Nearly two weeks ago, Virgil Abloh, the mastermind behind Off-White and artistic director of Louis Vuitton Men, passed away on November 28th after a two-year battle against cancer. He was 41.
The news came as a brutal shock to the luxury industry, as not only had it lost one of its most prolific and inspiring creative minds, it also realised abruptly just how influential his presence was across the whole of the industry.
From brand cross-collaborations and the rise of casual wear, to storytelling and the mixing of different creative disciplines, Abloh’s influence can be seen in every aspect of luxury.
Earlier this year, Abloh was made “the most powerful Black executive at the powerful luxury goods group in the world,” according to the New York Times. LVMH announced in July that it was acquiring a 60 percent stake in Off-White, and that Abloh would be taking on a bigger role within the group “to launch new brands and partner with existing ones in a variety of sectors beyond the realm of fashion.”
Michael Burke, Chairman and Chief Executive of Louis Vuitton said at the time that the appointment of Abloh was to help its biggest brands “stay plugged into the contemporary world.” And Abloh was the very definition of contemporary in the luxury world.
Much has been said in the press about his business, creative projects, and accomplishments, but one detail I believe has been overlooked is that he was a real Renaissance man. Like Filippo Brunelleschi, the Italian architect, designer, and sculptor who is widely recognised as the founding father of Renaissance architecture, Abloh also encompassed many roles that made him stand out as more than just the average profile of a successful artistic director of a prestigious French brand like Louis Vuitton.
With a degree in civil engineering, and a Masters in Architecture, Abloh didn’t have any formal background in fashion before he was invited to intern at Fendi in Rome with Kanye West, but as he noted in some interviews, he wanted “to make t-shirts”, he was passionate about graphics and he obsessed with creativity.
He launched Pyrex, a sort of a pop-up brand, and then Off White followed after. The skepticism that he faced from many only added fuel to his fire that he could be a “fashion designer”. And he was, in fact, much more than this.
He was from Chicago, Illinois. He was Black. He was fond of Street style, skating, and Air Jordans. In the past, the idea of having the French Maison “occupied” by a guy who reached success thanks to a love of designing t-shirts and sneakers would have been very unlikely. But Abloh broke through the barriers, and was the most inspiring, humble, and eclectic artist on the scene, developing collaborations with the likes of Mercedes-Benz, Ikea, and Evian among others.
His encounters with people like Kanye West, Michael Burke, and Bernard Arnault, helped nurture his talent and drive and he in turn became the most empowering man in fashion.
In September, at the LVMH Prize awards (the very same prize that he did not win with Off-White years before), he took the time to talk to the finalists who did not win, sharing with them the fact that being there was already a giant step towards success. He offered his support to mentor them, making sure to leave them his contact details.
Much like mentorship and patronage was a key value during the Renaissance, he loved mentoring young talents; from the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center to the mentorship series “Free Game,” a digital educational platform of lectures, learning resources, and inspirational content, he gave to visibility artists like Samantha Smyser-De Leon as well as Samuel Ross, the British artist and designer, who founded the menswear label A-Cold-Wall.
The tribute that Louis Vuitton paid to Virgil Abloh was moving, passionate, and heartfelt. On December 1st, the brand held the last, posthumous show of Abloh in Miami in an atmosphere that was rich in magic and energy. The desire to celebrate its dearest partner in creativity and vision came out loud and clear together with the love that all the LV collaborators felt for him.
“Virgil was here” is an emotional concept, the red air balloon was a fil rouge carrying his memory in the sky, the curated collection, the drones painting in red the Miami sky, never a farewell has been so impeccable and intense. Virgil was here and the pain was there as well, together with the disbelief of such an untimely end of a dream.
The last show started with a statement from Virgil: “I’ve been on this focus, in terms of my art and creativity, of getting adults to behave like children again that they go back into this sense of wonderment, they start to stop using their mind and they start using their imagination.”
Young followers wrote on Instagram, “Virgil was mentoring us all just by existing” and highlighted how this 17-year-old Black boy turned into one of the most powerful, authentic, fashion influencers of the past 10 years, who will continue to have a deep impact on the future of fashion.
Abloh was an open-minded, curious explorer of fashion, art, design, lifestyle turned into an artist using all the possible channels to deliver his vision. His human, nice and kind approach with people made him one of the most followed and beloved masterminds of this century.
At the end of its first LV show, Abloh posted a picture of himself walking on the famous rainbow path, just saying “You can do it”. He wanted to support talents grow and express themselves.
He wanted to give back to the world all the love, trust, and appreciation he finally got to receive from the fashion system. He wanted to share it, in a very unusual way for the self-centred fashion industry.
Virgil Abloh was special. He was like a Renaissance man. His friends and mentees say that his best trait was encouragement.
The show closed with a last quote: “There’s no limit, life is so short that you can’t waste even a day subscribing to what someone thinks you can do versus knowing what you can do”.
And he reminded us, like the most prestigious Renaissance ambassador Lorenzo il Magnifico wrote in the “Trionfo di Bacco e Arianna” ballade that:
“In the future come what may! –
Youths and maids, enjoy to-day;
Naught ye know about to-morrow.”
Virgil was here.
And forever will be.