The fashion designer Virgil Abloh stands with his person and brand Off-White like no other for the triumph of streetwear in the world of luxury fashion. The crowning achievement of his fashion career came with his appointment as creative director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. But this appointment meant much more than a career move for Abloh, it set a marker for many - namely that a son of Ghanaian immigrants in the US could make it to the top of one of the world's biggest luxury fashion houses.
Abloh himself was aware of his representative role and used it to promote other creatives. So it's no surprise that people around the world are mourning the loss of a generous all-round creative with an almost inexhaustible creative drive, who passed away far too soon.
Virgil Abloh was more than a fashion designer. He acted as an inexhaustible trailblazer for the "next generation" of creative minds in fashion, art and music."Thank you for being the mentor we needed as a generation. We felt seen and heard. I felt seen. You changed my life and the lives of so many others," Amsterdam rapper Yung Nnelg wrote on the social network Instagram on Sunday.
And how did Abloh himself see it? "I act according to my own rules, my own logic, and I'm not afraid. And I focus on progress. (...) We are creating a global community, beyond elitism and territoriality, as can happen in subcultures," the fashion designer said in an interview with L'Uomo Vogue this year.
He helped bring attention to talent by launching collaborations with labels like Daily Paper or adding young brands like Post Archive Faction to Off-White's store assortment.
"You can do it too,' Virgil Abloh said after the 2018 Louis Vuitton show, encouraging the Post Archive Faction to forge their own path. "Without him, we wouldn't be here today. And so are many around the world," the label wrote on Instagram.
Since last year, Abloh has been giving tips via his freely available online course "Free Game," and many YouTube videos show how he has been a mentor for brands like St-Dié and Physical Novel. He launched the "Post-Modern" scholarship fund for creatives with African-American backgrounds in 2020, which he endowed with a million US dollars together with companies like Louis Vuitton, Farfetch and Evian.
The all-around genius behind viral collabs
When you think of Virgil Abloh and Off-White, you can't help but think of streetwear and the numerous collaborations. It was here that Abloh's versatility was revealed in his approach. He designed deconstructed Nike sneakers and provided them with his iconic orange label. For furniture giant Ikea, he created watches with the words "temporary" and rugs with the "Keep Off"; all in quotation marks and with the over-the-top ironic statements that would become his trademark alongside the Arrow logo.
Through these conceptual stylistic devices and references, Abloh played with the boundaries of design and art. So it was not far-fetched to release a capsule collection with the Louvre Museum in Paris in 2019, in which Virgil Abloh paid tribute to the Italian painter and universal genius Leonardo Da Vinci.
"I was fascinated by Da Vinci from an early age (...) I was interested not only in his artworks, but also in the influence he had on many other disciplines besides art: science, technology, architecture... For me, he symbolizes everything that made up the Renaissance," Virgil Abloh told us, in a statement released by the Louvre.
But it doesn't stop with collabs and his own interior line Off-White Home, Abloh also designed SUVs for Mercedes and a "functional work of art" including a soundtrack for the 100th anniversary of home appliance manufacturer Braun. In his designs, it's never enough for him to just add his label, he always dove deep into the archive.
Abloh: "I imagine things and I create them"
He laid the groundwork for his own omnichannelism long before he founded Off-White. His mother taught him to sew, and he first earned a bachelor's degree in civil engineering, followed by a master's in architecture in 2006. His friendship with US rapper Kanye West led him to Paris Fashion Week in 2009 and an internship at Italian fashion house Fendi.
He saw his own label Off-White as a multi-platform creative venture, where he combined ideas from streetwear, luxury, art, music and travel. The brand also defines itself as "the gray area between black and white, as the color Off-White."
The theme of travel was not only implemented at Off-White through collaborations with suitcase manufacturer Rimowa, but also flowed into the design language. A yellow belt reminiscent of a tightening strap became an it-piece for the streetwear brand and later part of other pieces like handbags.
"I think of things and I make them. I try to think of a whole work, not a medium," Virgil Abloh said in an interview with CNN when he presented his furniture designs at Art Basel Miami. Finally, it should not be forgotten that Off-White also got its beginnings in a work of art "Pyrex Vision" by Abloh.
Streetwear pieces like hoodies and sneakers are probably the symbol of Off-White. However, especially in womenswear, Abloh also created pieces that don't necessarily fit the streetwear image. At Louis Vuitton, he combined streetwear and high fashion with his own roots. For SS22, he brought gaudy suits, traditional Ghanaian Kente fabric and an overload of logos and modern prints like clouds into one collection. In doing so, he brought a breath of fresh air to the French fashion house and made the brand more tangible to a younger audience.
The sets of Off-White and Louis Vuitton's fashion shows also featured groundbreaking conceptual backdrops that fit into the designer's creative process. For Off-White's SS19 collection, digital elements and physical show blurred together - even before the Corona pandemic. Green screens, which transported guests into a visual world, met an artificial outdoor landscape.Abloh's concepts took on increasingly larger dimensions at Louis Vuitton. For the SS20 Louis Vuitton collection, he threw a block party in a Paris neighborhood with bouncy castles, balloon animals and lots of guests enjoying the show on park benches and in café settings. Only the fashion house's SS21 shows were an even bigger spectacle. For this, Abloh took his animal friends on a seasonless traveling presentation that kicked off in Shanghai. Giant inflated objects and creatures floated down the runway between branded containers. Louis Vuitton Men’s SS20 | Video: Louis Vuitton
Arguably one of the designer's most memorable shows was the Louis Vuitton Men's SS19 presentation, where he sent models down a rainbow catwalk. However, it is not necessarily the show itself that we will remember, but more the finale. As usual for designers: Abloh shows up on the catwalk, and goes to his friend Kanye West. He closes his debut at the fashion house with an emotional hug, making a statement for him and the next generation.
"Like some kids today, I started this surreal mission without 'fashion school', but with a blank T-shirt, a screen-printed idea and a dream. As a nod to that, on each seat is a graphic T-shirt I made in the early days of Louis Vuitton after learning how to use the photocopier in the office," Abloh wrote in an Instagram post ahead of his LV debut.
DJ Virgil Abloh
The fashion designer has also been in the music scene - and not just through friendships with artists like Kanye West. In addition to art directing West and Jay-Z's album "Watch the Throne," he also takes the stage as a DJ. He performed at fashion events like the Tom Ford SS19 aftershow party in New York, Jimmy Choo's 20th anniversary event, and the G-Star flagship opening event with Pharrell Williams. But he also spun the turntables at festivals like Lollapalooza 2018, Coachella 2019 or at Melt (2019) on the Ferropolis grounds in Gräfenhainichen.
When his friend and fashion designer Heron Preston presented his collection "For you, the world" at Milan retailer Antonioli in 2017, Abloh DJed at the aftershow party. One of the author:s of this obituary was also at that event and remembers wearing one of the off-white belts as a clasp for a crop top. Abloh walked into the store, spotted the look and complimented it with a smile. That's how down to earth, approachable and warm he will be remembered.
This article was written by Ole Spötter and Weixin Zha, translated and edited to English by Kelly Press.