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Why Virgil Abloh matters
In September of 2019, Virgil Abloh revealed in a brief interview with Vogue that he would be slowing down. The Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton men’s artistic director had become famous for the breakneck pace at which he managed to create, collaborate and influence a generation of young creatives well beyond the confines of the fashion industry.
The announcement was a minor blip, only newsworthy to the degree that Abloh would not be attending his imminent Off-White show in Paris despite famously often booking eight international flights a week.
“I’m excited to drop the kids off at school and be able to be here for those moments,” he said about the slowdown which he described as a mutual decision between him and his doctor. “In high school I always took pride in the award where you didn’t have any sick days. ‘Hey, seventh year in a row I’ve never been home sick!’ But now, at 38? “Being busy isn’t working. I’m using this as I do everything else, as a way to propel me forward.”
Upon his tragic passing on Sunday, which was revealed to be the result of a 2-year battle with cancer, re-reading the overlooked address to his health and future at the time is both a gut-wrenching juxtaposition and succinct embodiment to one of the most influential men’s fashion designers of all time.
Abloh’s career started alongside the rise a Kanye West, a friend whom he interned with for six months at Fendi in 2009. He designed some of the rapper's golden age album covers like 808s & Heartbreak, MBDTF, Yeezus, Watch the Throne and more. He helped guide Kanye’s mid aughts explosion onto the fashion scene before stepping out on his own into early days of digital streetwear mania.
It was with both Been Trill — a designer DJ group that also included Heron Preston and Matthew Williams — and Pyrex Vision that Abloh carved out his avenue within the increasingly crowded, yet flourishing, streetwear lane. The since-canonized first chapter of Off-White was successful in large part to a popular release of flannel shirts that loudly displayed the brand’s logo across the back.
“It’s highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of (Ralph Lauren) Rugby flannels, slapped ‘Pyrex 23’ on the back, and re-sold them for an astonishing markup of about 700%,” Jian DeLeon wrote for Four Pins at the time.
DeLeon’s concise evaluation of Pyrex Vision (which was later rebranded to Off-White after a lawsuit with the glassware giant), was a prophecy into the future of Abloh’s career, one that the designer himself would immortalize on a rug at entrance to his showroom.
Abloh became famous for preaching from the school of famous French painter Marcel Duchamp and the 3 percent rule which was the level of transformation he declared necessary to revamp an existing piece of art into his own. Sharpies, quotation marks and laid-bare inspirations became coveted items from his collaborations with the likes of Nike, Ikea, Evian and many more. As his status in the industry rose and his imprint could be found across seemingly all avenues of culture, the philosophy of minor adjustment also became a bane to many fashion critics' existence.
Abloh, however, never set out so much to be a traditional fashion designer as he preferred the title of “maker” — a tinker, a jester and a disruptor within an industry famous for gatekeeping its gilded halls.
Breaking down those gates with a sharpie turned mightier than a sword is perhaps Abloh’s greatest achievement and the one that will likely (hopefully) affect the industry for generations to come. Abloh was Louis Vuitton’s first African-American artistic director and one of only a select few black designers to ever reach the top of one of fashion’s most famous houses. His status, as a whole, at the forefront of streetwear solidified him as one of the most successful American designers ever within global fashion, a feat achieved in an almost incomprehensibly short amount of time.
“Virgil made it so we as young black youth can run around in Paris and Milan fashion week and be front row at these shows,” rapper Reese Laflare explained on Twitter. “Backstage at these shows etc…. It was a feeling we all knew that ‘we was good’”.
Through the lens of opening doors for his fellow black creatives — a group whose work has long birthed many of the world’s greatest cultural exports at the expense of accreditation — Abloh’s relentless, sometimes slapdash, work and collaborations can be seen through a righteous light. With fashion as his medium and given a pair of keys afforded to very few, much less to those that looked like him, he chose to open as many doors as possible for the next generation.
“He was the shaman for a generation of young men who obsess over fashion,” GQ’s Rachel Tashjian writes. “The way previous generations of young men obsessed over sports or music”
👉 No One Pyrex Should Have All Those Rugby Flannels by Jian DeLeon
👉 Virgil Abloh, Menswear's Biggest Star by Doreen St. Félix
👉 Virgil Abloh Made His Life Into a Fairytale—and Then Made it the Blueprint for Fashion by Rachel Tashjian
Here's a reflection
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