A tribute to Virgil Abloh, 21st-century fashion’s groundbreaker

By Mary Atkinson.

Everyone has experienced a celebrity death that deeply affects them, a death so unexpected, it takes you aback. I first experienced this with Mac Miller in 2018 and again recently with Virgil Abloh, a man no short of a groundbreaker – a disrupter in the fashion world. 

On the 28th of November 2021, Virgil Abloh sadly died, after a two-year-long private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare and aggressive form of cancer. He was just 41. Abloh was best known as Louis Vuitton’s menswear’s artistic director, becoming the first black man to lead an LMVH owned fashion house and for founding the influential street fashion brand Off White. 

Virgil Abloh was a man no short of ground breaking – a disrupter in the fashion world.

He innovated and redefined luxury, cementing streetwear’s presence within the industry.  Abloh was sometimes dubbed the Karl Lagerfeld of his generation. However, I would go one step further Abloh was something so incredibly different not even Lagerfeld is comparable and as such, his influence and presence can never be accurately described or replaced.

The fashion world is in mourning, Off White’s stores are decked with flowers that accurately and stunningly describe the industry’s grief in a physical, visual manner – perfectly fitting for Abloh. 

Abloh’s career and voyage into fashion began unconventionally. He initially trained as a civil engineer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then as an architect at the Illinois Institute of Technology. Later, he became the creative director at Donda, Kanye West’s creative agency. The pair shared a deep interest and passion for fashion and in 2009 interned for Fendi on a meagre $500 a month – a somewhat peculiar situation given Kanye’s success in the music industry at that time as a multiple Grammy award winner. 

Abloh and West never did pursue a formal fashion education despite traditionalists in the industry often seeing it as a requirement. Instead, they used the internet to learn about the world they wanted to enter and what consumers desired. This connection to the internet, global mindset, and appreciation for new digital technologies translated into Abloh’s work and broke the mould of tradition within the fashion industry which aided in his meteoric rise. 

This meteoric rise began almost a decade ago in 2012 when Abloh launched his first fashion brand Pyrex Vision in which he re-designed deadstock Ralph Lauren shirts. A symbol of his career to come which would later become defined by the re-contextualising of clothes and objects into something new and ground-breaking in a style he would later dub the 3% rule – his belief that if you changed a design by just 3%, it was entirely new. 

“Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself”

Virgil Abloh

Abloh credited his recontextualising approach to his hero Marcel Duchamp who redefined what was considered art and helped to birth the genre of modern art. Just as Abloh can be said to have done with street fashion and its inclusion into the luxury landscape as well as modern contemporary fashion. 

In 2013, Abloh closed Pyrex to launch Off-White, a brand he described as “the grey area between black and white as the colour Off-White.” Which describes how he did something innovative and new with the brand which shot to fame and soon became a cult favourite after its launch at Paris Fashion Week, a year later. Off White gained a following and notoriety in a way few brands in the modern era have managed to do, (Jacquemus is perhaps another), and earned Abloh a finalist nomination for the LMVH prize. However, he ultimately lost to Simon Porte Jacquemus and Marques’ Almeida. 

In 2018, he became Louis Vuitton’s menswear’s artistic director, just four years after Off-White’s debut at Paris Fashion Week, a turbocharged career trajectory. Abloh’s role at LMVH made him the first black creative director at an LMVH owned fashion house and one of two black designers to head up a major French fashion house (Olivier Rousteing at Balmain being the other). This displays how much of a trailblazer he was in an admittedly dated industry, which he set alight – one could say “recontextualised”. 

When announcing his passing in an Instagram post, his wife quoted him as saying that “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself” as he believed in “the power of art to inspire future generations” who undoubtedly will be following his footsteps.

Abloh’s career spanned many mediums and he believed himself to be more of a creator, an artist, than a designer. Perhaps through the rejection of formal and archaic fashion titles showing the world once more his ground-breaking spirit and impact. Re-defining not only what the industry considers fashion but what the creative/artistic director and designer roles encompass.

Abloh’s career and his life will not be forgotten, immortalised not only in the works of his brands but also through the many lives he touched. Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, described Abloh in a statement as “not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom”.

Virgil Abloh will be sorely missed and can never be replaced – the landscape of fashion forever marked by his influence. He is 21st-century fashion’s groundbreaker.

Image: Dan Garcia via Flickr

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