Virgil Abloh – the first black artistic director of Louis Vuitton – has died of cancer at 41, casting the talented fashion designer’s incredible journey from humble beginnings to the pinnacle of high fashion into the spotlight.
Abloh had joined the luxury brand in March 2018 and founded the label Off-White, which LVMH took a 60 percent stake in, about five years earlier.
The iconic late designer had sustained an interest in the fashion industry while helping his Ghanaian seamstress mother sew in their Illinois home.
He had no formal fashion training besides his mother’s instruction, but went on to become a widely-praised fashion trailblazer whose untimely death has prompted an outpouring of grief from celebrity friends and fashion fans.
He then rose to fame decades later, following his collaboration with rapper Kanye West after the pair had interned together for the LVMH brand Fendi in 2009.
Abloh, who also worked as a DJ and artist, revolutionized the fashion world after being hired by Louis Vuitton which saw fresh, modern designs such as streetwear coming to the catwalk.
‘Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,’ Bernard Arnault, the billionaire boss of Louis Vuitton’s owner, French fashion conglomerate LVMH, said in a statement Sunday.
Abloh was born on September 30, 1980 in Rockford, Illinois – near Chicago – to a Ghanaian immigrant mother Eunice, a seamstress, and his father Nee, the manager of a paint company.
From a young age, he would help his mother sew, as he claimed she had taught him the basics of the craft.
He graduated from Boylan Catholic High School in 1998. From there, he went off to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, rather than fashion.
Abloh then completed a master’s degree in architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006.
During his time at IIT, he began gaining an interest in fashion while a building had been under construction on campus by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who had helped build runways for Prada.
He had also designed T-shirts and wrote for fashion blog The Brilliance while he was pursuing his degree.
Then in 2009, Abloh met Kanye West while he was working at a screen-printing store.
The pair then interned together for Fendi at Rome that same year which is where their professional and personal relationship officially began.
West, or Ye, appointed Abloh as the creative director for his agency Donda in 2010 as well as using his skills to design his album covers for Ye’s Yeezus and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Abloh’s work with West then brought him into the limelight and he became one of the most sought out designers in the industry.
He launched his first label Pyrex Vision in 2012 which was meant to represent the significance of youth culture.
The label, however, was later shut down as Abloh did not intend the label to become a commercial enterprise.
A year later, White-Off was created and expanded on Abloh’s fresh and modern visions that combined the concept of luxury streetwear and couture.
The brand had gained an international following in Europe, Asia and North America and continues to be a success.
His designs had used a ‘3% approach’ which highlighted his belief that changing previously-manufactured items by three per cent turned them into an entirely new piece of fashion.
‘We´re designers, so we can start a trend, we can highlight issues, we can make a lot of people focus on something or we can cause a lot of people to focus on ourselves,’ Abloh said.
‘I’m not interested in (the latter). I´m interested in using my platform as one of a very small group of African-American males to design a house, to sort of show people in a poetic way.’
His designs with Louis Vuitton had incorporated the collaboration between streetwear and high fashion with graffiti art, hip hop and skateboard culture being his major influences.
‘Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp,’ Abloh told the New Yorker in 2019, in a reference to groundbreaking artist Marcel Duchamp.
‘It’s this idea of the readymade. I´m talking Lower East Side, New York. It´s like hip-hop. It´s sampling. I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song.’
In 2019, was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma but kept private and continued to work.
His role was expanded by LVMH to launch and collaborate with different brands outside of the fashion industry as well and was also appointed to the board of directors of The Council of Fashion Designers in America.
During his time with the company, he had also been vocal about creating a diverse environment within the fashion industry.
He said he wanted to use his partnership with LVMH ‘to expand opportunities for diverse individuals and foster greater equity and inclusion in the industries we serve.’
Abloh also created a scholarship fund in 2020 to assist aspiring black fashion students.
Celebrities such as Beyoncé, Michael B. Jordan, Kim Kardashian West, Timothée Chalamet and Serena Williams also wore his work throughout his career as he even designed Hailey Bieber’s wedding dress in 2019.
His legacy was admired by these celebrity admirers as well as his friends and family.
Abloh was survived by his wife Shannon Sundberg, who he married in 2009, along with the couple’s two children Lowe and Grey.
‘For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma,’ a message on Abloh’s Instagram said.
‘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.’