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“I don’t believe in art; I believe in artists,” once quipped Virgil Abloh’s idol Marcel Duchamp. To spin that quote, you could say that Virgil didn’t just believe in products, but people.
I wouldn’t claim to know Virgil personally, but I won’t forget the first time I interviewed him in 2018. This was at a dance music festival in Marrakech, and I remember being admittedly nervous beforehand — here stood a person who I’d written about on a near-daily basis for the best part of two years. Man, I needn’t have been. After mentioning my Glasgow hometown, Virgil immediately put me at ease, firing off myriad questions about the city’s club scene and producers. “Is the Subclub sound system as good as they say?” “Is there new Hud-Mo coming any time soon?” It was as if he was the journalist. The kind of curiosity that you couldn’t help but be utterly beguiled by.
Before we headed to catch Joy Orbison’s set, I remember Virgil was stopped by a couple of local kids who ended up cajoling him into an impromptu fashion shoot (not that he needed much convincing). It’s funny, because Larry Heard, the Chicago deep house pioneer, was also on the bill that night. The way this duo stanned Virgil, he was doing the exact same for Larry. “Can you believe they managed to get Larry Heard out here to the desert?!” The next day I was sitting in the airport watching videos of Larry’s set, not on any official channel, but Virgil’s IG Stories. He had been bouncing about down the front with his phone out, filming his idol in action.
As the stories above prove, the news especially stings because Virgil was one of us. Someone who made it a life pursuit to discover cool shit — be it design, fashion, art, music — and wanted others to understand the rabbit holes it could lead them down. Duchamp, Warhol, and Lagerfeld were just some of the lofty names Virgil was regularly compared to, but at heart, he could just as readily bro out with your average line rat. The kind of peson who could look at something ostensibly prosaic like a bottle of pomegranate juice and still find something dope about it.
It hurts, because when it comes to this weird and wonderful and dysfunctional family that binds us together called “the culture,” Virgil was our patriarch. He was our leader who took streetwear to places it had never been before; places where critics once said it had no right to be. In the process of doing so, he gave a voice to the marginalized who had previously been overlooked, be it down to race, gender, sexual identity, or background.
“I’m here to be an inspiration to kids that were like me, are like me, that didn’t believe that design was for them — that starts and ends my design mission,” Virgil once said. Now it’s up to those same kids to carry the torch. They are his legacy.
Taken from us cruelly young, Virgil packed more into his 41 years than a lot of people do in a lifetime. Below, we look back at some of his most notable career moments.
2009 Fendi Internship
We take a shortcut into Virgil’s career journey in Rome, 2009. Having completed a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology, the then relatively-unknown designer joined Kanye West in Rome for the fashion world’s most high-profile internship at Fendi.
“I paid them 500 dollars a month,” said then-CEO Michael Burke. “I was really impressed by the news they brought to the studio, they were disruptive in the best sense of the term.” Burke, of course, would eventually go on to work at Louis Vuitton, where he played a key role in Abloh being chosen as artistic director.
Not that the experience was all smooth sailing. “We couldn’t do anything, we were just happy to have a key card,” explained West in an interview with Charlamagne, before going on to mention how Virgil was “the fastest photoshop artist I’d ever seen in my life.” The pair did float the idea of leather jogging pants to the brand, but this was declined. “[We] brought leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi and they said no. How many motherfuckers you done seen with a leather jogging pant?” complained West to Zane Lowe.
A few years later, it would be Virgil doing the mentoring, taking Samuel Ross under his wing as a creative assistant after being wowed by his 2wnt4 label.
Announced as DONDA Creative Director
In 2011, Abloh was announced as creative director at DONDA, West’s creative agency. A year later, he was tasked with art directing the album art for Watch the Throne, which saw him nominated for a Grammy.
Riccardo Tisci, then the creative director of Givenchy, utilized a bold gold color and angular lines to convey what he described as the “masculinity of two of the most iconic rap figures of our time.” Always humble, Virgil wrote about his experience of working with the dream team in a blog post for The Brilliance. “It still trips me out that I know those guys let alone their phone numbers are in my phone,” he wrote.
Virgil also oversaw the artwork on West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus albums, and is also credited as creative director on A$AP Rocky’s debut album Long.Live.A$AP.
Pyrex Vision Is Founded
“With a limited run of shirts, and the nominal cost of screenprinting ‘PYREX 23’ on the back of each one, it’s highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, at retail no less, slapped ‘PYREX 23’ on the back and re-sold them for an astonishing markup of about 700%.”
