PARIS – Virgil Abloh, the founder of luxury streetwear brand Off-White and artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton, has died from cancer at the age of 41.
One of the most influential designers of his generation, Abloh had been privately battling the disease for several years, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton said in a statement on Sunday. The designer died in hospital in Houston, Tx., on Sunday, according to sources familiar with the matter.
“We are all shocked after this terrible news. Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, said in the statement.
“The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow, and we are all thinking of his loved ones after the passing of their husband, their father, their brother or their friend,” he added.
Abloh’s family posted a message to his Instagram account.
“We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved Virgil Abloh, a fiercely devoted father, husband, son, brother, and friend. He is survived by his loving wife Shannon Abloh, his children Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh, his sister Edwina Abloh, his parents Nee and Eunice Abloh, and numerous dear friends and colleagues,” it said.
Abloh’s shocking death comes two days before he was due to stage a show in Miami featuring his spring 2022 Vuitton men’s wear collection alongside 10 new looks created for the occasion. He posted a teaser for the show to his Instagram account just four days ago with the comment: “Miami, I have an idea…”
Officials at Vuitton could not immediately be reached to determine whether the event will go ahead. The show was to coincide with the official opening in the Miami Design District of Vuitton’s first-ever freestanding store devoted to Abloh’s men’s collection.
Davide De Giglio, chairman and CEO of Off-White’s parent company New Guards Group, and Andrea Grilli, CEO of Off-White, said in a joint statement: “Virgil was a genius, a visionary but most of all he was family. There are no words to describe the loss that his passing leaves in our lives. His legend, his love and his spirit will remain with us forever. Thank you for changing our lives, Virgil. Rest in power, brother.”
The Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode (FHCM) and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) also lamented his passing.
“Virgil Abloh was a visionary fashion designer. Driven by great creativity, he renewed the codes of fashion, founded an incredibly successful house and brought all his talent and keen sense of innovation to Louis Vuitton. But above all, he was an exceptional man through his humanity, his openness to others, his generosity of heart and his willingness to break down barriers,” FHCM president Ralph Toledano said in a statement.
“The CFDA mourns the loss of our esteemed member of the board and longtime CFDA designer Virgil Abloh. Virgil changed the landscape of American fashion with his groundbreaking Off-White label and broke barriers as the first Black artistic director of Louis Vuitton. We are thinking of his family and friends during this difficult time,” said CFDA chairman Tom Ford.
Alexandre Arnault, the son of Bernard Arnault and executive vice president, product and communications at Tiffany & Co., grew close to Abloh when they collaborated on a range of suitcases during his tenure as CEO of Rimowa.
“Virgil Abloh was the essence of modern creativity. It was always a privilege to work with him in many occasions and I was constantly amazed by the amount of groundbreaking ideas coming out of his brain,” Arnault wrote on Instagram.
“On a personal note, he was a dear friend, always giving me the most precious advice, always on point. Thank you for everything you brought to the world Virgil. My thoughts and prayers are with his family, wife and children,” he added.
Fear of God designer Jerry Lorenzo posted an image of him walking alongside Abloh. “Thank you… you opened both physical and mental doors for me, that allowed me to see what was possible for my life. I am forever grateful. What you did for the world, is beyond words,” he wrote.
Abloh joined Vuitton in March 2018, and his first show in June of that year marked a new chapter in fashion: the moment when streetwear crashed the hallowed halls of luxury brands, and the first time a Black designer had taken the reins of a major luxury brand.
The event, on a hot Paris summer’s day, was filled with the electricity of an historic occasion and Abloh was overcome with emotion backstage afterward as he hugged longtime friend Kanye West.
In September 2019, the designer said he was taking a break from work on doctor’s orders. He never specified the nature of his illness but returned a few months later busier than ever, keeping up a sustained rhythm of design collaborations with brands including Nike, Mercedes-Benz, Vitra, Braun and Evian, among others.
Earlier this year LVMH signaled its confidence in Abloh by raising its stake in Off-White LLC, the trademark owner of the Off-White brand, to 60 percent, and giving the designer leeway to launch brands and seal partnerships across the full range of the luxury conglomerate’s activities, beyond just the fashion division.
“I’m completely honored. There’s a long trajectory of creative directors partnering with a house, but this is something completely new, and I commend Mr. Arnault and [Louis Vuitton CEO] Michael Burke for seeing my talent across spectrums and incubating me to a place where I can suggest different things that don’t fall in the realm of a runway show,” Abloh told WWD at the time.
“My eyes have always been wide in terms of fashion, arts and culture and how they can merge together. So the announcement is leaning on that, that now there’s an opportunity to grow new segments and root myself within LVMH, the group,” he added.
Abloh, who last year raised $1 million for a scholarship fund for Black fashion students, said he was committed to keeping the door open for diverse talent. “Today just marks a day where I’m given a seat at the table for us to do more, and not be limited by the past,” he said.
