Virgil Abloh (1980–2021)

John Hill
29. November 2021
Virgil Abloh at the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in 2017. (Photo: "GSAPPstudent"/Wikimedia Commons)

Influential artist and designer Virgil Abloh has died of cancer at just 41. Head of his own Off-White label and artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear, Abloh graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology with a Master of Architecture in 2006.

Abloh's death over the weekend was announced by LVMH, which acquired a majority stake in Off-White earlier this year, saying "we are all shocked after this terrible news." Like most people, Abloh's colleagues at LVMH were unaware that he had been battling "a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma," for over two years, according the Off-White website. "He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019," the statement continues, "undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture."

Abloh's ability to bridge fashion, art, and culture can be attributed to his architectural education. This comes from the designer himself, who told Shohei Shigematsu, partner at OMA New York, in the firm's new monograph, that "in comparison to architecture [fashion] is a different practice, but I like to think my whole operating system of logic comes completely from architecture, the only formal training I had." Attending IIT as the Rem Koolhaas-designed Student Center was being built, Abloh was less influenced by that building than OMA's Prada epicenters, which he learned about at the same time. "Fashion takes a hundred less hours, a hundred less days, and a hundred less people," he told Shigematsu, "to communicate an architectural idea to it being in the real world."

Abloh's TWENTYTHIRTYFIVE installation at the Vitra Campus in June 2019. (Photo: Julien Lanoo)

Abloh's path toward becoming an influential, globally famous fashion designer started soon after IIT, when he interned at Fendi and then, in 2009, met Kanye West (now Ye) and eventually became Ye's creative director. A series of collaborations and brands morphed into Off-White, Abloh's own label since 2013. Five years later he was appointed as director of Louis Vuitton's menswear line, and then in 2019 the major exhibition Virgil Abloh: "Figures of Speech" opened at MCA Chicago and has traveled extensively; it is currently on display in Doha. The MCA described Abloh as a "genre-bending artist and designer [who pioneered] a practice that cuts across media and connects visual artists, musicians, graphic designers, fashion designers, and architects."

That year he also installed TWENTYTHIRTYFIVE in the Vitra Fire Station designed by Zaha Hadid on the campus of Vitra in Weil am Rhein, Germany. The collaboration between Vitra and Virgil included a launch of two products by Jean Prouvé and limited edition exhibition spin-offs by Abloh, such as a hacked Antony Chair, that sold out quickly according to Susanna Koeberle, when she viewed the installation during its brief run. Like other companies enthralled by Abloh, Vitra described him at the time as "a cooperation partner who is known not only for pushing boundaries, but also for turning an entire system upside down and reinterpreting the concept of design."

Not surprisingly, with Abloh's ability to bridge various avenues of art, design, and culture, the word "renaissance" has been used to describe him, his indefatigable workload (he moonlighted as a DJ, and his output. He used the word in his conversation with Shigematsu, saying that "there was a moment after year 2000 where kids realized they didn't need a white picket fence, get married after school, work, have a kid." That's when, he continued, "I started saying my generation is a new renaissance" — a renaissance that will live on in the many people influenced by Abloh during his brief but impactful career. 

Abloh's 2019 installation at the Vitra Campus featured, among other things, a hacked version of Jean Prouvé's famous Antony Chair. (Photo: Julien Lanoo)

Virgil Abloh (September 30, 1980 – November 28, 2021) is survived by his wife, Shannon Abloh, his children, Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh, his sister, Edwina Abloh, and his parents, Nee and Eunice Abloh.

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