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REMEMBERING VIRGIL ABLOH: A VISIONARY DESIGNER AND CULTURE PIONEER

REMEMBERING VIRGIL ABLOH: A VISIONARY DESIGNER AND CULTURE PIONEER

by Christopher Kelly
10 min
virgil abloh
@VirgilAbloh ©

A generational mind and a timeless person, Virgil Abloh was and will always be a leader of his community and a constant source of optimism and imagination for all communities. From his unsuspecting beginnings studying Architecture at the Illinois Institue of Technology to building the foundation of a global streetwear empire, Virgil broke down barriers in every industry he entered.  His design style of regal rationality built on the humble hood style of 90s Chicago, elevating street fashion and the Black experience to the highest echelons of high fashion.  He was a true pioneer that looked at the world and his work with wide-eyed innocence, never stopping to question the possibility of his ideas or the validity of his cultural contributions. Whether it be the wonderfully wacky Mercedez X Virgil G-Wagon or the numerous all-time album covers he designed for A$AP Rocky & Kanye, he never got lost in labels or titles and allowed his artistry to elapse into any medium he wanted to express himself through.  

After his sudden passing on Sunday November 28, we are looking back on the road to runway supremacy that enabled him to thread through the fabric of so many facets of contemporary culture whilst mastering them all.  This is: Remembering Virgil Abloh.

KANYE & THE RSVP GALLERY

Brilliance can bloom in the humblest and most unsuspecting of places, in this case, Rockford Illinois. He first learnt to sew from his mother, taking a keen interest in tailoring that wouldn’t reemerge before studying Architecture at IIT where a building was being renovated by frequent Prada collaborator Rem Koolhaas. Whilst working on his designs at a print shop in Chicago, Abloh would meet and form a fast friendship with then-budding backpack rapper Kanye West. The dynamic duo would go on to intern at the Rome headquarters of FENDI before launching the RSVP gallery, a conceptual retail store now celebrating its tenth year on Damen Ave in Chicago.

Kanye West © Jay-Z ©

After Ye appointed Virgil creative director of his creative agency Donda, he turned his attention to the task at hand designing one of the most recognisable album covers of all time, Watch The Throne by Kanye & Jay-Z. 

A PYREX PRODIGY

His first real plunge into the worlds of fashion and independent business came in the form of Pyrex Vision. In 2012 he developed the distinctive deadstock Ralph Lauren reprints as Pyrex flannels began to adorn the shoulders and stages of some of the biggest MCs in the world. Frankly, at an eyeball popping $550 per flannel, they were the only ones that could afford it! Despite being swiftly scorned by a rather miffed kitchen accessory manufacturer, Pyrex catalysed the creative template for his next notable endeavour and formed the foundation of his agile ability to sell ice in winter and fire in hell.

Pyrex ©

THE OFF-WHITE EMPIRE

After a helpful branding brainstorm session with the A$AP Mob, Off-White arose from the sun-soaked streets of Milan as a jolt of genius in a tepid and stagnant luxury streetwear environment. Fusing the worlds of high fashion, street culture, art, social media and music, Off-White could most eloquently be defined in Virgil’s own words as “the grey area between black and white”. The airy abstract nature of this definition was not accidental, but rather highlighted the futility of attempting to define the undefinable as Off-White was not merely a movement but a place to manifest every free-floating idea he had. A physical representation of all the metaphysical aspects of his astute artistry that made him such a great DJ, designer, artist and icon. Off-white was not ever intended to be just a streetwear company of a lifestyle brand but rather an elevator to which every other member of his community could cling in order to rise with him. 

 

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Off-White never strayed from the blueprint first laid out by Virgil when he first entered the fashion industry. In 2012 Virgil released a fashion video in tandem with the legendary graffiti artist Jim Joe in which members of the A$AP mob modelled exclusive pieces with slogans, rejecting the common ideal that refuge from the hood existence could only be achieved by balling on the basketball court. This video in essence embodied the entire spirit of Off-White and of Virgil’s guiding business philosophy. Limitless Black excellence in whatever field we enter with a ruthless dedication to upholding authenticity, free thought and community empowerment.  

Off-White became an international juggernaut that found a home in every skate park, studio session and nightclub across the world. Yet despite unparalleled success, it never became entangled in the corporate sludge of high society but instead, bust down the door to the ball and screamed “our viewpoint may be different but it’s still valid!” 

