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Virgil Abloh’s trailblazing success showed way for black designers

Designer Virgil Abloh accepts applause after the Vuitton Men’s Fall/Winter 2019-2020 fashion collection presented in Paris. Picture: AP

Designer Virgil Abloh accepts applause after the Vuitton Men’s Fall/Winter 2019-2020 fashion collection presented in Paris. Picture: AP

Published Dec 4, 2021


BY Robin Givhan

The greatest gift that designer Virgil Abloh gave the fashion industry was his presence on the world stage in the most rarefied circumstances, walking alongside design titans, holding his own with venerated experts and sometimes taking them to school.

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Abloh was the dark-skinned black man with close-cropped hair, tall and slim, leading the menswear division of Louis Vuitton, a historic French fashion house. He was a rare bird flying at such heights. But he was vividly real.

The sight of him made fashion wondrous to yet another generation of dreamers.

Abloh, who died Sunday at 41 from cancer, built up his fashion resumé and his notoriety with Off-White, the menswear and womenswear brand he established as part of his creative ecosystem. He was not merely a designer, and fashion might well have been his least inventive gesture. He was a DJ and a creative director and a Kanye West collaborator.

Tributes pour in for Virgil Abloh

Still, the place where he made the widest impact was at the fashion company owned by the French luxury conglomerate LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), an entity that revels in its history, its exclusivity and its traditions. Fashion, for all its rebellious gestures, can be hesitant to take risks. It can be stubbornly averse to change when it involves anything more than colour palettes and silhouettes. Fashion loves nothing more than variations on a signature theme. And it has been loath to appoint black designers to lead its most storied brands.

Abloh represented a monumental change. His appointment as artistic director of Louis Vuitton's menswear division in 2018 came at a time when the culture was taking a hard look at the fashion industry and its lack of diversity and inclusivity. Abloh’s arrival registered like a thunderclap when he stepped on to one of the biggest stages at LVMH, which also owns Christian Dior, Celine and Givenchy. His young fan base cheered him on.

Like his fans, Abloh was enamoured with the big fashion houses with their logos and branding. But he didn't woo shoppers by whispering the usual sweet nothings about heritage and the aristocracy. He wasn't interested in anything that reeked of mothballs and dust. Abloh’s work spoke of irony and aspirations, wealth and self-invention. His definition of luxury was less about the craftsmanship of the object, and more about your individual relationship to it. Did it reflect your world view? Did it reflect your world?

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Abloh devotees will surely memorialise some particular design as a monument to his aesthetic. Perhaps it will be his Off-White sneakers with the oversized security tab that dangled over the instep. Maybe they will highlight the Off-White handbags he designed with the Swiss cheese cut-outs. Or perhaps they will point to the spangly Louis Vuitton harnesses that turned up on the red carpet on actors like Timothée Chalamet and Michael B Jordan.

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The beautiful, but terribly short, legacy of Abloh is not that of a genius artistic director. It’s better than that. It’s more important than that. He was extremely talented and extraordinarily hard-working. He had a distinctive point of view. But he was not superhuman, and he didn’t pretend to be.

His many fans didn't look upon him with awe. They regarded him with communion. The gift that he gave to aspiring black designers was the ability to see themselves succeeding within a fashion system that had tantalised folks for generations. They could excel and thrive. And they could do so even if they were merely human.

Abloh, who’d studied engineering and architecture, came to fashion late by apprenticing at Fendi. He was proof that one could take a circuitous route to the industry and still gain entry. He wasn’t known for his mastery of fashion’s technical skills, but he understood popular culture and what it meant to move through the world using clothing as a signifier of belonging. When he sought to establish his own brand, he rooted it in Milan. Abloh wasn’t interested in blowing up the fashion system. He was simply looking to blow open the door.

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He didn't bend the fashion industry to his will. But he did use the force of his own will to make himself seen and heard and respected. Abloh believed that the fashion system could work for him. He believed that it could work for other black designers. He was an optimist but also a pragmatist. When he talked about supporting the Fashion Scholarship Fund in New York, for example, he was specific in his desire to help black designers. He knew the challenges they faced, from financial to existential.

Designer Virgil Abloh appears at the end of his Spring/Summer 2019 collection for Off-white fashion label during Mens’ Fashion Week in Paris, France. Picture: Reuters

Abloh operated under fashion's pre-existing rules, showing his collections alongside other brands, engaging with editors and retailers. He was a talker. He could be charming and earnest and inquisitive. As he moved through the backstages of Milan and Paris, he blazed a trail and made it plain that he wanted other young black designers to use the path he cleared.

He didn’t suggest that navigating the fashion system was simple. He never made his success look easy. But he made it clear that doing both were humanly possible.

This article first appeared in Saturday Insider, Dec 4, 2021