One of the hottest names in contemporary fashion, Virgil Abloh has made history as the first African American to take the helm at industry giant Louis Vuitton. Although he may be best known for his industrial style and huge price-tags, Abloh’s understanding of design and creative passion goes beyond clothing. From Off-White to Ikea, this article unpacks everything you need to know about the inspiring career of this innovative entrepreneur.
10. Virgil Abloh Initially Trained As An Architect
As a child, Virgil Abloh’s parents raised him to enjoy life while working hard. They allowed him to DJ at parties on the weekends, but always made sure that he applied himself at school, with the result that he got accepted to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to study civil engineering. After his first degree, Abloh continued in education to earn his Master of Architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. He was particularly interested in the Post-Modern architectural style of Deconstructivism, the influence of which can clearly be seen in his clothing design.
As well as promoting her son’s education, Abloh’s mother, who was a seamstress, taught him the basics of clothing design and construction, which undoubtedly paved the way for his future success in the fashion industry. His family continue to support him by attending his shows.
9. He Always Held A Passion For Clothing And Fashion Design
Inspired by a combination of his mother’s work, the design concepts he studied, and the street culture of Chicago, Abloh began to explore the world of fashion by designing t-shirts and contributing to a popular streetwear-oriented blog, The Brilliance. In some of his posts, he criticized leading brands such as Gucci for the poor-quality of their graphic design and materials. As his career began to skyrocket, he returned to the blog to give an interview about his inspirations, projects and thoughts on the industry.
8. Abloh’s Creativity Was Immediately Spotted By Some Very Important People
While working at Custom Kings, a print-shop in Chicago, Abloh came across musician Kanye West, who immediately recognised his creativity and talent for design. West asked Abloh to work on the merchandising and graphics for his legendary album, Graduation. Together, West and Abloh were determined to combine rap, art and fashion, and therefore interned together at Fendi to learn as much about clothing design as possible. According to Abloh, ‘when we were there, we did all the meetings. We were off the radar in Rome, getting to work at 9 a.m. on a Monday. We did all the intern shit…We went to Hawaii after this period’.
As the creative director for one of hip hop’s greatest artists, Abloh was naturally introduced to some highly influential people within the music and arts industries. These included Jay-Z, whose collaborative album with Kanye also benefited from his artistic management, and Michael Burke, the then-CEO of Louis Vuitton, who noticed Abloh’s skills at Fendi.
7. Abloh’s First Company Proved That He Is A True Entrepreneur
Abloh’s first solo-endeavour into the world of fashion came in 2012, when he launched a company named Pyrex Vision. The premise of the label was to appeal to youth culture by producing familiar clothes with a new twist. This involved buying up deadstock flannel shirts from high-end fashion label Ralph Lauren, adding Abloh’s own designs and then selling them under his own brand name. Paying around $40 for each shirt, Abloh managed to sell them for over $500.
Despite the huge success of Pyrex Vision, Abloh shut it down after only a year, claiming that it was ‘a side project’ and an artistic experiment. Although short-lived, Pyrex Vision helped to establish Abloh’s name in the fashion industry and demonstrated his skills as both designer and entrepreneur.
6. It Was With Off-White That He Achieved The Greatest Success
Shortly after shutting down Pyrex Vision, Abloh founded Off-White, the brand that would become a hugely successful fashion house with a following of 10.3 million on Instagram alone. Based in the Italian fashion centre of Milan, Off-White now has 49 stores across the globe, is stocked by some of the world’s most prestigious retailers, and turns over an annual profit of hundreds of millions.
Much of the clothing and accessories produced by Off-White carry the same characteristic designs, featuring quotation marks, bold capitals, barricade tape and zip-ties. The industrial vibe that characterises Off-White streetwear may seem at odds with its hefty price-tag, but it once again demonstrates Abloh’s ability to find a unique niche in an over-populated market.
5. His Label Has Collaborated With Many Giants Of The Fashion Industry
One of the strategies Virgil Abloh used to increase Off-White’s presence in fashion culture was to collaborate with prominent brands. In 2017, for instance, he worked with Nike to redesign a number of the label’s most popular sneakers. To keep true to the essence of Nike, Abloh retained the original structural design of the shoes, but added his own innovations in the classic Off-White style with zip-ties and bold slogans. He has continued to work with the sportswear company since, even creating a unique kit for tennis legend, Serena Williams.
