The fashion world has lost a driving force with the news that Louis Vuitton and Off-White designer Virgil Abloh has died aged 41. The African-American talent was privately suffering from a rare cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma, it has been revealed in the wake of his death.
“We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved Virgil Abloh,” a post on his Instagram account read.
“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. 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.”
Who was Virgil Abloh?
Born in 1980 in Rockford, Illinois, Abloh held degrees in civil engineering and architecture, but didn't start designing clothes until 2012.
His first work, a printed take on a Ralph Lauren rugby top, showed his desire to combine art and fashion, and in 2013 he founded his own label, Off-White. As an African-American, the name was a nod to the bias felt by people of colour.
Characterised by a subversive outlook, his work for the label often had words written on pieces, or were finished with cable ties. He had "Air" written on Nike Air trainers, for example, and he once put an image of the Mona Lisa on a T-shirt, drawing accusations of infringing trademark.
Regardless of the controversy, Abloh won a devoted following for his work, which straddled streetwear and high-end, and in 2018, he was appointed as the menswear designer for French maison Louis Vuitton, making him the first person of colour to hold the position. That same year, he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Abloh was also long-time creative director for Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, as the pair served fashion internships together at Fendi. As the news broke of Abloh’s death, Ye dedicated his Sunday Service to his friend. A choir sang Adele's song Easy On Me, which was streamed live on dondalive.com.
Abloh designed the album covers for Ye’s and Jay-Z’s joint album Watch the Throne, as well as Ye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Through Off-White, Abloh collaborated with companies as diverse as Ikea, Perrier and Mercedes-Benz, deliberately blurring the lines between fashion and design. Taking inspiration from almost anywhere, Abloh frequently faced criticism for being too literal, yet a recurring theme at Off-White was tongue-in-cheek critique of mindless consumerism.
At Louis Vuitton, meanwhile, he was able to flex his designer muscles, using the skill of the house to execute some truly dazzling work that questioned the rigid lines of menswear. He introduced oversized layers, often worn with sharply tailored jackets, and dressed his models in durags and trilby hats. He put models in skirts, and added pleated panels to shorts and trousers. Waists became defined with tight belts, and shoulders took on exaggerated width through padding.
Skilled at grabbing headlines, Abloh knew that a bag made to look like a plane, for example, would guarantee worldwide coverage, yet he was still a clever and subtle designer who brought streetwear culture to the hallowed halls of high fashion.
Under his control, Louis Vuitton embraced a wider, more diverse community, as Abloh put models of colour front and centre of his work, in a shift for the French house. At the height of the pandemic, he presented his collections as filmed tableaux with an all-black cast, with dancers to set the tone.
His work was daring, yet beautiful, and always underpinned by personal experience and intensive research. For spring 2022, for example, his collection for Louis Vuitton referenced what he regarded as the ongoing theft of black culture, with the clothes accompanied by some 40 pages of show notes, setting out his thoughts.
British Vogue editor Edward Enninful described Abloh as “a giant among men".
“Virgil Abloh changed the fashion industry. Famously prolific, he always worked for a greater cause than his own illustrious career: to open the door to art and fashion for future generations, so that they – unlike himself – would grow up in a creative world with people to mirror themselves in."
Bernard Arnault, chief executive of LVMH, owner of Off-White and Louis Vuitton, said: “Virgil was not only a genius designer – a visionary – he was also a man with a beautiful soul and a great wisdom.”