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Virgil Abloh, Ghanaian-American Trailblazing Fashion Designer, Dies at 41

Virgil Abloh, who rose from American streetwear savant to become, in 2018, the artistic director of men’s wear for Louis Vuitton, and guru to millions with his label, Off-White, died on Sunday, according to a notice published on his Instagram account. He had been privately battling cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer of the heart, since 2019. He was 41 years old.

Abloh, a first-generation Ghanaian-American who had been the creative director to his friend and collaborator Kanye West, was that rare thing in fashion: a name-brand designer whose influence was felt outside of fashion’s usual self-selected niches, a veritable pop-culture icon. Some of this was due to his designs, whose flourishes — his trademark Off-White™ logo, his winky use of quotation marks splattered on clothes, shoes and accessories, the hazard-yellow band liberally applied to handbags and underwear alike — made them instantly recognizable. But it owed just as much to his insistence on remaining culturally omnivorous: DJing, curating, collaborating (with Nike, with Takashi Murakami, with Levi’s, with Ikea), and generally refusing to be limited to the usual avenues of luxury fashion. He was not only the rare American to succeed at a major European house but even rarer, a Black designer in a still predominantly white milieu. And he did it with rare energy, piling projects on projects in multiple time zones and across the world. Nor did it ever seem to sate his fans. Not only had he designed enough before his 40th birthday for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago to hold a retrospective, but it was also extended, by popular demand.

It represented gatecrashing of the highest order, success at the highest echelons of an industry that hadn’t always been interested in his contributions. This success influenced a generation of Black designers and influencers. Victor Glemaud, a designer and creator of In the Blk, a Black fashion collective, said that he was “one of their first and most active members.” Luka Sabbat, a fashion influencer, wrote: “Thank you for breaking boundaries and pushing the conversation forward.”

Born in Rockford, Illinois, to immigrant parents, Abloh first studied engineering, and then architecture. Working for a firm in Chicago, he became involved with the local fashion scene, eventually opening up his shop, RSVP Gallery, and connected with another rising Chicagoan, West. When the two first began showing up at fashion events, they were not always enthusiastically welcomed. A young Virgil is seen at the side of West in a 2009 street-style photo snapped by Tommy Ton in Paris, which led not to an industry embrace but a parody on South Park. When Abloh and West interned together for Fendi in 2010, their contributions weren’t rated too highly, either. “I and Virgil are in Rome, giving designs to Fendi, over and over, and getting our designs knocked down,” West described it to Zane Lowe in a BBC1 interview in 2013, the same year Abloh founded Off-White. “[We] brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said ‘no.’ How many motherfuckers you did see with a leather jogging pant?” Seven years later, LVMH, Fendi’s parent company, had not only hired Abloh for Louis Vuitton, its largest and most treasured brand but giving him an expansive role company-wide, touching its wine and spirits portfolio and its hotels and hospitality brands as well as fashion. (It also purchased a 60 percent majority stake in Off-White, for an undisclosed amount.)

Abloh’s genius was for connecting directly with young fans and young consumers, whose desires and needs he seemed perennially able to anticipate and cater to. “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,” he said. Where he went, lines formed, and what he touched, often sold out (and then sold out again on resale marketplaces). “We have never had a lineup around the block to get into an exhibition,” Nick Simunovic, a director at Gagosian, marvelled to me in 2018 when Abloh and Murakami put up a collaborative show in London, and at least one of his shows during Paris Fashion Week became a mobbed crush, with PRs shepherding harried Vogue editors of a certain age through the fray. His pieces became status symbols for a rising generation of fashion fanatics and, more than ever, fanboys: “Cannot be seen in that shit from the other day,” Gunna rapped on Lil Baby’s “Never Recover.” “Virgil just chef’d me a whole different colourway.” (Not that Abloh’s appeal was limited to young men; Hailey Bieber got married in an Off-White gown, trailing a train reading, Ablohishly, “Till Death Do Us Part,” quotes included.)

 His survivors include his wife, Shannon Abloh; his children, Lowe and Grey; his sister, Edwina Abloh, and his parents, Nee and Eunice Abloh.

Source: The CUT

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