“Everything I do is for the seventeen year-old version of myself.”

“Everything I do is for the seventeen year-old version of myself.” 

Virgil Abloh – a rockstar in fashion and a revolutionary contemporary culture.

Two weeks ago we sadly lost one of the most prominent black figures in the fashion industry – yet his experience and influence went far beyond fashion alone. Virgil Abloh was a polymath having studied rational, scientific and creative disciplines: engineering, architecture and fashion – all very much encouraged by his Ghanaian parents. But despite his rigorous education he’d often refer back to his pre-academia youth, a fertile period of deep curiosity about the world around him “back in that early rationale before you learned too much…when your DNA started.”

His iconic and idiosyncratic injection of streetwear into high fashion can be traced back to his childhood passions: skateboarding culture, graffiti and music – the traces of which are visually present in his recent design work. Despite his rise to fame and penetration of the fashion establishment, Abloh made himself consciously accessible to young talent. No doubt tapping into his teen frame of mind, he frequently chose to work with young creatives found on Instagram.

His first conceptual clothing brand Pyrex 23 blended high and street fashion to reflect some of the harsh realities facing too many black Americans. Pyrex references the cookware brand sometimes reappropriated to process drugs, whilst ‘23’ honours Michael Jordan’s jersey number. Together these suggest the all-too limited avenues that black men may choose or excel in: crime or sport. This dichotomy was a common theme that featured throughout his career. 

Abloh experimented with plugging the brand through collaborations and debuted a short film with members of the ASAP mob and graffiti artist Jim Joe. The leftfield brand was met with great acclaim but attracted criticism too – the range used cheap blank Champion t-shirts overlaid with his iconography passed off with ambitious designer price tags. Abloh saw this as a key part of the concept, confidently stating “Design is the freshest scam”. 

Abloh’s infiltration of contemporary culture into fashion paved the way for his appointment as Artistic Director of Menswear of super brand Louis Vuitton, founded in 1854. He was the first black man to acquire this position, succeeding his mentor Kim Jones. Together they consolidated streetwear as a credible trend in the high fashion world.

His relationship with Kanye West was cemented through a shared love of fashion with Abloh overseeing stage shows, merchandise and art direction for a number of seminal albums – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch The Throne and Yeezus. They were a tour de force and continual disruptors in the fashion industry. The infamous Paris squad photo captured at fashion week became a conversation topic and source of bountiful memes and parodies. They noted something conspicuous in its absence from the industry as Abloh said “We weren’t supposed to be there…we saw this as an opportunity to participate and make current culture”.

His raw talent and elevated position in Kanye’s entourage gained him a high-profile following that directly led him to design album covers for 2 Chainz, Westside Gunn, Pop Smoke to name a few. The hype machine had begun, oiled along by his involvement in Been Trill, a DJ collective that released clothing brandished by contemporaries Kanye West, Pusha T and Rihanna. These megastar endorsements saw mere shoelaces exchanging hands for $100. This ‘experiment of ideas’ eventually imploded but taught him a lesson in the dynamics and importance of hype. 

Abloh phased out his art project Pyrex 23 to make way for Off White, actively adopting Instagram as an “open-source tool [to make] it my magazine”. The new brand took off exponentially with the use of non-traditional marketing means, and of course support from friends in high places. Drake, Jay Z, Beyonce and Kendall Jenner were all seen in early Off White pieces. Popularity and demand grew to dizzying heights in 2017 when The 10, a sneaker collaboration with Nike reworked ten iconic sneaker silhouettes.

Virgil Abloh brought fashion to a generation who were “Not supposed to be there”. In an interview with model Naomi Campbell, he expressed that he didn’t ever imagine he could be a designer for Louis Vuitton as he didn’t see anyone that looked like him. And when talking about his first runway show as the appointed LV Artistic Director he dropped his rousing comment “The one thing that has to be stressed about that show, it actually wasn’t me on the runway…it was the community. That show was us.” His talent, ability to capture the zeitgeist and rare modesty will be missed.

Thank you Virgil Abloh, you’ve inspired us all to be better. You changed the game.

Rest in Power Sir. #VirgilWasHere

Words by, Tim Andrews, Creative Design Lead at The Fitting Room

2 years ago