FASHION FEATURES

Philanthropist and fashion maverick: Virgil Abloh was one of the industry’s brightest stars

As the fashion designer passes away aged 41, Olivia Petter looks back on his lasting legacy on the industry

Monday 29 November 2021 11:45
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“Even when the world felt sad, he brought laughter and colour and beauty.”

It’s a beautiful sentiment, written by Bella Hadid, and it’s just one of the many ways Virgil Abloh will be remembered. On Sunday, it was announced that the esteemed fashion designer had passed away aged 41, following a two-year battle with cancer.

Abloh, who was the creative director for Louis Vuitton and Off-White, had been diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer called cardiac angiosarcoma.

“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,” read a statement issued by his family on his Instagram page.

“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.”

The news has sent shockwaves through the fashion industry, with many models, designers, and other leading figures paying tribute to Abloh and the seismic impact he had in his field.

Born in 1980 in Rockford Illinois, Abloh first developed an interest in fashion as a result of his love of skateboarding. He enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study civil engineering, and later at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he met Kanye West. The rapper was so impressed with Abloh that he employed him as his creative director in 2002.

Slowly, over the course of the next decade, Abloh made his mark on the fashion industry, launching his own brand Off-White in 2013, which quickly became one of the most transgressive and sought-after streetwear brands. In 2015, it was nominated for the LVMH Prize.

Three years later, in 2018, Abloh was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear division, making him one of two (alongside Olivier Rousteing at Balmain) black designers in the top design role at a Parisian fashion house.

During his tenure at Off-White and Louis Vuitton, Abloh collaborated with everyone from Nike and Ikea, to Perrier and Mercedes-Benz. He was renowned for his subversive streetwear designs but also for his innovation; his collections for Off-White often merged high-fashion with athleisure, for example.

Abloh was also credited for bringing the worlds of fashion and music together through his work, having cast Korean pop icons BTS in one of his shows for Louis Vuitton earlier this year and employing them as brand ambassadors.

But he was versatile, too, pivoting to preppy aesthetics in 2017 to launch a collection at Off-White inspired entirely by Princess Diana to mark the 20th anniversary of her death. With polka dot frocks, double-breasted tailored suits, and cycling shorts aplenty, the collection was a creative reimagining of the late Princess’s revered style.

There were some notable designs in particular, such as the plane-shaped bag Abloh created for Louis Vuitton that, at $39,000 (around £28,000), famously cost more than some actual planes.

Abloh’s impact transcended fashion too. In 2017, the designer created a uniform for a team of recently immigrated football players in Paris, the Melting Passes, who were excluded from playing in official competitions due to their lack of residency status. The designer later invited them to watch one of his Off-White shows.

Meanwhile, his debut collection for Louis Vuitton was shown at the Tuileries in 2018 with 3,000 students in attendance. Never one to lose sight of his passion for skateboarding, Abloh supported skateboarders and surfers in Ghana, where his parents were born, and funded the mending of park and play facilities in Chicago, which was where he called home.

Abloh was also a keen advocate for supporting young black designers, and in 2020 launched a mentorship series “Free Game”, through which he shared tools and lessons he had learned throughout his career.

He was also appointed to the Fashion Scholarship Fund Board of Governors, a role that enabled him to provide scholarships and internships, mentoring and professional development opportunities for students entering the fashion industry.

Donatella Versace described Abloh as “an innovator”, while Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli credited Abloh with having “changed the game of fashion with his disruptive humanity and curiosity.”

Elsewhere, Hailey Bieber - whose wedding dress Abloh designed - said he “changed the way” she looked at fashion, while Kendall Jenner explained that Abloh’s decision to go through cancer privately “perfectly explains the type of man he was, he never wanted anyone to worry about him”.

Edward Enninful, editor-in-chief of British Vogue said: “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.”

Abloh is survived by his wife Shannon and their two children: Lowe and Grey.

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