The Remarkable Life of Virgil Abloh

For the polymath, there is always a cardinal subject, a chief preoccupation around which all the other interests spin. For the fashion designer Virgil Abloh, the polymath of his cohort, who died on Sunday of a rare cardiac cancer, offensively too young, the center was architecture. He studied as an architect, and the training never…

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For the polymath, there is always a cardinal subject, a chief preoccupation around which all the other interests spin. For the fashion designer Virgil Abloh, the polymath of his cohort, who died on Sunday of a rare cardiac cancer, offensively too young, the center was architecture. He studied as an architect, and the training never really left him, even as he ventured into other arts. Abloh’s thinking was organizational, spatial, and mind-numbingly lofty. He longed to build an intricately structured life for his muse, the young Black man. Abloh designed not only this man’s clothing but also his shoes, the music he listened to in order to prime himself for the workday, the furniture he looked upon before leaving for said workday, the shiny vernacular he used in his speech, the high-concept museum exhibition at which he could practice this speech. At forty-one years old, Abloh already did all that, and so the question coursing through the minds of his mourners, whose lives had been quite literally stamped with the fruits of his imagination, is this: What was next?

A Western ideal of dominance neatly grafts onto Abloh’s remarkable life, if you need it to. The pop-culture-obsessive son of Ghanaian immigrants in Rockford, Illinois, slashed an unprecedented path through streetwear to one of the highest mantles in fashion—artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton—and brought all his boys with him. In the wake of his death, his major identifier is that he was only the third Black man to lead a major French fashion house. But his ascendance was meaningful partly because he dispensed with the fixedness of “ascendance.” L.V.M.H. saw him as the skeleton-key ambassador to a clientele it had previously shunned and now desired, but Abloh saw himself as a big-kid enthusiast, a rewriter of our notions of luxury, a true believer in the dreams of the youth. The zeal he brought to finessing a glittery harness or punctuating a puffy silhouette with the bluntness of a pair of sneakers was equal to the zeal he brought to an impromptu d.j. night in Paris or New York or Chicago. His presence caused, or forced, the fashion industry to accept the values it had dismissed as unserious: earnestness, excitement, credulity, love. What could be more serious than love?

A lot about Abloh’s person—his height; his tendency to speak in full, knotty paragraphs; his cultivated gait—was striking, but nothing so much as his temperament. He was extremely even-keeled, placid. When he came into Internet-burgeoning notoriety, more than fifteen years ago, his personality, as contrasted with that of his then boss, Kanye West, made for a compelling story. West was the genius braggadocio, the man with plans to become a new-age Walt Disney; Abloh, his creative director, was the wise consigliere, making the plans concrete. This meant designing album covers, styling, art directing—Abloh is probably the person most responsible for the prevalence of the nebulous “creative director” occupation.

But what West and Abloh, along with their fellow Chicago associates, ultimately hungered for was to break out in fashion; these were the kids who had developed their personal style during the age of logo-mania. “Conquer” is the verb that is often used to describe their rise in the industry, probably on account of their race and owing to West’s heated rhetoric. It is revisionist, however, to frame these early years as gate-storming. The two interned at Fendi. They absorbed the archives. They were reverent. Even when “crashing” the shows in Paris, in the late aughts, the clan was covered in the monograms of the houses.

Paradoxically, clothes were not always the principal thing. Abloh was preoccupied with philosophy and critical theory. Pyrex Vision, his first foray into clothing—which he launched in New York, in 2012—was a Duchampian experiment, he would later argue. He took deadstock, oversized flannels from Ralph Lauren, and screen-printed “23,” Michael Jordan’s number, on them. Early critics dismissed him as a jokester, forgetting the terroristic impulse in Lauren himself, a Jewish remixer of the Wasp wardrobe. Even savvy streetwear savants scoffed at Pyrex, and later, at Off-White, the fashion house Abloh founded in 2013. His audacity, his embrace of humor and of irony, exposed a current of latent conservatism across the industry—a service, whatever you might have thought of the rugby shirts, or the fabled quotation marks. Historically, men’s high fashion has been separate from the rest of the gender’s cultural obsessions, such as sports and rap. Abloh made the zones link. Now, virtually every menswear brand follows his lead. For many men, Abloh’s designs may have been the primary conduit through which they felt comfortable longing for beauty.

Of all the commercial arts, fashion requires the highest suspension of disbelief from its audience. How many devotees of Vogue Runway will ever touch the hem of the garments they’ve memorized? Abloh brought to the fore the contradictions and ironies of commercialism, and also the ethos of sampling, which he borrowed not only from headier zones such as Duchamp and Warhol but also from hip-hop, the lingua franca of our age. He made the small drama of pulling on a hoodie, or drinking from a bottle of Evian water, or pawing a rug from IKEA—all mischievously bearing recognizable elements of his graphic design—a touch more interesting. Perhaps it was his sheer ubiquity that caused him to be, at times, misread. And yet, there was a gameness to Abloh that the critical fashion establishment grew to respect, even if the clothes did not satisfy its tastes. Abloh was not for everyone—he especially was not for the cynics. Who was he for? The fans. The autodidacts. The upstarts and the obsessives. There is a cadre of designers one can index for genuine prodigiousness on the level of craft. What Abloh achieved was something stranger, and yet equally undeniable: the saga of millennial culture cannot be told without him.

Abloh worked tirelessly, like it was an addiction. He was known for being in two, even three cities during the same calendar day, and sometimes these cities were on different continents. He was also an older-brother figure to a generation of upstart couriers, d.j.s, conceptual artists, and the like. I knew him only in the odd, strained way a journalist knows their subject, after profiling him for this magazine, in 2019. In the span of two hours, we travelled from his Off-White atelier to his Louis Vuitton office, to the site of his then upcoming art exhibition, to the Tuileries gardens, where a fall-winter collection for Louis Vuitton menswear was being styled and arranged. The bodies of work for Louis Vuitton alluded to unadulterated pop culture—“The Wiz,” Michael Jackson, the list goes on. To enter these venues, we attempted to take backdoor routes. He was as famous as any of the musicians he dressed; crowds, made up of primarily young men, thronged him wherever he went. They understood each other. There’s a certain kind of longing experienced by the kid who is often dismissed as the indiscriminate hypebeast. Abloh understood that longing because he never rid himself of it, regardless of how successful he became.


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