The first memory I have of Virgil Abloh is probably shared with the many people who consciously keep one eye on the collision of fashion and music. This memory isn’t from a time when the designer had adulation he eventually went on to receive, rather it was of his controversial emergence into the world of high fashion.
There was outrage. How could the designer take a pair of cotton Champion shorts, print the PYREX predecessor to his now-iconic OFF-WHITE branding and mark the price up so astronomically? It didn’t stop at the shorts - although ASAP Rocky adopting them as part of the new ‘health goth’ style ensured their status as an icon.
Plaid shirts, t-shirts, whatever else. The price point was forceful, over-the-top, but it made a statement. Graffiti was the art world’s enfant terrible for decades before becoming a mainstream mainstay. Streetwear followed a similar trajectory. Abloh believed that the clothing he liked and appreciated could be viewed the same way as the high fashion world he’d cut his teeth in, the same way that street art now has blockbuster shows in galleries. He wanted to redefine luxury.
While studying for a Masters degree in Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Abloh grew curious about the designer behind one of the university’s newest buildings - Rem Koolhaas. Koolhaas was, in many ways, the genesis for what Abloh later became, a truly multidisciplinary creative.
Koolhaas had already collaborated with Prada, giving Abloh the foundation to his understanding that good design transcends mediums. This spurred him on to intern at Fendi in Italy with Kanye West, who later chose Abloh as the creative director of his Donda creative agency - tasked with masterminding his 2011 Watch The Throne album with Jay-Z. Knowing that success is as much about contacts as concepts, Abloh quickly became the name on a lot of pairs of lips.
It is from here that Pyrex evolved, making $50 shorts $550, a statement intended to highlight that value in fashion is an abstract concept and that streetwear belongs alongside haute couture. As with Kanye West in music, Abloh would strive to interrogate and explore the intellectual dimensions behind everything he did. Upon closing Pyrex, the designer stated that it was never about making money, but about an artistic experiment. It was, effectively, about making a point.
Abloh’s will to experiment never diminished. Over the years his shows for Off-White became cult. Thematically, they were influenced by a plethora of artists and disciplines, from architecture to the Baroque painters. A logical extension of this was his willingness to collaborate, a trend increasingly drawn upon in streetwear.
Combining previously exclusive worlds, Abloh ushered in the way for a new era of fashion, an achievement acknowledged in him becoming Louis Vuitton’s artistic director in 2018. Unfortunately, despite his huge output throughout his brief tenure at LV, the designer was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer shortly after taking the reins. Abloh chose to keep this quiet.
The man has always been different from his art. It was never about him and, it seems, Abloh viewed his diagnosis in a similar way. Famously prolific, Abloh chose to push forward in the two years between his diagnosis and passing on November 28, aged only 41.
What he has left behind is something inexplicable. It isn’t just a whole host of iconic designs and collaborations, but an entire philosophy of creating art. Beyond that, he has opened up the possibilities for other artists to look beyond their own discipline, to forge new visions with the kind of holistic and all-encompassing mindset that Abloh fostered. In fashion as in life, he brought disparate things together.
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