Virgil Abloh, ambassador and infiltrator


In recent years it could often appear like there were several Virgil Ablohs all working at the same time. There were the multi-annual collections from Louis Vuitton, where he was artistic director for menswear, and Off-White, his own label that he founded near Kanye West. There were seemingly endless collaborations with brands as diverse as Nike, Ikea, Evian, Rimowa, Vitra, Chrome Hearts and more.

And maybe just as important were his daily Instagram messages. Apparently nobody posted more than him – a couple of dozen pictures of his story, light, consisting of new designs, new music, screenshots from conversations, matching pictures from the super famous, matching pictures from the strangers. He was a geyser of ecstatic creativity.

What he did was not to flaunt his ubiquity and success, but rather to offer the blueprint for replication. The community of ideas does not meet privately, he knew that; it was amplified by exposure to sunlight and control. His head was constantly churned and his solution was to build a real-time archive that anyone could record.

Look at how young men today think about clothing, design and music, and how these pursuits intersect: It’s hard not to see Abloh everywhere.

Mr. Abloh, who died on Sunday at the age of 41, repurposed this hip-hop and skateboarding ethic. He succeeded at the highest level of luxury by importing the bootleg, the remix, the alternative point of view. It is crucial that Mr. Abloh belonged to a generation that was brought up to believe that they were entitled to the luxury that high-fashion houses offered, an idea and movement that he inherited from West. The difference between those from inside and those from outside who looked in, however, consisted in his composition only in who had placed the window where. Mr. Abloh just broke that window.

In that he was part of a profound line. Since the 1980s, hip-hop has been doing shadow work to increase the power and cultural relevance of high fashion, be it Dapper Dan’s cut-and-sew remakes in the 1980s or the Notorious BIG’s embrace of Versace in the 1990s Years or ASAP Rocky’s early 2010 gestures towards the avant-garde.

And yet there had never been a designer of the hip-hop generation – let alone a black designer – at the head of a French luxury house until Mr. Abloh took over Louis Vuitton in 2018. He became an ambassador and an intruder.

In the past few years, many high fashion companies have tried to incorporate hip hop language or boast or silhouettes into their collections, but these conversations generally felt tense and were clearly the result of observation. Mr. Abloh’s contributions were a product of immersion. Louis Vuitton stores, for example, have a stunning quilted leather jacket inspired by those at Detroit’s Al Wissam store, which were a hip-hop staple well into the wee hours of the late 1990s. He understood that hip hop was luxurious long before LVMH called.

Hip-hop has long since knighted luxury, he said in a recent text exchange with this reporter. “It’s still surreal that it’s my job to come full circle.”

At the head of Louis Vuitton, he suddenly became the template for a generation of young designers, stylists and fashion dreamers who appeared in the Abloh form, an amazing victory. He has helped incubate the culture of hype that began with streetwear and sneakers and has now become the prevailing luxury ethos. He made limited edition merchandise for seemingly every occasion, a statement about passionate, insatiable creativity and also the feeling that every gesture is worth remembering.

And while reaching out to elders to collaborate in a variety of formats – Arthur Jafa, Goldie, Futura, and more – Mr. Abloh also showed a keen interest in the creativity of other people, especially young people. He was dizzyingly accessible in his DMs – several people posted screenshots of his private encouragement, emotional work that was free and invisible, but not without consequences.

For this reason, the extent of its impact cannot be measured in clothing or collections. Rather, it is about establishing a universe in which Mr. Abloh was not only a fashion designer, but also a folk hero and superhero. Still, he was basically a fan, greedy.

It was a position he understood only too well. As he rose the fashion ranks in the 2010s, he was often reminded of his underdog status by naysayers, reviews that sometimes smelled of gatekeeping and, at worst, racism. When Raf Simons, a designer whom Mr. Abloh admired, dismissed him as unoriginal in an interview in 2017, Mr. Abloh responded with the title of his next off-white collection “Nothing New”.

It was a reminder of his playfulness. With his quoted access to references, he chose to emphasize accessibility over preciousness. Which is not to say that he was not intellectually committed to his practice, but underlined that iteration is a type of innovation that often goes unspoken in creative areas. In his public lectures and conversations, which often bounced off social media just as quickly as his sneaker designs, he discussed the “three percent rule”: Changing something very small is more than enough. It was wisdom received as a provocation but intended as encouragement.

Mr. Abloh often did not speak in the finished product; he spoke in parts, peeling off the fourth wall and also the third, second, and first. In some of his designs, especially his Nike collaborations, the visible traces of production became part of his finished designs. Modern in his process – he did most of his business on WhatsApp – he embraced the transparency of the social media era and made it part of his business and aesthetic plan.

But Mr. Abloh certainly understood the traditional power he wielded. The section on his website devoted to cataloging his myriad projects was titled Land I Own. The section where he broken down the steps required to start a brand was called Free Game.

Rappers, of course, loved him. When Drake needed a design for his personal Boeing 767, he turned to Mr. Abloh, who gave him the palette of a cloudy sky. “Virgil sent me drips just to see if I like it,” rapped Young Thug. Mr. Abloh was seated in the front row in Paris by Pop Smoke and Westside Gunn – who had rapped, “Tell Virgil to write ‘BRICK’ on my brick”.

This was the ultimate applause for Mr. Abloh, who was also a curious and expansive DJ – in the 2010s he apparently flew around the world more putting records than working on collections – and who made music himself. He was a connoisseur of emerging sounds from around the world, from Atlanta hip-hop to British jazz to Ghanaian drill.

In doing so, as with all things, he prioritized the power and innovation of black art. He featured black children in his earliest Louis Vuitton advertising campaigns and through to the collection setup video that Louis Vuitton will be showing in Miami this week.

When he had his first museum exhibit in Chicago in 2019, he installed between the ads and sneakers a work relating to the police murder of Laquan McDonald (and also a photo of Chicago drilling pioneer Chief Keef). In his collections he interwoven direct references to Africa and Martin Luther King Jr. He also imported the feel of the collectivity of hip-hop into his garments, and once supplied an inlaid sweater that depicted the outlines of 38 people working on his clothes.

Mr Abloh had found a secure foothold after years of working with West – the two were interned together at Fendi in 2009 – who had long tried to run a luxury home but was turned down; Mr. Abloh finally fulfilled this dream. The embrace of the two men at the end of his first Vuitton presentation was one of the most emotional moments on a catwalk in recent years and also a euphoric release celebrating the rise of a black designer into the highest realms of luxury fashion. At the same show, at the end of his catwalk, Mr Abloh mastered a rap squat and posed for pictures.

In July, LVMH announced that Mr. Abloh had been promoted to a position where he would work for several dozen brands at the conglomerate, including apparel, liquor and hotels. (It also required a majority stake in Off-White.) It was a vote of confidence not only in Mr. Abloh’s design work, but also in his vision of luxury and how it would expand to various properties. She admitted that the kind of cross-pollinating cultural technique that naturally distinguished Mr. Abloh was the most promising path, even for a company as steeped in tradition as LVMH.

That was a version of Mr. Abloh’s future. But he was just as preoccupied with an alternative, parallel path. He looked after black fashion aspirants. He organized scholarships for black fashion students. He campaigned behind the scenes for more diversity in the high fashion industry. He helped build a skate park in Ghana. He sold I Support Young Black Businesses t-shirts and donated the proceeds to charity.

So many seeds, scattered in so many places, guarantee flowers for generations to come. Look around in a few years and it will be hard not to see Ablohs all over the place.


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