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Virgil Abloh. Photo: Myles Kalus Anak Jihem/Wikipedia Commons.
Virgil Abloh. Photo: Myles Kalus Anak Jihem/Wikipedia Commons.

Virgil Abloh (1980–2021)

Visionary designer and artist Virgil Abloh, who built a clothing empire based on the Duchampian notion that an original design need be altered only 3 percent in order to stand as new, died in Chicago on November 28 of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He was forty-one years old. Trained as an architect, Abloh turned his attention to clothing after a Rem Koolhaas–designed building he spied being constructed on a college campus inspired him to apply the strictures of architecture to the structure of garments. The founder of unicorn fashion house Off-White, renowned for consistently predicting trends in a highly volatile industry, Abloh at his death was CEO of that company and the artistic director of the Louis Vuitton menswear collection, the first African American to hold such a position at a French luxury brand. An accomplished artist, Abloh collaborated with artists including Takashi Murakami and Jenny Holzer, receiving his first solo museum show, a midcareer retrospective fusing his efforts in art, fashion, and music, in 2019 at the Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA); the show became the third most popular in the history of that institution. That same year, he cofounded the Figure Skating Collective, with the goal of elevating young Black multidisciplinary artists and of contextualizing Black identity within design.

Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanian immigrant parents. His father ran a paint company, while his mother worked as a seamstress. On graduating from Boylan Catholic High School, he departed for the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he earned his bachelor of science in civil engineering. While studying for a master’s degree in architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Abloh, who had learned from his mother how to sew, apprehended the aforementioned Koolhaas building. Around this time, he began designing for T-shirts and contributing regular articles so to the fashion blog The Brilliance. In 2009, Abloh moved to Rome, where he interned at Fendi alongside rapper Kanye West, whom he had met in Chicago while working on his tees in a print shop. The two began collaborating, and the following year, West named Abloh the creative director of Donda, the creative agency he had named for his mother.

Following a brief stint screen-printing designs on deadstock Ralph Lauren garments and selling them for more than ten times the price at which he had obtained them, Abloh in 2013 founded streetwear brand Off-White, whose moniker he cited as referring to the gray area between black and white. His debut collection for the label, which referenced both Caravaggio and the Bauhaus, was mainly themed around Farnsworth House, the floating glass house designed by Mies van der Rohe in Plano, Illinois. Abloh would reference the structure’s transparency in projects spanning multiple fields, including a clear suitcase for a luggage manufacturer, and a transparent CDJ and mixer for a turntable maker, which was later displayed at the MCA. He frequently incorporated quotation marks in his designs, meant to signify irony and difference; another frequent theme was yellow barricade tape. Abloh brought these and other elements to bear in work that remained fresh despite such constants, the rising tide of Off-White raising the ships of other streetwear brands, with the end result that many of the fashions once regarded as the provenance of inner-city teens are now widely considered to be luxury products. Perhaps hewing to the old adage “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Vuitton in 2018 appointed Abloh artistic director of its menswear collection: This past summer, its parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, announced it would buy a majority stake in Off-White.

Rabidly creative, Abloh kept irons in multiple fires even as Off-White continued to surge. Chief among his many endeavors—which included working as a DJ, hosting a radio show, collaborating on furniture collections, and dressing Hailey Bieber for her wedding and Serena Williams for the US open—was art. Abloh often teamed up with neoconceptual artist Jenny Holzer, with whom he designed a clothing line in 2017 in support of immigration and cultural integration. Later that same year, he and Holzer joined forces to design a T-shirt in aid of Planned Parenthood. Another frequent collaborator was the equally energetic Murakami: Abloh showed at the Japanese artist’s Tokyo gallery before working with him on exhibitions for three of megagallery Gagosian’s outposts in 2018. The following year, Abloh’s inaugural museum exhibition, “Figures of Speech,” launched at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago before traveling to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; and the Brooklyn Museum.

In addition to cofounding the Figure Skating collective in 2019, he established the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund in 2020 to support Black students interested in fashion. “Diversity isn’t just a question of gender and ethnicity,” he told Numéro earlier this year. “It’s a question of experience. It brings new ideas to the table. And it would be good if the fashion industry actually listened and took them on board.”