By Travis M. Andrews via The Washington Post
Correction: An earlier version of this story misreported the town where Virgil Abloh was born. He was born in Rockford, Ill., not Rockville, Ill. This story has been updated.
Virgil Abloh, the fashion designer who served as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton and founded the Milan-based label Off-White, died Sunday. He was 41.
The announcement of his death, which was posted to his official Instagram page on Sunday afternoon, stated that for more than two years he had privately “battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma.”
“Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. 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,” the statement read. “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.”
“We are all shocked by this terrible news,” Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy chief executive Bernard Arnault said in a statement. “Virgil was not only a genius designer and a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom. ”
Abloh was regarded as one of the most influential and powerful Black designers of his generation. An artistic polymath, he also worked as a DJ who played festivals such as Chicago’s Lollapalooza and opened for artists such as Travis Scott. He also served as a longtime creative director for rapper Kanye West, who told the New York Times that Abloh was “one of the smartest, fastest, most innovative people I’ve created with.” In 2011, he earned a Grammy nomination for his art direction of West and Jay-Z’s collaborative album, “Watch the Throne.”
When he began breaking into the fashion world, he remembered feeling like an outsider. “We got into about 60 percent of the shows,” he told W Magazine about attending his first fashion shows in Paris with West. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
After launching Off-White in 2013, with clothing featuring bold diagonal stripes and his iconic “everything in quotes” philosophy (think: a black dress with “little black dress” or a scarf with “scarf” written on it in quotes), he quickly ascended to industry leader. Vox dubbed Off-White “the hottest fashion brand in the world.” W called Abloh “the King of Social Media Superinfluencers."
Though the brand had its critics, it managed to connect both with admirers of the old fashion houses and with a generation living on social media.
“The brand has a youthful folly, a crude sense of pop weirdness — detractors claim its fraudulence — unsuitable for a major house,” K. Austin Collins wrote for Vanity Fair. “Off-White’s signature diagonal stripes and ironic quotation marks are, for hype beasts and the star-obsessed, as coded and class-aware as interlocking L.V. monograms are to another generation.”
Model Gigi Hadid and Virgil Abloh arrive for the CFDA fashion awards in New York in June 2019. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
In 2018, he was named as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection. At the time, Louis Vuitton chief executive Michael Burke said in a statement: “Having followed with great interest Virgil’s ascent since he worked with me at Fendi in 2006, I am thrilled to see how his innate creativity and disruptive approach have made him so relevant, not just in the world of fashion but in popular culture today.”
That same year, Time Magazine named him as one its 100 most influential people alive, with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami writing of Abloh: “Everything from the way he works to how he uses his time to how he makes his judgments is principled. The foundation of his value, or branding, is humanity itself, not a superficial trick.”
“In a way, all of my output has been to make a compelling case for me to take on a role such as this,” Abloh told the New York Times of the appointment. “I think of it as kind of the ultimate collaboration.”
As a designer, Abloh often bridged the gap between what was has traditionally been considered high and low fashion. The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan described him as “a designer who has been able to distill pop culture, the zeitgeist, the aura of cool, the glamour of celebrity and a kind of glossy hipster diversity down into motorcycle jackets, T-shirts and sneakers.”
“Abloh is a self-taught designer whose aesthetic is born out of his environment and his friends, his love for the ease of streetwear, and his appreciation for the status and luxury of high-end apparel,” Givhan wrote. “In his work, he has not made a stuffy intellectual argument about whom and what the culture values, but he has, with nonchalance and confidence, underscored the ways in which fashion must change to adapt to its evolving customer base."
Abloh was born in Rockford, Ill., on Sept. 30, 1980, to Ghanaian immigrant parents. He studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and earned his master’s degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Though he never officially studied design, his seamstress mother taught him the basics of the trade.
He was creatively restless throughout his career and seemingly possessed boundless energy. Though he was best known for his work in menswear, Abloh was notable for trying his hand at other ventures, such as designing furniture, which led to a collaboration with Ikea, and cars, which led to a one-off creation with Mercedes-Benz in which he reimagined the company’s G-Class SUV as a racecar.
“Fashion is kinda a joke,” Abloh told the Cut in 2017. “I don’t get too bogged down in the clothes. For me, it’s one big art project, just a canvas to show that fashion should have a brand which has someone behind it who cares about different contexts. Social things.”
Virgil Abloh arrives for the Met Gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York on Sept. 14, 2021. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)
In 2019, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago hosted an exhibit called “Virgil Abloh: ‘Figures of Speech,’” which featured music, fashion architecture and design from throughout his career and was billed as “the first museum exhibition devoted to the work of the genre-bending artist and designer.”
Tributes to Abloh poured in on Twitter following Sunday’s announcement. Many referenced actor Chadwick Boseman, who died in August 2020 after also privately battling cancer.
“Rest in Power,” actor and rapper Riz Ahmed tweeted. “Gone too soon but your legacy lives on. Stretched culture & the changed the game. Thank you for all you did to support so many & how you pushed us to reimagine what’s possible.”
“Such a tough loss for someone with years of creativity in front of him. Rest in power, Virgil Abloh,” tweeted designer Michael Bierut.
Thank you “for inspiring many generations to come by being a first,” tweeted musician Thundercat. “Your work has changed so many lives. We love you. Rest In Peace legendary king.”
“You taught us all how to dream,” tweeted fashion designer Jeff Staple.
According to Sunday’s announcement, Abloh “is survived by his loving wife Shannon Abloh, his children Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh, his sister Edwina Abloh, his parents Nee and Eunice Abloh, and numerous dear friends and colleagues.”