Virgil Abloh’s death at age 41 from a rare form of cancer sent shock waves not through only the fashion world but also the broader culture, from music to the skate scene, where his roots lay, to his native state of Illinois.
“For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma,” read the Instagram post announcing his death on Nov. 28. “He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art and culture.”
The Ghanaian-American designer turned his architecture training into a career as a creative director for one of the biggest acts in music, Kanye West. Abloh combined his affinity for music, skate and street culture into a creative vision and cultural phenomena that has influenced generations of youth culture.
After West hired Abloh in 2007, the duo took off to exploring the fashion world initially as students before being advised to be interns at Fendi. Shortly after Fendi, Abloh with Don C opened RSVP Gallery, a luxury, contemporary fashion and streetwear boutique in Chicago that offered a glimpse into Abloh’s tastes and influences, including luxury fashion, streetwear and contemporary art.
While operating RSVP Gallery, he designed Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne tour stage with artist Es Devlin as well as West’s Yeezus tour, also with Devlin, and designed album covers for West, rappers Pusha T and A$AP Rocky among others.
He launched DJ collective Been Trill with Preston, Matthew Williams, Justin Saunders and Florencia Galarza, and made his first venture into fashion with Pyrex Vision. The project sat at the center of American men’s wear, expanding the lexicon beyond tailoring and American prep. While many men in New York City were donning plaid blazers with elbow patches and monkstrap shoes, Pyrex helped introduce a new wave of streetwear that was dark and edgy, but with slightly new sensibilities that were a departure from typical streetwear inspirations like hip-hop music and skate. Though Pyrex’s roots were in rap music, the graphics borrowed from classic European artworks and sculptures, all of which extends from Abloh’s vision for West in the early 2010s.
Abloh expanded on concepts explored with Pyrex and with West through Off-White, his first official fashion venture. Off-White picked up where Pyrex left off, producing denim and plaid shirts bearing words “White” instead of “Pyrex,” and introducing motifs that would become signatures like slant stripes, zip ties and quotation marks. The latter is now synonymous with Abloh, immortalized in his collaborations, accessories, artwork and even the “Figures of Speech” exhibition book.
Off-White was a finalist for the LVMH Prize in 2015 with the likes of Craig Green, Demna Gvasalia, and winners Marques’ Almeida and Jacquemus and scored a slew of collaborations most notably with Nike on a series called “The Ten” that featured reinterpretations of Nike’s top 10 sneakers, and with Ikea on furniture and decor for the Markerad collection. Abloh also teamed with Rimowa, Timberland, Moncler and Jimmy Choo among other fashion partnerships, with Evian and Mercedes-Benz for lifestyle partnerships and with artists Takashi Murakami on artwork that they exhibited together in 2018.
Also in 2018, Abloh was named Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director, marking him as the first Black American to hold the position at LVMH. The move marked a new direction for the house that seasons prior had collaborated with streetwear brand Supreme on a capsule collection under Kim Jones’ tenure. Abloh would team with Bape and Human Made founder Nigo and introduce Louis Vuitton’s first skate shoe and skate ambassador, Lucien Clarke, as well as tap into pop culture icons and references from Black American culture and the African diaspora, as seen in his Michael Jackson-inspired collection for FW19 and FW21.
“Being one of the few designers of color that shows on the Parisian schedule, in a way, I’m a figurehead for a movement for diversity,” Abloh said for his FW21 collection. “I frankly don’t want those things to just be a moment.”
Much of Louis Vuitton’s recent tributes to Abloh call back to his first show for the house, like the rainbow runway floor and the paper airplane he threw on the empty runway.
In 2019, Abloh was debuting collections for Louis Vuitton and Off-White, performing DJ sets and exhibiting his many works for his first solo exhibition “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” beginning at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and traveling to global museums as well. These mega projects were operating concurrently before he announced his doctor-advised break in September 2019.
Abloh’s passing this year is still shocking considering his young age and how much he had accomplished in such a short span of time, but his story will go down in history as one of the greatest legacies in fashion.
Few knew of Abloh’s condition, which makes his moves during that time even more remarkable. While many were outraged and focused on Abloh’s controversial $50 donation to the Fempower Community Bail Fund in 2020, which sought to provide bail funds for BLM protesters, he also launched his “I Support Young Black Businesses” T-shirts to raise funds for Chicago CRED; raffled the Off-White x Air Jordan IV “Sail” sneakers to raise money for HugsNoSlugs; kicked off his “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund to provide scholarships for Black students and a partnership with the Fashion Scholarship Fund, and launched his Free Game series where he offered insight into how to start a brand.
The following year saw debuts of his latest Louis Vuitton and Off-White collections and a milestone move that saw LVMH acquire a large percentage of Off-White and in return Abloh would get a bigger role working on LVMH’s wine and spirits and hospitality categories. All of this came in just a short span of time before his untimely passing.
There was an outpouring of tributes to the late designer on Nov. 28, as the likes of Bernard Arnault, Silvia Venturini Fendi, Ev Bravado, and Brick Owens and Dieter Grams expressed their love for the multihyphenate, shared their gratitude and explained how much he was an inspiration in their careers and lives.
Longtime friend and fellow Been Trill member Heron Preston had much to share following Abloh’s passing, including moments together behind the DJ booth and throughout their travels.
“Over nearly the past 20 years I was blessed and fortunate enough to call Virgil Abloh my brother, my best friend, my business partner, a collaborator and mentor. I LOVE YOU VIRGIL! Thank you for believing in me and pushing me. My heart is heavy. I miss you sooo much! You were so incredibly loved and appreciated,” said Preston’s Instagram post on Nov. 29.
The world had a chance to say goodbye to Abloh at the Louis Vuitton spring 2022 show in Miami during Art Basel. Many of his friends, including Bella Hadid, Pharrell Williams, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, Luka Sabbat and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, attended the spin-off show that was equally a tribute to Abloh’s tenure at the house.
A three-story-tall multicolor sculpture of Abloh greeted guests at the event, but the farewell drone light show evoked tears from viewers all over the world when the drones formed a paper airplane and the sentence “Virgil was here.”
The show made Abloh’s passing feel more real, and his contributions to Louis Vuitton and pop culture so much more appreciated. In the same week, Mercedes-Benz, as planned in advance, revealed its final collaboration with Abloh, which was opened to the public at the Rubell Museum in Miami at the wishes of Abloh’s family.
Louis Vuitton opened its second stand-alone men’s store in Miami and dedicated the windows of its global stores in New York, Seoul, Tokyo, Osaka, London, Moscow, Taipei, Los Angeles, Chicago, Singapore, Istanbul, Sydney, Bangkok, Milan and Madrid to Abloh.
Also, works attached to Abloh’s name skyrocketed in price following his passing, including Nike x Off-White sneakers from “The Ten” project and more recently artwork of Abloh by pop artist and painter Rob Prior sold for $1 million and came with an NFT version created by QNFT.
The outpouring of responses to Abloh’s impact speaks to the multihyphenate’s storied career and unconventional path that has touched so many lives.