Virgil Abloh, the boundary-breaking designer who united high fashion, art, and hypebeast culture—transforming the public’s perception and consumption of each—died on Sunday in Chicago at the age of 41. In a statement, Abloh’s family shared that he had been privately battling cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer, since 2019.
Abloh’s expansive vision was complemented by his cross-disciplinary background as a trained architect, engineer, and fashion designer, as well as occasional furniture designer and DJ. Abloh was the first Black man to helm a major fashion brand, ascending to the role of artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear while still designing his stand-alone streetwear brand, Off-White. He was relentlessly generative and a prolific collaborator, spearheading partnerships with artists including Takashi Murakami, Jenny Holzer, and Damien Hirst.
Abloh described himself as a “maker” rather than a designer and told T Magazine in 2018, “There’s no failure in constantly creating. The only failure is if you’re actually not making anything.”
Abloh was attuned to the zeitgeist, giving brands struggling with inclusivity an infusion of relevancy. Last July, Abloh was appointed to a new position within LVMH that afforded him broad influence across the group’s 75 brands, making the first-generation Ghanaian American the most powerful Black executive of one of the industry’s biggest portfolios. (LVMH also acquired a 60-percent stake in Off-White.)
In a statement, Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, said, “Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom.”
Virgil Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1980, to Nee and Eunice Abloh. His mother was a seamstress, and he learned the trade while reveling in hip-hop, graffiti, and skateboarding culture. Abloh never received a formal arts education—he studied civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and obtained a master’s degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. At 22, he met Kanye West while both were interning at Fendi. A year later he was named artistic director of Donda, West’s ideas incubator, and left a lasting impact on the hip-hop star’s aesthetic. The duo’s breakout presentation, a sneaker collaboration with Louis Vuitton in 2009, helped establish Abloh as a rising star of menswear.
In 2013, he launched Off-White, the in-demand streetwear known for its minimalist designs and ironic edge. In his art and design, Abloh believed that subtle alterations to the classics qualified as innovation, a wink at fashion’s eternal anxieties over originality.
In a 2017 lecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, later published as a book titled Insert Complicated Title Here, he told the students, “I’m sure that you’re trying to challenge yourself to invent something new, trying to be avant-garde. Basically, that’s impossible.”
As the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear, Abloh had the resources to actualize his grand vision. For the set of the 2019 Fall/Winter runway show at the Tuileries Garden in Paris, he commissioned a miniature model of Manhattan’s cityscape circa 1982. The graffiti artist Futura, a friend of Abloh’s, contributed art to the replica.
Abloh’s presentation of art as merchandise invited comparisons to Andy Warhol, but he also identified with cerebral conceptualists. “Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp,” Abloh told the New Yorker in 2019. “It’s this idea of the readymade.”
In recent years, his designs have been presented in institutional settings. In 2018, Gagosian presented a series of collaborative works between Abloh with Takashi Murakami. In 2019, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago presented “Figures of Speech,” Abloh’s first institutional exhibition. The selection of works included photographs taken in the studio of Juergen Teller, sneaker prototypes for Nike, and concrete sculptures reminiscent of outdoor benches popular with skaters. Some were funny, like a framed cease-and-desist letter from the United Nations reprimanding Abloh for appropriating its logo on fliers for his DJ gigs.
In recent years, Abloh sought to be a role model for new generations of Black creatives. In 2019 he co-founded Figure Skating, which administers an annual $50,000 cash award to Black artists, curators, and art scholars working at the intersection of racial justice and the arts. The award is “about writing our own histories and creating space for our ideas to flourish independently of the art world’s traditional gatekeepers,” Abloh said.
In 2020, following the Black Lives Matter protests, he raised $1 million through the new “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund to help Black students pursue careers in fashion.
On social media, countless collaborators and friends shared their remembrances of Abloh. In a statement, Gagosian called him a “legendary fashion designer.” Murakami wrote on Instagram that Abloh was a “genius who would causally place the answers to fundamental mysteries right in front of you. To think how many people have been set free thanks to his presence! And I am one of them.”