That’s Fashion, Sweetie: On Virgil Abloh

Photo of people at a concert. There is the words "virgil was here" in red lights in the sky.
Virgil Abloh’s sudden passing set shockwaves through the fashion industry with those who knew him remembered him on social media. (Photo courtesy of The New York Times)

On Nov. 28, LVMH announced on Twitter that Ghanian-American designer Virgil Abloh, CEO of luxury streetwear brand Off-White and men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton, had passed away from a rare form of cancer.

To say this disrupted the fashion world is an understatement, as his private battle was exactly that — private. Reminiscent of Chadwick Boseman’s death in August 2020, the sudden death hit the community hard.

Celebrities mourned their friend, celebrating his life and his impact. While some impacts were culturally influential, such as learning to seize rare opportunities as fashion influencer Wisdom Kaye recalled on Twitter, some of Abloh’s impacts were intimate. Hailey Bieber mourned the loss of her friend and designer of her custom wedding gown on Instagram, just as FULLY, founder of rising U.K. brand House of Errors, did on his story, thanking Abloh for inspiring “us regular people to get in the industry.” 

However, Abloh’s career wasn’t smooth sailing. Of course, with success comes scrutiny, and there has always been a lot of hate for his unorthodox background and rumors of his unoriginality. 

Firstly, his background. 

He received a bachelor’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Madison for civil engineering and a master’s in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology. Even someone who is new to the world of fashion understands that to have such a dynamic and explosive career without any formal training is very rare. 

Other iconic designers that have chalked their brand design down to specific concepts and motifs, such as Abloh’s circular cutouts and quotations, all had formal training. For example, there is Alexander McQueen, the Central Saint Martins graduate, with his signature skulls. Beckett Fogg and Piotrek Pansczczyk, founders of AREA, the brand known for their signature crystal embellishments on their couture garments, both graduated from Parsons.

Instead, Abloh credits his architectural background to his artistic eye and vision. It is important to dispel here that while his path to fashion was extremely strange, he did grow up learning how to sew from his mother who was a seamstress. 

Second, his supposed lack of originality. 

Before I get into LV, just know I won’t discuss Off-White in this particular section. I personally believe Abloh did a phenomenal job with birthing Off-White to the world of luxury and high-end fashion. His ability to play with everyday shapes — exhibited by his education in architecture — and have us interact with them through the brand’s utility belts, brightly colored tags and traffic-sign-like designs is a buttery blend of our reality and the fashion world. His strategic collaborations with brands such as Nike in obvious Off-White manners only aided with the brand’s success.

He was a design genius, and Off-White was a breath of fresh air, molding together street style and luxury, perfectly complimenting this current generation and our wide arrange of styles and meshing personalities. 

Now back to LV. Many claimed that Abloh was unoriginal with his collections as the LV men’s artistic director. However, in interviews he outright states that he draws inspirations from architecture and past designs from LV and other designers. While some of these “homages” seem a little too copy-and-paste, such as his homage to Walter Van Beirendock’s 2016 fall collection with Abloh’s 2021 spring collection, at least he doesn’t outright claim that he is 100% original like some other brands who had been caught red-handed for stealing designs (*ahem Danielle Bernstein and Balenciaga*).

And these claims are not just hater theories or conspiracies: Diet Prada on Instagram has called out Abloh on his creations that hit a little too close to home for some other brands, like a chair at IKEA and the brand Gramm. Even fashion legend and current creative director of Prada Raf Simons answered in a GQ interview that brands that inspire him are “not Off-White” and that he felt that Abloh and Off-White’s cult following was comprised of “people who [brought] something that [he] think[s] has not been seen, that is original.” 

Still, despite this, it is silly to say that Abloh has not played a significant role in the fashion industry and representation. He was the first Black man to ever take on leadership in LV company history and further proved his capability by branching into the world of furniture and art. He also actively supported Black communities with Off-White, launching his “I Support Young Black Businesses” project that raised funds every quarter for designers and groups selected by Abloh himself. 

Not only did his great success prove formal training is not a requirement to work in the world of luxury and high-end streetwear design, but as a person of color, the reign of predominantly white and European power was actively challenged.

For those who haven’t watched Abloh’s final Louis Vuitton’s show, titled “Virgil was here,” I recommend watching the show. The collection, while full of bright spring colors, was deeply emotional as each creation planted his creativity, friendship and love in the audience for one final time. His reign has inspired this generation and will continue to inspire past his roam on Earth. He has opened many doors for a lot of people, and we will never forget his efforts in the industry and in everyday life.

Rest in peace, Virgil. Thank you for everything you’ve done. 

Hadyn Phillips is a freshman writing about fashion in the 21st century, specifically spotlighting students and popular controversy. Her column, “That’s Fashion, Sweetie,” ran every other Tuesday.