cardiac angiosarcoma – a cancer that begins in the cells lining the blood vessels – out of the public domain, making his sudden passing at the weekend at the age of 41 all the more seismic.
Perhaps Virgil Abloh’s most poignant legacy is that he understood fashion need not exclude anyone and can be used as a force of change for the better – an ideal he practised in truly noble style.