13.12.2021

'VIRGIL WAS HERE'

The life of the disruptor and mastermind who repurposed luxury fashion

Virgil Abloh

Words: Ponahalo Mojapelo | Images: Getty

Virgil Abloh has left an indelible mark on contemporary fashion as one of the most notable contributors to the culture of luxury streetwear as we know it. A prime result of a strong educational background, a powerful mentorship and a keen, creative ability to invent and influence, Virgil’s success story is one for the books.

More than just a fashion designer, the Civil Engineering graduate turned Master of Architecture had a unique, iconic career incorporating elements of his tertiary education into his elements of design. Among a culmination of influences, we can safely assume that it was a keen relationship with his mother - a seamstress - and his brush with deconstructivism in his Master’s degree that would spark his interest and influence his style in fashion.

Virgil Abloh

A tribute to Virgil Abloh during The Fashion Awards 2021 at the Royal Albert Hall on November 29, 2021 in London, England. (Photo by Jeff Spicer/BFC/Getty Images for BFC)


In the plight of a creative release during his demanding studies, Virgil became a DJ and spent weekends playing in and around Illinois and sometimes in New York City where his love for streetwear was born. He was encouraged by a lecturer to use the prescribed visual software tools from his schooling for more than just architecture.

After sending his first line of T-shirt designs to a local printing store, they were so impressed, they offered him a job in graphics and he soon caught the keen interest of Don C who’d introduce him to the man who’d change the course of his career forever.

After missing his graduation at the Illinois Institute of Technology to meet and eventually become an apprentice to Kanye West in the year 2006, it grew evident that this would become Virgil’s acute entry into contemporary art. Using his tertiary knowledge of online software imagery, he began to create visuals and place them on any and everything as a branding and promotion strategy for the Hip Hop mogul. The timing was impeccable, as 2007 was the genesis of Kanye’s own venture into fashion. He grew Virgil’s network, even introducing him to the 2006 Menswear Designer of the Year, Kim Jones, who would later be instrumental to Virgil’s greatest milestone.

Tagging along with Kanye to meetings and fashion events, Virgil would steadily begin to grow in popularity as a key member of Kanye’s team and chief visual communicator of his brand.

Virgil Abloh

Kanye West and Virgil Abloh after the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on June 21, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)


Fast forward two years and 2009 would mark Virgil’s breakout year; he and Kanye landed an internship at fashion house giant, Fendi and caught the interest of then CEO and chairman, Michael Burke, who described him as a “disruptor in the best way”.

He was then appointed as Art Director of one of Kanye’s most prolific albums, ‘My Beautiful, Dark, Twisted Fantasy’, bringing his sheer brilliance to the fore in the eyes of Kanye’s collaborators.

“His laptop was like a library of everything aesthetically beautiful and relevant,” is what Pusha T had to say after an encounter with Virgil. A year later, he would become the creative director of Kanye’s creative content company, DONDA. At this stage, Virgil’s foot was well in the door and his DJ'ing career had, too, become a success particularly after forming a DJ trio named ‘Been Trill’ with Heron Preston and Matthew Williams.

Virgil soon learned the basic tenets of founding a successful streetwear brand after reaching unplanned overnight success and demise with their ‘Been Trill’ merchandise in 2011. He then started what he called “more of an experiment than a brand” - Pyrex Vision - which he grew from New York City using a simple model: purchasing cheap clothing blanks, printing easily recognisable iconography, distributing it among his friends (the world’s most prolific figures in music and entertainment), then placing a hefty price tag on the garments and making very limited stock. T

his model of brand building drew a lot of controversies, but also went on to be adopted within streetwear culture for many years to come. He soon moved on from Pyrex and onto the next big thing which would go on to outlive him.

