Long Live Virgil: The Legacy of the Path-Blazing Fashion Giant
Words: Charlie Lake
On the afternoon of the 28th November, Virgil Abloh’s family posted to his Instagram account, revealing that he had tragically passed away from a rare and aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma, that morning, aged 42. The life of the visionary and devoted family man, who once claimed, “There’s nothing more precious than time” sadly came to an end, but his legacy certainly did not and will not for generations to come.
Starting out, Virgil attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, gaining an undergraduate degree in civil engineering in 2002, and then a further master’s degree in architecture, where his interest in fashion piqued. Following this, in 2009, he became an intern at Fendi in Rome with Kanye West, where he was described as ‘disruptive’ but ‘in the best way possible’, offering a new take and perspective on a brand as old-school and so set in its ways as Fendi. Having formed a strong bond with one another, Ye entrusted the role of creative director of his creative agency ‘Donda’ onto Abloh in 2010. As part of his work for West, he designed the controversial but artistically excellent album artworks for 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2011’s Watch The Throne with Jay-Z and 2013’s Yeezus, to name just a few in his portfolio. Meanwhile, Virgil had started his own clothing line, Pyrex. All items designed under this label featured the number 23 on them, paying homage to his childhood inspiration, Michael Jordan. However, this brand was not half as successful as Abloh’s next fashion and creative venture ‘Off-White’(founded in 2013), which brought together art, music, luxury and fashion.
From the get-go, quotation marks were one of the cornerstones of the high-fashion brand’s aesthetic and they infiltrated every streetwear design in its history. This was thought to be a form of deconstructivism and an ironic, self-referential statement. For example, on wallets and purses designed by Off-White, “For money” was emblazed onto the black leather, a black dress with the words “Little Black Dress” written on it, in quotes. A shoelace on a $700 pair of sneakers with the word “Shoelaces” written on it, in quotes. A scarf with “Scarf” written on it in quotes. It was a unique and bold staple of the brand’s design. Abloh’s architectural background is also evident in Off–White’s design philosophy. The iconography pays homage to a typical American urban city: white arrows, diagonal lines, industrial yellow, and black. His designs flaunt streetwear in a unique light, one that he states in the brand’s name and mission statement as “defining the grey area between black and white”. The brand enjoyed a great deal of attention, especially from 2016 to 2019, with the prices of Off-White Sneakers and clothing items going up by a staggering 450% on the secondary resale market during that period, and still continuing to be highly sought after to this day.
Virgil’s impact on the industry could not be ignored by anyone in the field, thus in 2018 he was appointed creative director of luxury fashion giant Louis Vuitton. This made him the first person of African descent to lead the brand’s menswear line and he was also one of the few black designers at the helm of a major French fashion house. Using the concepts that he had incorporated into Off-White, he changed the meaning of Louis Vuitton to create looks that will be remembered for centuries, such as the bright colour palette used on items such as the signature monogram bags and cross-body satchels. Even each detail of his runways was designed with precision, such as when he built an entire room inspired by the sky and the final scene in the Jim Carrey film The Truman Show, or when he sent a glove to invitees of one of his runway collections, a tribute to the pop legend Michael Jackson who had inspired the clothing capsule. Abloh's final Louis Vuitton runway show for Spring/Summer 2022 (named “Virgil was here”) unveiled the final few designs that he had conceived, whilst also a jubilant celebration of his legacy, with friends and family alike showing out in their hundreds and featuring performances from Kid Cudi and Erykah Badu. It was a fitting finale to his time at Louis Vuitton.
It is hard to track the work of Virgil in so few words, considering just how impactful he was. He climbed his way up the industry with no prior connections to it, something that very few of today’s fashion moguls can claim to have achieved. Virgil was said to “do everything for the 17 year old version of myself” and it goes without saying that his younger self would be proud of how far he made it in the industry he was so drawn in by as a teen.