Virgil Abloh Made His Life Into a Fairytale—and Then Made it the Blueprint for Fashion
The Off-White and Louis Vuitton designer encouraged a generation of men to treat fashion as a subculture, and to dream.
Virgil Abloh, who died on Sunday of a rare form of cancer at the age of 41, believed in fairytales. His “The Ten” collaboration with Nike, in 2017, saw him run rampant like a kid in the Nike archive, cross-pollinating Nikes with Converse (which was then a big no-no), and remixing the canon of Air Maxes, Air Presto, and VaporMaxes with his already signature deconstruction, quote marks, and zipties. Soon after, he built an Off-White runway show themed around Princess Diana—another great believer in fables, and a pure spirit with an unwavering conviction that whatever she dreamed could and should be made real. Then there was his debut as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, in 2018, which was his take on The Wiz. The symbolism was blunt, but no less powerful for it: Abloh, a Black American designer at a Paris men’s luxury house, had made it to that magical other side of the rainbow. For his most recent Vuitton show, he reworked the visual and aural mechanics of GZA’s classic Liquid Swords. What all those stories share (like all fairytales, really) is a hero who, against all the odds, gets everything he’s ever wanted. What they also share: strangeness; magic; a respect, even love, for the obvious. Fairy tales happen in their own universe with their own logic, too pure for our cynical world. That was Virgil Abloh.
Abloh rose through the ranks of fashion as designers almost never do; his was more like a musician’s route to overnight stardom than a designer’s. But the path he carved was almost instantly followed by his friends, peers, and even mentors: Heron Preston and Matthew Williams, but also Nigo, Kanye West, and Kim Jones. West, of course, is a central pillar in Abloh’s story. After earning degrees in engineering and architecture at the University of Wisconsin and the Illinois Institute of Technology, Abloh befriended the rapper, serving as his creative director during West’s earliest sustained engagement with the fashion industry. Eventually, the two would intern at Fendi. (They also starred in that iconic Paris Fashion Week photograph taken by Tommy Ton in 2009, along with Fonzworth Bentley, Don C, Chris Julian, and Taz Arnold in their prepped-out Louis Vuitton Don finery.)
He emerged from under West’s wing in 2012 with Pyrex Vision, which was an early experiment in his philosophy of borrowing, remixing, and sometimes just stealing. He famously screenprinted on button-up shirts by Rugby, the now-defunct diffusion line by Ralph Lauren. (Lauren, another pure dreamer, is a similar fairytale prince of American menswear.) Even the menswear world, weaned on Supreme, Raf Simons, and Mark McNairy, had trouble squaring him at first; Jian Deleon, writing for Four Pins, unpacked the Pyrex-Rugby contretemps this way: “It’s highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, slapped ‘Pyrex 23’ on the back, and re-sold them for an astonishing markup of about 700%.” That’s pretty much what Abloh did—half in the spirit of bootleg fashion, and half in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp. Abloh famously reprinted Deleon’s line on a rug in his showroom—from the beginning, he had the spirit of a proud autodidact, shameless because he was guileless. With Preston and Williams, he launched the DJ and streetwear collective Been Trill, which retained a cult sensibility, but with the launch of Off-White in 2013 and particularly that first Nike collection, his reputation and popularity suddenly jolted forward. By March of 2018, he was named as Kim Jones’s successor at Louis Vuitton.
Of course, he was more like a musician than a fashion designer, and along with West, Abloh was the key figure in transforming menswear into the cultural phenomenon it is today. The industry currently operates in the mold he created—collaboration crazy, streetwear heavy, pairing unlikely businesses and talents together, treating brands like Evian and Arc’Teryx as sacred and intriguing as any luxury house, and cultivating a community rather than mere customers. But it seems clear that there will never be another Abloh. In part this is thanks to his history-making life, and the possibilities he created simply by being a creative and powerful Black man in rooms both prestigious and underground. But it’s also because the world he leaves is fundamentally different than the one he entered: he was the shaman for a generation of young men who obsess over fashion the way previous generations of young men obsessed over sports or music. He encouraged men to cultivate a love for clothes, teaching them to see fashion as a subculture deserving of scrutiny and study like any other. Back when Phoebe Philo was just the cool woman’s favorite designer, he was shouting her name from the rooftops, and wearing her clothes in photoshoots for local Chicago style magazines. Abloh took a break from fashion in September of 2019. When he returned, at Paris Men’s Fashion Week in early 2020, his Off-White had a new sense of grace, even a sweetness, to it. It was then, too, that his Vuitton began to hit its stride: his silhouettes became more majestic, more free-flowing. They incorporated the archetypes Abloh loved, but also understood, as other designers are now scrambling to figure out, the way that consumers, especially young and nonwhite ones, interact with and care about luxury. His Covid-era films—including January’s “Peculiar Contrast, Perfect Light” and June’s “Amen Break”—were some of the most engaging produced by any designer. He seized the moment, almost as if he had decided to take his own work more seriously. He began working with the stylist Ib Kamara, now the editor of Dazed, whose muscular, maximalist eye, combined with Abloh’s boyish zeal for a hundred ideas at once, elevated the clothes into something splendid and aggressive. Like most great artists, he rarely judged—he was curious instead of dismissive, and seemingly always searching. In fashion, curiosity is rarely received well when it isn’t paired with shrewdness, and this made Abloh a controversial figure. He treated thinking as a luxury pursuit, and loved products. If his name appeared alongside too many other brands, before too many X’s, it was not because he was a sellout—it was because he simply loved making stuff. Indeed, Abloh could never have been a sellout, because he was too idealistic about everything to ever compromise himself. His adoration was often too much for critics and self-proclaimed fashion snobs who disliked the ease with which he quoted from and copied other designers; it often seemed that everything he loved he had to have for himself. Robin Givhan, for example, wrote a scathing review of Abloh’s Off-White womenswear show in February of 2020, and the high-fashion corridors of the internet erupted in a fury when Vanessa Friedman suggested Abloh was the millennial Karl Lagerfeld. But over the past year or so, he had begun doing something spectacular, something sophisticated and a little provocative, and therefore, I felt, genius—which was explaining his love for quoting and copying as a kind of sampling. While the rest of the fashion industry saw knockoffs as the art form’s cardinal sin, he understood originality to be impossible. The copying, in other words, was the point, and it provided a way of thinking and learning for young men. He was well aware, particularly as he led Louis Vuitton, of his role not merely as a culture shaper and influencer, but as an educator, someone whose taste and way of being in the worlds of fashion, art, and corporate industry showed his followers a way to live and dream. Whose way of learning and thinking could help young men live and dream too. (Whenever I scanned that seasonally updated list of terms he circulated for his Vuitton shows, packed with phrases like
“Black Imagination,” “Pinstripe,” and “Manmade Invention,” I always thought of that great Ghostface line: “You should be studying your arts instead of studying me!”)
At the time of his passing, Abloh was busy once more reinventing his place in the industry and fashion history. He had been appointed to an unprecedented job in LVMH’s corporate ranks, charged with lending his touch to everything across the conglomerate’s portfolio. An impossible job, but one that seemed to make sense for Abloh. I’ve followed and written about him for nearly a decade now, but I was never more interested in his fashion and philosophy than I was over the past ten months. He was in the midst of making his dreams come true.