Celebrities flooded social media with thoughts and prayers to honor the passing of a 41-year old who took the design world by storm.
The death of Virgil Abloh was announced yesterday by clothing giant Louis Vuitton, which Abloh had been the men’s artistic director for since 2018. He was also the CEO and founder of Off-White, a fashion company that revolutionized streetwear into the design world.
Abloh had been privately suffering from cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of heart cancer, since 2019.
Originally from Illinois, Virgil Abloh graduated from University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2003 with a degree in Civil Engineering. After completing his Master’s Degree in architecture from ITT, he strayed away from his diplomas and got his first glimpse into fashion as an intern with Fendi. It was here that Abloh met future collaborator, Ye – formerly known as Kanye West.
Abloh would go on to be the creative director for rapper Ye, launching him into the spotlight of success and down his path to fame. In fact, his artwork for “Watch the Throne”, a collaborative album from Ye and Jay-Z, was nominated for Best Recording Package at the 2011 Grammy Awards.
A pioneer in blending the borders between fields, Abloh dipped his toes in several realms of design, such as crafting furniture for IKEA, and re-designing and re-selling street clothes with his 2012 company Pyrex Vision. He even helped McDonalds design the boxes for Big Macs.
Abloh was adamant on distinguishing himself as more than just a clothing designer to stick out in the field.
Sarah Anne Carter is Executive Director of Design and Material Culture at UW-Madison. She says Abloh is an example to her students.
“When I think about Virgil Abloh’s approach, I really think about it as the future of design for our students. That’s what I hope for them: that they’ll be able to cross categories and think about how to make the design work that they do more accessible. And that’s what he really did, he made design accessible and the design process accessible for so many people,” states Abloh.
This accessibility can be seen through the casual, edgy clothing of Off-White, Abloh’s first fashion house. The clothing line focuses on high-end street clothing, something unique to the fashion scene. By 2018, Off-White was one of the world’s best selling clothing brands.
It was in 2018 that Abloh became artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s Menswear, the first African American male to do so.
Even with this celebrity-type status, Virgil Abloh made sure to remember his roots.
Back in 2015, he came to UW-Madison to announce a new scholarship fund for students coming to the university. He also designed the 2015 Red Shirt, an annual charity for the university , and the proceeds went directly to this fund.
Sarah Schutt is Executive Director of UW’s Alumni Association. She says the connection he kept with the university highlighted his character.
“He had been in contact with Kanye West and had already started making his mark on the fashion and design industry, as well as DJ-ing. So, we were just so thrilled and honored that he came back to campus to spend time with us and spend time with students and share his talents to benefit a student scholarship. It exhibited his incredibly generous spirit as well as the creativity that he is known for,” Schutt says.
In 2020, Abloh started another scholarship fund named “Post-Modern”, that gives out monetary support to Black students looking to go into the fashion industry.
Marianne Fairbanks, Associate Professor of Human Ecology at UW-Madison, says he has even come back to teach students.
“He had a lecture here I think 2 years ago, and our students were just ecstatic about the idea of going to see him in person and hear about his brand and his story. You know, he wasn’t a fashion major, disappointingly, but it was pretty strong to have the knowledge that he was an alumni of UW and such a role model for our students,” says Fairbanks.
Virgil Abloh will be remembered for not only crossing boundaries in fashion and design, but proving to all of us that a degree doesn’t define your future.
Photo courtesy Myleskalus on Wikimedia Commons.