Virgil Abloh: Designer for Our Generation

Will Gillette '22

It was recently announced on November 29, 2021 that fashion revolutionary Virgil Abloh tragically passed away after a two-year battle with a rare form of cancer. This news shocked more than just the fashion world as Abloh had become a household name. In 2018, Virgil became the first black creative director for Louis Vutton Menswear, a crowning achievement for anyone in fashion. He was much more than that though: he was a father, a friend, a musician, and an all around kind human who loved to create and teach. 

Understanding Abloh is a hard task- he is a multidisciplinary artist. But considering his upbringing and transformation to how he got to such a high position is one way to get a deeper look into his life, and is a truly inspiring journey in general. He was born from Ghanian immigrants right outside Chicago, Illonois. His mother taught him how to sew, and thus his interest in fashion started at a young age. He actually got his master’s in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology. Despite this lack of “formal” fashion knowledge, his other avenues of interests were key to his success and creativity. For example, his knowledge of architecture is not only useful and seen in his clothing, but allowed for him to help create beautiful storefronts and runway shows. 

In addition to his interest in architecture, he still always had a passion for clothing. While he was working in a Chicago screen-printing store in 2009, he met lifelong friend and fellow creative, Kanye West. Kanye West needs no introduction, but his relationship with Virgil is instrumental in Virgil’s success. Later that year, they both interned at Fendi, only making a few $100 dollars. Michael Burke, a former chairman at LVMH (parent company of Louis Vuitton), who was a chairman at Fendi at the time of the duo's internship, said "I paid them 500 dollars a month! I was really impressed by the news they brought to the studio, they were disruptive in the best sense of the term" according to NSS magazine on February 16, 2021. Despite their low position, it’s clear Virgil and Kanye already had impressive and unique ideas they brought to the high fashion world. 

2012 was a breakthrough year for Virgil. Nonetheless, he was still working hard up until this year after his Fendi internship. He was designing album covers for artists like Kanye West, Chief Keef, and more. He also was an avid DJ, often seen behind the turntable at many high profile events. Virgil was tapped into so many different scenes and this allowed him to bring unprecedented ideas and people to fashion. This was first seen in some of his first brands, Pyrex and #BEEN #TRILL. Pyrex and #BEEN #TRILL was a seemingly simple clothing brand; Virgil would buy shirts, flannels, shorts, and other simple clothing items and screen print simple graphics on them and charge upwards 400% of what he bought the original for. While many people may see this as “boring” or “lazy,” there’s much more to it than that. At the time in 2012, those in the internet age were just old enough to really get into fashion on their own terms. Gen-Z wanted to be loud, wanted to be heard, and wanted to be cool, and Pyrex combined with #BEEN #TRILL were some of the first brands to do so. The bold graphics were often seen on Virgil and the other members of the brands team, Heron Preston and Matthew Williams (now creative designer at Givenchy). Whether it be on the streets of NYC or at an underground DJ set, these brands would turn heads and wallets. These brands were really the godfathers of streetwear, a style that defined the 21st century. Virgil was one of the first creatives to see the wants and needs of this generation, and listened. After being seen on many upcoming celebrities like Travis Scott and others, Virgil changed Pyrex to Off-White, his first take in high-fashion in his own terms.

Virgil defined Off-White as “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.” Off-White, while Virgil wanted its main interest to be in fashion, is a combination of so many things in between such as music, architecture, and art. While Pyrex and #BEEN #TRILL was Virgil’s start in fashion and really redefined this generation's fashion, Off-White took it to the next level. Gen-Z wanted to rebel against traditional couture, and Off-White fuelled this rebellion with its ironic and bright nature. From having a print vandalizing the Mona Lisa on a sweatshirt, to having a print on a scarf that says “SCARF,” everything Virgil did at Off-White was new and disruptive. Off-White quickly became a hit, having a runway show at Paris Fashion Week in 2014. In 2017 Virgil solidified himself in fashion history with a collaboration between Off-White and Nike named “the ten.”

This collaboration revived Nike back to the top of the shoe world. Until this collaboration, Adidas was the hottest sneaker brand- mostly because they have Virgil’s friend Kanye as an ambassador and collaborator. But Virgil reinvented 10 classic Nike silhouettes, for example putting a fresh new take on the Jordan as he filled it with signature Virgil designs like quotation marks and stitches; these new designs shocked the sneaker world. These became the hottest sneakers in the world, and in turn gave Nike back the crown for best sneaker brand. This collaboration is still ongoing 4 years later, as Off-White and Nike just released a new capsule of Nike Dunks this year.

In 2018 Virgil cemented his position in fashion history after being appointed mens creative director at Louis Vuitton. In doing so he became Louis Vuitton's first black creative director and one of the few creative directors for a top fashion label, two tremendous achievements. Virgil commented on these achievements saying “This opportunity to think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean at a brand that represents the pinnacle of luxury was always a goal in my wildest dreams. And to show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look is a fantastically modern spirit in which to start” according to the New York Times on March 26, 2018. Virgil has always been an inspiration to so many young designers, and his leadership at Louis Vuitton gave hope to this new generation, especially to those who are more disenfranchised. 

One example of Virgil’s sincerity was seen in his ability to help others. He is extremely open about his thought process, often seen interacting with people in his Instagram comments to help them understand his design approach. However, he also helped on a much larger scale as he started a charity called the “VIRGIL ABLOH™️ “POST-MODERN” SCHOLARSHIP FUND.” (https://secure.givelively.org/donate/fashion-scholarship-fund/fashion-scholarship-fund) Not only does this charity help raise scholarship money for designers who identify as Black, African-American, or of African descent, but also helps them with career support. This sort of empathy for young people was unprecedented in the fashion industry, yet Virgil made it extremely important to his brand.

Virgil’s death is one of the first tragic celebrity deaths that truly shocked and upset this generation. Nonetheless, his fame was so successful that he became a household name. It’s not so often that someone can bridge generational gaps but Virgil's creativity was so innovative that anyone could find something impressive about him. His last show at Louis Vuitton was unveiled last week in Miami titled “Virgil Was Here,” a sentimental title to his short yet profound time at the brand. After his death, the fashion community was shocked and the multitude of  people giving support shows how everyone loved Virgil. Tributes to him show us that he was so much more than one of the 21st century's greatest designer’s, but he was a friend, a teacher, and a great human being. 

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