The first sign of his behind-the-scenes influence came in September, when LVMH revealed it was naming Nigo — the Japanese streetwear pioneer and founder of A Bathing Ape — as the new artistic director of Kenzo. Abloh and Nigo had previously collaborated on a highly successful capsule line for Vu
Geoffroy wan Raemdonck, CEO of Neiman Marcus Group, said Sunday, “I am devastated to learn of the passing of Virgil Abloh. He was a visionary and creative genius who’s understanding of culture extended beyond streetwear; the fashion industry will be deeply impacted by his loss. Virgil’s contribution and commitment to the fashion industry was unparalleled, and his wisdom and creativity will be greatly missed. On behalf of NMG, we express our greatest condolences to his loved ones and the LVMH and Off-White family.”
Alain Prost, chairman and CEO of Ginori 1735, with which Abloh’s Off-White collaborated on a tableware collection earlier this year, said,
“We learned this sad news with deep sorrow: Virgil Abloh represents the essence of the visionary genius, able to give a unique vision of fashion and to bring streetwear into worlwide luxury imagination. A pioneer who was able to see the future and to transform his visisons into reality, with tenacity, courage and enthusiasm. Virgil was one of the most disruptive voices we had the honour to work with in recent years and his untimely death is a great loss to the world of fashion and design.”
Born in Rockford, Ill., of Ghanaian parents, Abloh was an artist, architect, engineer, creative director and designer. After earning a degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin Madison, he completed a master’s degree in Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Having risen to fame as West’s creative director, Abloh launched his first label, Pyrex Vision, in 2012 with a line of screen-printed Rugby Ralph Lauren flannel shirts. He was also a member of the Been Trill collective alongside Heron Preston and Matthew Williams.
Off-White was launched online in late 2013, holding its first showroom presentation in Paris the following January with designs that merged influences ranging from Bauhaus to sports apparel and Caravaggio. It established the visual signature of the brand: thick diagonal stripes that have become a byword for insider cool.
From the start Abloh made no secret of his ultimate ambition to take the creative reins of a luxury house.
“I have a litany of ideas that bring modern relevance, but also a financial vision, on how these brands can be more successful in the space of luxury,” he told WWD in 2016. “Off-White is sort of my résumé and it’s my laboratory to experiment with these ideas to see which ones are valid.”
He built the label at warp speed, expanding into women’s wear within 18 months of its launch. Off-White made it onto the shortlist of the 2015 edition of the LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, crystallizing the advent of streetwear as a credible challenger to the luxury status quo, and cementing close ties to the French group.
Just four years after its launch, Abloh took the helm of the men’s wear division of Vuitton, the world’s largest luxury brand.
It was a destiny he pursued with singular intent, ever since hitting Paris Fashion Week in 2009 with a crew that included West; Don Crawley, with whom Abloh cofounded Chicago concept store RSVP Gallery; designer and retailer Chris Julian, and musicians Taz Arnold and Fonzworth Bentley.
“We were obviously fans of fashion. That’s how we arrived at the industry,” he told WWD in 2018. “We couldn’t even have gone into a Louis Vuitton show at the time.”
Burke was an early proponent of bringing streetwear into the luxury sphere, having instigated Vuitton’s wildly successful 2017 collaboration with New York skateboard brand Supreme, which was said to have drummed up 100 million euros in business.
He met Abloh when the designer was interning at Fendi in 2006 alongside West, in a bid to learn more about the luxury industry.
“Every generation has to rediscover what their parents already know, and generational transmission does not occur as it used to. Each generation has their own mediums, their own content,” Burke told WWD in 2018. “Today, what’s truly different is the inclusiveness.”
Silvia Venturini Fendi, creative director of accessories, men’s wear and children’s at Fendi, paid tribute to the designer on Sunday.
“In such moments words do not seem to give true justice. Virgil’s personal and innovative point of view will be greatly missed, along his presence and friendship. He opened new ways for the industry and I will forever remember with deep affection the beautiful days spent together during his stay in Rome,” she said.
Abloh’s rise to prominence coincided with peers such as Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, Shayne Oliver and Gosha Rubchinskiy — a group that disrupted and energized fashion with their integration of web culture, art, streetwear and luxury codes.
Abloh was well aware that some critics did not consider him a bona fide fashion designer, addressing the issue in the notes for his debut Vuitton show.
“I don’t call myself a designer, nor do I call myself an image-maker. I don’t reject the label of either. I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal, nor am I trying to be more, now. I would like to define the title of artistic director for a new and different era,” he posited.
In 2017, he joined forces with Nike to reissue 10 emblematic shoe styles, including the Air Jordan I and Blazer. “The Ten” was hailed as the biggest sneaker release event of the year, and the partnership was subsequently extended to a capsule line for tennis player Serena Williams and a collaboration on women’s ready-to-wear.
Abloh presented his work at important design institutions around the globe, including the Harvard Graduate School of Design, Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and the Rhode Island School of Design.
In 2019, he had a major exhibition of past and current work at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Chicago called “Figures of Speech,” and recently attended the exhibition’s opening in Doha, Qatar. He also made a push into art in 2018 with a collaboration with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami.
Abloh was awarded various prizes, including the 2018 WWD Newsmaker of the Year award, the British Fashion Awards “Urban Luxe” award in 2017 and 2018, and International Designer of the Year at the GQ Men of the Year Awards in 2017.
Asked if he ever worried about doing too much, he swerved the question. “For me, the only thing I truly am is a creative person. I have ideas across all categories, so in a way it’s a matter of understanding and offering a suggestion to what the future could hold. Fashion is just one field of many that design can be applied to,” he said.
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