Abloh’s involvement in sportswear continued into 2019, when he collaborated with luxury Canadian retailer SSENSE to create a high-end collection of workout and training clothes. Again, these bore all the marks of the Off-White touch, with yellow barricade tape and prominent arrows featuring across the range.
Abloh had also been thrown into the spotlight by his many celebrity fans, most prominently Hailey Bieber, who wore a custom Off-White gown for her wedding to Justin Bieber. Abloh made sure that even this design was on-brand, with the veil sporting a characteristic bold slogan. But this time it was somewhat more romantic, reading “till death do us part”. Her instagram photo of the magnificent veil soon gathered over 4 million likes!
4. Abloh Uses His Clothing To Make Political Statements
Despite the simplicity of much of Off-White’s stock, Abloh maintains that there is real meaning behind all of his designs. The quotation marks, for instance, are intended to draw attention to social norms and to challenge one’s perceptions and assumptions. Abloh has also said that he included zip-ties in many of his designs to allow the customer to customise their piece, adjusting the components and truly making it unique.
Abloh has also responded to current events with new designs. In the aftermath of President Trump’s election, he created a line of clothing expressing the benefits of immigration, multiculturalism and globalism. Later in 2017, he collaborated with Planned Parenthood to produce a number of t-shirts in aid of the Women’s March of Washington.
3. These Achievements Have Led To Virgil Abloh’s Historic Place In The History Of Fashion
Abloh has won countless industry awards for his clothing and other designs, including a Grammy for Best Recording Package in 2011 for his work with Kanye West and Jay-Z. In 2017 alone he was awarded the Urban Luxe prize at the British Fashion Awards, made GQ’s international designer of the year, and acknowledged as the designer behind the Shoe of the Year.
In 2018, Abloh made fashion history when he was appointed as the artistic director of the menswear ready-wear line at Louis Vuitton, being the first black person to hold the prestigious title. That same year he was featured on Time magazine’s list of 100 most influential people in the world; only one other designer made the cut.
2. Virgil Abloh’s Talents For Design Extend Beyond The World Of Fashion
Although fashion seems to be his forte, Abloh has also demonstrated his skills in a number of other areas. He has designed furniture for both Ikea and Off-White’s own homeware line, Grey Area, creating contemporary simple pieces with a number of quirky features, such as a chair with one leg elevated by an added doorstop. He also worked with luggage company Rimowa to produce a limited edition transparent suitcase, which probably speeds up airport security.
Abloh has also worked on contemporary art with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, who was also responsible for writing his entry in Times 100. Murakami has exhibited Abloh’s independent work at his Tokyo gallery, and the two have collaborated on a number of exhibitions held around the world in London, Paris and California.
Outside the world of visual design, Abloh has long harboured a passion for music. While still at school and college, he DJed at the weekends and began to amass such a following that he even played international shows. As well as releasing his own music, Abloh even held the role of resident DJ at a Las Vegas nightclub during 2019.
1. In All His Projects, Virgil Abloh Constantly Looks Towards The Future
Virgil Abloh giving a lecture at Harvard University, via Harvard University Graduate School of Design
The Off-White brand is ever evolving, stating that “all products are based in a concept that adapts from season to season”. While retaining features of classic designs, Virgil Abloh constantly innovates and provides his audience with a wide range of exciting and unexpected creations. He prides himself with being at the forefront of fashion and pushing the boundaries further with every new line. Remarkably, he doesn’t mind criticism or competition and even encourages it, telling those who question the significant price-tags that come with his clothes: “This concept of a brand, the image, what the clothing looks like, that’s free. Go make your own version of it. It’s meant to inspire.”
Abloh is even ready to help the next generation of fashion designers who, he admits, might be the ones to make Off-White go out of style. As well as teaching an online class on streetwear, he gave a lecture at Harvard University on the concepts of design, branding and business. His success in all of these fields has undoubtedly made Virgil Abloh an iconic figure in contemporary fashion and design.