Obituary / Virgil Abloh

A tribute to the creative polymath who united the fields of art, fashion, music and design.

By Anna Sansom / 2nd December 2021
Virgil Abloh COURTESY: Carpenters Workshop Gallery / PHOTOGRAPH: ©Alex Grazioli

Virgil Abloh
COURTESY: Carpenters Workshop Gallery / PHOTOGRAPH: ©Alex Grazioli

ON 28th NOVEMBER, it was announced that Virgil Abloh, artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear, founder of Off-White fashion label and furniture designer, had died at the age of 41 after a long battle with cancer. He had been diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer, in 2019.

Tributes have poured in from the fashion and music industries. “Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” read part of a statement from Bernard Arnault, president of LVMH.

Born in Illinois in 1980, Abloh studied civil engineering followed by an MA in Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. He interned at Fendi in Milan at the same time as fellow intern Kanye West, who subsequently appointed Abloh creative director of his creative agency Donda. In 2013, Abloh founded Off-White in Milan and five years later was hired by Louis Vuitton, becoming the first African-American to take the reins of the French luxury goods brand.

Within a few years, Abloh was the highest-profile black fashion designer. Having long talked about the challenges facing him as a young black creative in a predominantly white industry, his aim was to help bring about “systemic change”.

On his website, he wrote: “I’m committed to helping ensure that this social revolution is not just a moment but a movement – and I am holding myself to task. Enter my advocacy report: the ongoing progress in uplifting black voices and showcasing black talent and achievement. […] We cannot reach an equitable future without first looking critically at how our own ecosystems help or hinder that growth.” This pledge translated into Abloh launching a “Post-Modern” fashion scholarship fund for black students that has raised more than $1m and supported over 100 students.

Abloh’s sphere of influence was wide-reaching. He was honoured with his first public exhibitions in 2019. His solo show ‘Figures of Speech’ at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago offered a survey of his multi-disciplinary work across music, fashion, architecture, graphic design and design. It travelled to the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston and is due to tour to the Brooklyn Museum.

Taking place concurrently to the Chicago show was Abloh’s installation ‘TwentyThirtyFive’ in the Zaha Hadid-designed Fire Station at the Vitra Design Museum in Weil am Rhein, Germany, during Art Basel.

Vitra noted how Abloh was “known not only for pushing boundaries but also for turning an entire system upside down and reinterpreting the concept of design […] He uses his creativity for socio-political messages and knows how to package them so attractively that it often takes a little while to fully grasp which terrain he has lured you onto.”

Abloh collaborated with artists such as Jenny Holzer and Takashi Murakami, and teamed up with AMO, the research and design studio of Rem Koolhaas’s OMA, on Off-White’s flagship store in Miami.

On the furniture front, he made a “democratic design” collection, called MARKERAD, for IKEA, fusing tongue-in-cheek humour and art history references, as well as a collection, ‘Efflorescence’, for Galerie kreo that was exhibited in London and Paris last year. The furniture drew formally on inspiration from Modernism as well as stylistically from graffiti, skateparks and street culture.

Abloh once said that the most important thing to him was paving a path for those who were coming after him. Within his career, he accomplished this and more.

Article by Anna Sansom
Article by Anna Sansom
Anna Sansom is a British journalist, based in Paris, who writes about contemporary art, design and architecture. View all articles by Anna Sansom