From American suburbia to the fashion Olympus: Virgil Abloh’s rise to become one of the last decade’s most influential personalities in the design world of was meteoric. On 28 November, the multidisciplinary creative died of cancer at the height of his career, aged just 41.
By Martin Krautter.
Obituary of Virgil Abloh
One of his most recent works was a provocation for strict exegetes of the Braun brand. The company itself had commissioned Virgil Abloh with a homage. His contribution: the legendary wall unit by Dieter Rams from 1965, but with a high-gloss chrome finish instead of the original sanded lacquer. It remains to be seen which was more unsettling for the purists: that a black fashion designer of the Instagram generation dared to lay a hand on this icon? Or that they suddenly recognised themselves and their need for distinction through brand and design in the reflection of the shiny surface? In the promotional clip for the project, Abloh effusively praises the functionality of industrial design. But perhaps, in the style of his creations for his fashion label Off-White, one should rather transcribe “FUNCTIONALITY” here. Because let’s be honest: the stereo was functional 50 years ago, today music comes from Spotify, Braun hi-fi is auctioned off as collector’s items and serves primarily as a token of good taste.
Striking inscriptions, set in grotesque capitals and ironic inverted commas, were part of Abloh’s design signature. So even the air in the trainer became ambiguous, “AIR”. Irony, Abloh commented as part of his 2019 show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, was for him primarily a way of saying two things at once. Which makes all the more sense in retrospect of his restless productivity. Given the painful deficit of diversity in the design world, which has finally come more into the public consciousness in recent years, one thing must be stated unequivocally: Abloh was a door opener, a trailblazer, a pioneer. Not with an aggressive rhetoric of violence, but with exuberant creativity, irony, subversion and the charm of the dandy.
Born in 1980, Virgil Abloh grew up in Rockford, Illinois, a safe 100 miles from the juggernaut that is Chicago. His parents, immigrants from Ghana, had established themselves in American society: his mother as a seamstress and his father as an employee of a paint factory. This gave the skateboarder and “average teenager”, as Abloh saw himself, the impulse to become a civil engineer. Abloh earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then transferred to the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, where he graduated with a master’s degree in architecture in 2006. At IIT, decisive influences came together: Institute buildings such as the “Crown Hall” by Mies van der Rohe, and the Campus Center by Rem Koolhaas’ office OMA. Seminars whose lecturers raved about the new possibilities of networked, interdisciplinary work. The job as a graphic designer in a company that printed clothes. The life-changing encounter with the musician Kanye West, who had T-shirts made there, of all places.
Virgil Abloh and Kanye West
West, then on the rise himself, recognised Abloh’s talent and made him his creative director and confidant. In this role, the newly qualified architect helped shape Kanye’s total work of art: From stage designs to merchandise to record covers like 2011’s “Watch the Throne” album, for which Abloh was even nominated for a Grammy. West and Abloh’s ambitions extended far beyond the genre boundaries of hip-hop and black music. A legendary photo shows the two of them in a circle of friends on a street in Paris during Fashion Week 2009, “dressed to kill” and hell-bent on conquering the European fashion world – regardless of the prejudices of the establishment. Together, Abloh and West did an internship at the traditional house Fendi in the same year.
In 2012, Abloh proved that he had quickly seen through and internalised the mechanisms of brands and labels with his first own fashion project “Pyrex Vision”. He had bought unsaleable lots of Ralph Lauren jerseys on the cheap and added his own screen-printed designs to them, thus achieving astonishing prices. A coup that he classified in retrospect as an artistic experiment rather than a serious step into the fashion business. He took this step in 2013 with the founding of his label Off-White – not in Chicago or LA, but in Milan, the heart of the traditional European fashion industry. With Off-White, he seemingly effortlessly bridged the gap between streetwear and couture, succeeded on the catwalks and became a globally sought-after, style-defining designer of the 10s. The label’ name says it all: neither decidedly “white” nor “black”, the label encompassed all shades and intermediate tones, brought disciplines into flow, was open and inclusive from the outset.
Mediator between millennials and the establishment
Abloh virtuously wove the web of meanings and relationships around his brand that transformed a plain T-shirt into an artful, coveted piece of identity. He became the personified mediator between pop and luxury, between millennials and the establishment. And everyone wanted to be part of it: Companies like Nike, who once returned the teenage Virgil’s sneaker designs by return of post, or Ikea, for whom Abloh designed a collection of carpets and furniture. Lastly, the above- mentioned German design icon Braun. He was “most wanted”, but always willing to allow students at seminars at renowned schools, such as the London Architectural Association, a look behind the scenes and into the workings of his industry. His work was not meant to be shrouded in mystery, but transparent, like the rolling suitcase made of transparent polycarbonate that he designed for Rimowa in 2018. In the same year, the luxury brand Louis Vuitton appointed him director of its men’s collection. The Parisian house thus once again demonstrated a feel for the zeitgeist, as it had two decades earlier with the engagement of the American designer Marc Jacobs.
Now, the Chicago exhibition of 2019 is unexpectedly becoming Abloh’s legacy. In a video for this exhibition, he says that he tries to address two target groups at the same time in his designs: The analytical purists, who structure their perceptions according to meanings and theories, as well as the curious tourists, eagerly hunting for impressions and stimulation. What will purists and tourists alike miss now that this bubbling spring of creativity has abruptly dried up? Virgil Abloh will undoubtedly remain a role model for many young creatives who have so far hardly seen themselves represented: For allowing People of Colour to not only play at the top of fashion and design, but also to change the rules. Back in 2019, Abloh was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer. He did not make his condition public, so the news of his death has now come as all the more of a surprise. Virgil Abloh died in Chicago on 28 November 2021 at the age of 41. He is survived by his wife Shannon and two children.
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