Those were the words of former Highsnobiety editorial director and then Four Pins editor Jian DeLeon in 2012, pointing out how Virgil’s first foray into high fashion via his label Pyrex was essentially a hustle. When writing at the time, DeLeon would never have imagined the impact of the paragraph above.
When Virgil commissioned a rug design from Jim Joe, the artist came back with a piece bearing DeLeon’s quote. In a 2017 lecture at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Abloh would go on to explain how it rocked him at the time, essentially puncturing his design ethos of providing new context to already existing ideas.
Not that he was the type to bear any grudges. As well as popping up in the Off-White™ showroom in Paris, Virgil also bestowed DeLeon with his own piece.
The Been Trill Era
In 2012, Abloh teamed up with his DONDA colleagues Matthew M. Williams (1017 ALYX 9SM), Heron Preston, Justin Saunders (aka @jjjjound) and Florencia Galarza (now an ambassador for adidas Football) to launch Been Trill. Originally a DJ crew, the collective soon started breaking the internet when they started making high-priced streetwear notable for its Tumblr-style graphics and $100 shoelaces.
Showcasing Abloh’s love of collaboration, Been Trill dropped various capsules with KTZ, Stüssy and Hood By Air. The brand created comment wars and controversy wherever it went, but in 2013, it was announced that the crew was selling its label to Pac-Sun. A year later, A$AP Rocky buried the brand when he rapped “I ain’t really fuckin’ with that Been Trill” in his track “Multiply.”
Off-White™ Is Founded
Undeterred by his Pyrex experience, 2013 saw the birth of what is stylized today as Off-White™. Womenswear would follow a year later.
Described as “the gray area between black and white,” Virgil was always open minded as to what the label actually represented, with last year’s TV channel launch being a case in point. The content took in all manner of disciplines, including dance performances, jazz, rock climbing, Instagram filters, and live DJ sets.
Once in the business of haute-streetwear, recent years have seen the label gravitate towards a more formal aesthetic by turning classic menswear tropes on their head and remixing the suit. Earlier this year, Louis Vuitton parent group LVMH became parent investor in the company.
LVMH Prize Nominee
By 2015, Virgil’s Off-White™ operation was cooking with gas, showing in Paris, and penetrating global markets. This saw the designer nominated for the coveted LVMH Young Fashion Designer Prize, alongside names including Vetements’ Demna Gvasalia and Simon Porte of Jacquemus.
In the end, it wasn’t to be, as Marques’Almeida took home the $300,000 check. Not that he’d have bothered too much. In 2020, Virgil joined LVMH as a prize judge, and as the post above from fashion insider Loïc Prigent shows, seemingly took plenty from his experience of finishing on the losing side.
Looking back, The Off-White™ x Nike “The Ten” project was pretty much the hype sneaker release to end all hype sneaker releases. Websites crashed, stores were queued out for days, and the secondary market exploded with kids trading kicks for cash at 500 percent mark up.
The project was simple: Virgil took 10 classic Nike sneakers and “Virgil-ized” them in his own inimitable style. The collab’s blueprint-like designs echo back to Abloh’s training as an architect, and once more exemplified his obsession with re-contextualizing familiar objects.
That same year, Virgil demonstrated his public speaking chops with a lecture at the Harvard School of Design. The talk was immortalized in a book called Insert Complicated Title Here, which revealed his “cheat codes” for working and designing.
DJ Career in Full Swing
Although fashion was Virgil’s wheelhouse, it would be remiss not to touch on his DJ career. Growing up in Chicago, he would spend time listening to the likes of Giles Peterson and Benji B, with the latter eventually joining up with him at Louis Vuitton in the role of music director. Speaking to The Guardian, Abloh explained the significance of DJing in his hectic life, saying, “[DJing] is my only peace of mind. When the phone is off, I play my favorite songs really loud for myself and I’m not talking to anyone, I’m not managing anything; it’s just like a time when I can listen to music…I’ll be DJing after I’m done designing or doing anything else.”
“2018 has been the most progressive year of my DJ side,” Virgil explained to me at the time — fitting, given it was also his 20th year of playing. That same year, he also flew to Berlin to work on an EP with Boys Noize, including the single “ORVNGE.”
“When you talk about fashion and a runway show, you almost have to be like a DJ studying and spending 10,000 hours in the club, because you have a very narrow hole to thread through,” the designer told Rolling Stone. “You have to take an audience with different musical knowledge, and you have to look at the collection, then you have to look at the location [of the fashion show] and you have to say, ‘What’s going to enhance this experience?’ And so, it takes a lot of thinking to find the songs that a group of people can gel to.”
