Virgil Abloh died on November 28, 2021, after a private battle with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He was 41. The Off-White founder and Men’s Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton was most recently seen in Doha, Qatar, at the opening of his exhibition “Figures of Speech.”
“I am all about championing this new era of designers becoming the new rock stars,” wrote Virgil Abloh on the blog The Brilliance in 2007. Fast-forward a decade and Abloh is exactly that. The American designer has risen from a Chicago kid obsessed with fashion, art, design, and culture to the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear operation.
As Abloh prepares to take the reins at one of fashion’s most iconic brands, we’re looking back on his career trajectory, from onetime Fendi intern to Kanye West collaborator to Off-White founder and collaborator nonpareil.
Abloh was born on September 30 outside of Chicago. He and his sister are raised in nearby Rockford, by Ghanaian immigrant parents. Abloh attends the Boylan Catholic High School—official colors green and white—and graduates in 1998. His mother is a seamstress and teaches him the tricks of her trade.
Abloh completes his undergraduate degree in civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. (In 2015, he would return to design commemorative tees for the university.) Rumor has it that on the day of his graduation, he skips his final critique to take a meeting with Kanye West’s then-manager John Monopoly. West and Abloh begin officially working together soon after.
Abloh completes his master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. During his time at IIT, a Rem Koolhaas building is completed, which Abloh says, “piqued my interest and opened my gateway into fashion.”
Abloh and West become interns at Fendi in Rome. Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke recently told The New York Times, “I was really impressed with how [Abloh and West] brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way. Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since.”
Abloh and West, along with a crew of famous friends, make the rounds at Paris Fashion Week, turning heads in the process. They’re photographed by Tommy Ton for Style.com outside of the Comme des Garçons show in what becomes a widely circulated pic. Abloh tells W magazine, “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
Abloh officially assumes the role of creative director at Donda, West’s creative agency.
Abloh art directs the album Watch the Throne by Jay-Z and West, an achievement that earns him a Grammy nomination. The album cover is designed by Riccardo Tisci, then the creative director of Givenchy, a role Abloh was rumored to be up for after Tisci’s departure in 2017.
Abloh launches his first brand, Pyrex Vision, in New York. He purchased deadstock Ralph Lauren flannel shirts for $40 each, and screen printed them with the word Pyrex and the number 23, an homage to his childhood hero, Michael Jordan. They sell for $550 each.
Abloh shutters Pyrex and founds Off-White, a multi-platform creative endeavor based in Milan. Its main medium is fashion. At Off-White, he combines ideas of streetwear, luxury, art, music, and travel, defining the brand simply as, “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.” From the get-go, hovering quotation marks become Abloh’s signature.
Abloh launches womenswear for Off-White and begins showing his men’s and women’s collections during Paris Fashion Week.
Abloh’s womenswear operation gains steam when Beyoncé wears a palm-print sweatshirt with the word Nebraska on it, an homage to Raf Simons’s Fall 2002 Virginia Creepers collection, in Nicki Minaj’s video for “Feeling Myself.” That same year, Off-White is named a finalist for the LVMH Prize. He loses the grand prize and special prize to Marques’Almeida and Jacquemus, respectively.
Abloh opens his first concept store in the Aoyama area of Tokyo. The store features a watercooler with Off-White branded cups that visitors take for free and resell on the secondary market.
Abloh debuts his Grey Area furniture collection in Milan, his first furniture venture under the Off-White brand. It features iron grid chairs, benches, and tables with leather cushions and Carrara marble tops.
Even with the announcement of a collaborative exhibition with Takashi Murakami opening at Gagosian; the release of his first song; the opening of his New York store; the British Fashion Award for Urban Luxe Brand; and collaborations with Warby Parker, Jacob the Jeweler, and Jimmy Choo, the biggest news for Abloh in 2017 is The Ten, his sneaker partnership with Nike. Abloh re-creates 10 of Nike’s iconic silhouettes in a work-in-progress style, each adorned with a safety tag around the laces. The limited release leaves the sneaker market hungry for more, and Abloh hosts panels and workshops with Nike and additional releases throughout the year.
Abloh is named the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collections, stepping into the role vacated by his friend and mentor Kim Jones. “It is an honor for me to accept this position. I find the heritage and creative integrity of the house are key inspirations and will look to reference them both while drawing parallels to modern times,” he says in a statement. This summer, he will perform at Lollapalooza.
Virgil Alboh’s artworks will be the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, and his Ikea collaboration will be released through the brand’s international stores.