Off-White ©

SAVING SNEAKER CULTURE

In an era ruled by hypebeast hysteria, Off-White became the premier purveyor of true sneaker culture, revolutionising the ‘same-old faces’ philosophy ruling over the sneaker industry since its inception. In the decades that preceded the Off-White epoch, very few individuals and brands were able to grasp any sunlight below the traditional canopy of Nike and adidas releases. However, the announcement of an Off-White x Nike crep collab shattered any illusions around the historically minimised significance of individual designers on the brand identities of major corporations, for just as much as Virgil tied the Off-White boat to Nike, they moored their boat to him.

The Nike x Off-White “The Ten” series revived a dwindling interest in retro and culturally formative creps like the Jordan 1 and Air Presto, allowing a whole new generation of sneakerheads to discover the history of the scene. The infamous Air Jordan 1 OG Retro High collaboration quickly became the most expensive and sought after sneaker in the world whilst the classic “AIR” iconography and bold red zip tag of the Vapormax became his calling card around the globe.

virgil abloh nike off white
Nike ©

His later decision as creative director of Louis Vuitton to fold LV into the Nike family with an exclusive Air force 1 collab transcended fashion and corporate consumerism by creating a historically significant object that represented our times and the marriage between road and runway culture. However, the Off-White sneaker legacy would not be as notable or lengthy without that first pair of Jordan 1’s and with them, Virgil created a dynasty of era-defining drops

HIS APPOINTMENT AT LOUIS VUITTON

On March 25th 2018, Virgil Abloh became the first person of African descent to hold the position of artistic director of Louis Vuitton, and one of only a handful of Black designers at the helm of a famed French fashion house. The appointment was a massive yet unneeded stamp of approval for the role street culture has played in contemporary fashion, a sentiment only felt because the streets still recognised Virgil as one of their own. He had reached as high as anyone could go and had so masterfully made himself so unignorable that the antiquated industry of dynastic white-family run fashion houses has to accept him and all he represented. 

On a sultry Saturday evening in the Palais Royal gardens in Paris, Virgil made his LV debut in an evening that showcased the characters and cultures that shaped him, and my gosh did the culture turn out for their boy. Playboi Carti, A$AP Nast, Steve Lacy, Kid Cudi and Dev Hynes all walked the runway to relish in the watershed moment unfolding.

The following three years would see Virgil design an original outfit for Serena Williams to wear throughout the US Open, created a legacy-defining collaboration series with Nike, break into the furniture world with an IKEA collection, form a warm working relationship with Japanese visionary Takashi Murakami, design Hailey Beiber’s wedding dress and be appointed to the board of the Council For American Fashion Designers.

As we now know, all of this unbelievable work was conceived and constructed whilst he was battling a private war with cancer, a sincere testament to his grit, grind and unyielding affection for his craft and community. Some people impact the culture, some people define it, but once in a while, there are those rare few that become it. With his appointment to LV rounding out his enumerable list of accolades, Virgil became the most vibrant stitch in the patchwork tapestry of contemporary culture.     

Virgil Abloh ©

FREE GAME FROM A ONCE IN A GENERATION BRAIN

Virgil’s approach to nurturing his community mirrored his approach to design in that he was never just thinking about today but building a legacy that would last long after he is gone. In 2020 he launched the ‘Free Game’ initiative, a new mentorship series that was open to all, for free. The objective was to empower a younger generation of designers and creatives in response to the constant barrage of prejudice and injustice facing the Black community.  When asked about the initiative, Virgil replied:  “I am launching this organic platform for widespread access to information and mentorship. The exact notions and tools that I used to formulate my career are open to all. For free.”

He recognised that knowledge is power and that he bared more knowledge in his field than most and so set out to impart that wisdom to aid in the pursuit of ownership for disenfranchised communities.

 

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GOODBYE TO AN ICON

He was raised on “all the things that make the ‘90s the ‘90s”, he influenced all the things that make our culture what we are today, and he outlined everything we have to do to make tomorrow what we want it to be. Unlike so many of the greats we have lost, he was a man who was very much appreciated in his own time and someone who will no doubt be appreciated for centuries to come. To the late and forever great Virgil Abloh, thank you for your service to civility and creativity, you will not be forgotten.  

 

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