The Louis Vuitton Appointment
As Off-White™ went from strength to strength, it seemed a matter of time before Virgil got the keys to a major fashion house. Versace and Givenchy were two of the names mentioned at the time, but in the end, it was Louis Vuitton which took the chance, making Virgil the first African-American designer in its history.
Soundtracked by BADBADNOTGOOD, the first show came in 2018 in Paris. The show at the Tuileries featured 3,000 students and a rainbow runway, with Abloh riffing off The Wizard of Oz in a nod to what is often described as the ultimate American fairytale. Famously, Abloh shared an emotional hug with Kanye West at the end — the two interns at Fendi had made their way to the top of the fashion pyramid. “You can do it too,” read Virgil’s Instagram caption after the show.
Virgil broke the mold at Louis Vuitton. He gave outsiders a seat and showed that fashion is for everybody. It rattled the industry cage and felt like a bellwether for a new way of doing things.
“Anyone who attends fashion shows knows that when Virgil’s name comes up in conversation with certain buyers, PR bosses, and other denizens of the front row, it tends to roll off the tongue uncomfortably — like he’s the fashion week equivalent of Lord Voldemort,” wrote Highsnobiety editor-in-chief Thom Bettridge. “Why? Because for people who have been in the game for a long time, Abloh and the Tommy Ton photo cohort represent the demise of a time when fashion was created by a small enclave of (mostly white) ‘genius’ designers, and presented at industry weeks to a small village of (mostly white) industry pals.”
Branching Into Sports
It says a lot about Virgil that his loss is being felt not just by those in the fashion space, but other disciplines such as sports, too.
Serena Williams became something of a muse for Virgil, and played several tournaments in gear designed between him and her technical sponsor Nike. There was also the “Athlete in Progress” line, which saw The Swoosh’s elite track and field champions feature on the runway for the Off-White™ SS19 show.
From Kylian Mbappe’s Mercurial 360 cleats to Draymond Green’s Off-White™ Hyperdunks and Brooks Koepka’s Air Max ’90s, there was no other designer out there having a bigger influence in the sports space than Virgil. He understood the athlete’s body, knowing that they wanted comfort, but that it didn’t have to come at the expense of a hood sensibility.
A keen footballer since the age of eight, in 2020 he hinted that he would be keen on working with a club to design their strip. If the “Football, Mon Amour” collection was anything to go by, that really would have been something.
The Collaboration Master
How do you even begin to sum up Virgil’s collaboration game? Evian, Timberland, Moët & Chandon, Vitra… the body of work he leaves behind is vast and wide-ranging. In the age of collaboration, he represented the gold standard: It didn’t matter if the company was big or small, he’d be into it, so long as there was a dope story to be told. That’s before you get to the individuals, including A$AP Rocky and Takashi Murakami. With such a handle across so many categories, it’s no surprise LVMH chief Bernard Arnault sought to utilize his skills further across the LVMH group.
As far as hype goes, Virgil’s Makaerad tie-up with IKEA was on another level to anything else he’d done. Before the release, people queued overnight at flagship IKEA stores to try and snag pieces from the 15-piece collection, including a “TEMPORARY” clock and “WET-GRASS” rug. Tickets for the chance to wait outside sold out within five minutes.
There was a sense that Virgil’s work in the collaboration space was getting stronger each year. The was best exemplified with his ultra-luxury LV² squared partnership with Nigo that saw the pair come up with a wide range of glorious statement pieces. As Highsnobiety news editor Jake Silbert wrote: “Nigo and Virgil Abloh’s first LV² collection is destined to become the stuff of streetwear legend for those who were able to afford the price of entry: two contemporary luminaries collaborating for the world’s largest luxury label to create a surprisingly wearable and unsurprisingly spendy selection of suits.”
An acolyte of the Bauhaus and Dieter Rams, it’s fitting that some of Virgil’s final collaborations would be a German-American affair. First, there was his work at Braun, which saw him remix the Wandanlage wall-mounted stereo system first brought to market in 196 with a chrome finish. “Functional art,” was how he described it.
His final collaboration took shape with Mercedes Benz, first on 2020’s G-Class and then this year’s Project MAYBACH. When asked about what drew him to working with Mercedes chief design officer Gorden Wagener, Abloh told the Financial Times: “With industries like car design, you often get a feeling there’s nothing human there, but with Wagener’s IG feed I could follow different projects. In fashion, I aim to do that too, to demystify the operation of a fashion house: that big daunting building with no way to get in! Everyone knows where the door to ‘buy’ is but not the people behind the brand.” If breaking down barriers and letting people into the fashion world was the goal, Virgil succeeded – and then some.