Off-White was an elevated adaptation of all his previous works with a more astute focus on quality and luxury. He drew immense inspiration from Balenciaga’s AW12 collection which married streetwear-esque prints with couture silhouettes. Having then built a more than impressive network within the fashion community, he called on the founder of luxury fashion production and distribution collective, Marcelo Burlon of New Guards Group to help him build his brand up as a luxury label. The rest is history.

Off-White runway

Adut Akech, designer Virgil Abloh, Gigi Hadid, Bella Hadid and Karlie Kloss during the Off-White Ready to Wear fashion show as part of the Paris Fashion Week Womenswear Fall/Winter 2019/2020 on February 28, 2019 in Paris, France. (Photo by Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)


Virgil

Off-White became a major success. In 2015, Abloh was nominated by panelists Marc Jacobs, Raf Simons, and Karl Lagerfeld - among others - to be an LVMH prize finalist.

Although he didn’t win, he was spotlighted and welcomed into the world’s most exclusive and sought-after fashion spaces. His architectural background set him a cut above the rest in his spellbinding runway sets. 2016 to 2017 saw his brand become widely counterfeited, (yes, the yellow industrial belt era) though not affecting sales but increasing popularity and demand. In true Virgil Abloh fashion, he expanded his business and jumped into the next-next big thing by opening unique Off-White stores globally, making furniture, and his most notable sneaker collaboration to date and probably of all time, ‘The Ten’ with Nike.

This 2017 sneaker collaboration saw a deconstructivist, Virgil Abloh approach to 10 of Nike’s classic silhouettes and took the fashion world by storm, to this day. Off-White had inarguably become the world’s most desired and reputable luxury streetwear brand in the history of fashion, and Virgil; a bonafide member of fashion’s elite. He went on to give a lecture at the prestigious Harvard University in the same year.

Remember aforementioned industry heavyweights, Kim Jones and Michael Burke?

Fast forward to the year 2018 and Kim Jones is about to step down as the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, begging the question of who would succeed him. Michael Burke (ex-Fendi CEO and chairman) was then CEO and chairman of Louis Vuitton. They had both met Virgil about 10 years prior and were astonished by his global success, his ability to give luxury fashion a face it had never worn before, and the amount he had learned and taught in his rise.

In 2018, Virgil Abloh became the first black person to carry the artistic director title in the history of Louis Vuitton. As expected, he seamlessly veered the direction of the brand away from what was historically expected and into a more futuristic style. Still respecting Louis Vuitton’s classic silhouettes and commitment to luggage gear, he involved more graphics, holsters, and harnesses - true to his industrialist influence.

Virgil, Louis Vuitton

Virgil Abloh walks the runway during the Louis Vuitton Menswear Spring/Summer 2019 show as part of Paris Fashion Week on June 21, 2018 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chesnot/WireImage)


Met Gala, Virgil

Virgil Abloh attends The 2021 Met Gala Celebrating In America: A Lexicon Of Fashion at Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 13, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by John Shearer/WireImage)


With Off-White, Donda, his DJ'ing career, Louis Vuitton, managing runway sets, producing campaigns, and an inpouring of collaborations under his belt, Virgil had cemented himself as the very heavyweight he had dreams of becoming when he was merely an intern.

He lost his 2-year-long private battle with cancer on 28 November 2021, surrounded by loved ones. His passing came as a shock to many as he was still very young and overflowing with innovation. Millions took to social media to share their most heartfelt experiences of the legendary world-builder who influenced and poured hope into ideas that would’ve been otherwise overturned in a time where he didn’t exist.

Fashion, design, and overall visual communication in the mainstream world are all richer for Virgil’s contribution to them. On 30 November, his final Louis Vuitton Menswear collection graced the Miami Marine Stadium on a runway set designed to mimic a forest (perhaps a nod to the Wizard of Oz theme of his premier Louis Vuitton show back in 2018). This was followed by a magical and dignified light show including his trademark autograph, ‘Virgil Was Here’.

Every day, the founding father of luxury streetwear continues to multiply and inspire.

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