Virgil Abloh, the modern-day polymath
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We’ve all got our “Kanye-moments” we remember. Like the time he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech. Or when he told the TMZ office in LA that slavery was a choice.
Or when he flipped out at Sway on-air in 2013, venting about the struggles of being a black man who wants to create, living in a world governed by white people.
“HOW SWAY?! YOU DON’T HAVE ALL THE ANSWERS… IT AINT RALPH!”
Here’s a refresher:
You could hear the anger in his voice, the frustration of someone who’s called to create art, but feeling like the odds are stacked against you from the outset.
Kanye wanted his chance, his shot, to prove the haters wrong.
His point was: LET ME CREATE.
A note on fashion & aristocracy
(white) aristocrats have always controlled the fashion ecosystem. From retailers (Barneys, Bergdorf Goodman), to editorial (GQ, Esquire), to design houses (Louis Vuitton, YSL).
It’s all designed by hierarchies meant to keep the powerful in power.
Who you know and where you came from takes precedence over creativity and drive.
But when Kanye unraveled in that interview, he was on the cusp of something innovative.
We know how things turned out. Over the next few years, we’ve seen Kanye’s influence everywhere culturally. From his design collaborations with Nike and Adidas (Yeezy) and the now The Gap, he broke barriers in the “old guard” that few other black people have penetrated. All the while, he’s propped up countless artists from under his wing during his DONDA days, like Jerry Lorenzo (Fear of God), Matthew Williams (Givenchy), Heron Preston, and… Virgil Abloh.
Out of all Kanye’s understudies, Virgil is the most fascinating. As a black man in America, he’s challenged many norms in a white man’s world, he was one of the most influential artists of our day, and the tragedy of his passing was that he was just getting started.
Virgil’s 15-year journey was far from linear, but it’s incredible to look back on where he started and where he wound up.
The origins of Virgil Abloh
He’s the son of Ghanian immigrants who wound up in Rockford, Illinois. Raised on skateboarding, hip-hop, and indie rock music, he was surrounded by creativity.
He remembers his mom telling him growing up, “you don’t buy clothes; you make your clothes.”
After graduating, he later got a Masters’s in Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. But a shift was happening for Virgil as he began devoting himself to creative projects, like graffiti art, deejaying, and designing t-shirts.
What a telling foreshadowing of who he’d become: a maker.
Making T-Shirts for Kanye and the DONDA days
The two met serendipitously.
Virgil used to work for a local screen printing shop in Chicago. One of their clients was GOOD Music (Kanye’s label), and they often used this shop to print their concert merch.
One day, Virgil (purposefully) left a few shirt designs behind for Kanye. Ye loved em’ and offered Virgil the opportunity to work more closely with him.
Looking back, this was the catalyst for Virgil’s career. Being associated with Kanye West at that time building the kind of brand equity that any creative dreamt of having.
He steadily rose through the ranks, effectively becoming Ye’s right-hand man at DONDA (Kanye’s design company, named after his mother, Donda West) and established himself as an extension of Kanye’s mind.
They just clicked. People close to DONDA joked that Kanye cloned Virgil so he could be in two places at once.
But Virgil felt the same struggles Kanye felt. He watched quietly for years as Kanye navigated uncharted territory through the halls of corporations like Nike, hesitant to offer a black man with no formal design “training” or “credentials” the keys to the creative department.
Sure, black artists like P-Diddy (Sean John) and Jay-Z (Rocawear) built their clothing brands and comfortably exited, selling them to Brand Groups. Even then, they weren’t getting phone calls to run European fashion houses.
Kanye and Virgil were poised to do things differently. They wanted it. Bad.
Early Design, Pyrex Vision, and the making of OFF-WHITE
Virgil gained valuable experience working alongside Kanye, witnessing the Adidas deal he signed, and seeing his long-tail visions come to life.
And Virgil had projects of his own on the come up too.
He gained notoriety by collab’ing with Colette, a Parisian brand, in 2008, flying to Paris with Kanye in 2009 to make a splash at Fashion Week, and landing a coveted design internship with Kanye at Fendi.
But he wanted more.
He felt his chapter at DONDA was coming to a close and wanted to step out on his own as a creative.
That’s where Pyrex comes in. Pyrex (and the number 23, often seen in his designs) is a curious name. It’s a nod to black aspiration in America, believing that black people could rise above the stereotypes around drugs (Pyrex products being associated with making cocaine) and sports (23 being associated with Michael Jordan).
His first two designs were taking discounted Ralph Lauren flannels and Champion sweats and designing on top of them.
It was an ironic, controversial, and brilliant experiment. Seeing 700% markups on cheap-priced products pissed a lot of people off. And yet, the products still sold out.
Part of this had to do with Virgil’s deep network. Again, his association with Kanye got him access to some of the most influential folks in music and entertainment, from Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, to… well, Kanye.
But there’s an irony in taking cheap goods, marking them up, and seeing who’d buy them. It’s the business of scarcity and hype, one we’re accustomed to seeing in the reselling space on platforms like Grailed and StockX.
But Virgil knew if he wanted to compete on a design level with the luxury brands of Europe, he had to start as a luxury brand from the outset.
So, he sun-setted Pyrex as a brand, and in 2012, he launched OFF-WHITE as a design company.
He wanted it to represent more than just clothing. He set out to build a brand that transcends racial and societal boundaries set up by previous generations.
OFF-WHITE is an experiment. It touches everything from fashion and art to music and architecture.
It’s the “grey space between black and white,” another piece of racial commentary of a black man forging his path in a business world dominated by white men.
The emergence of OFF-WHITE as a luxury brand rooted in street and skate culture signaled a turning point for other streetwear brands to go upstream too.
It took him a few seasons to find his rhythm, but when he did, Virgil became a design sensation, forming alliances with some of the largest brands and celebrities who would only skyrocket his personal and professional brand.
Keys to the Creative Castle
Virgil’s known for his partnerships, taking his thirst for travel, languages, art, and music and injecting them into each creative endeavor.
Here’s a look at some of the areas Virgil has touched in less than ten years.
IKEA — “FOR MILLENNIALS”
A call from Louis Vuitton…
What a colossal moment in history.
In 2018, Louis Vuitton appointed Virgil as its Artistic Director, becoming one of the first black designers to lead a global luxury fashion brand.
Who appointed him?
CEO, Michael Burke (whom he met when he interned at Fendi!).
Kanye used to joke that LV wouldn’t ever hire a black man, but it finally happened.
I’m sure Virgil’s had plenty of “pinch me” moments, where he recalled a time when “we weren’t supposed to be there”—a nod to his trip to Paris in 2009 with Kanye, both seen as outsiders.
That trip was a turning point for them both.
10 years later, he’d be hosting close friends in Paris to show HIS COLLECTIONS.
A modern-day polymath
On top of all his success in the fashion space, Virgil was a gifted musician, architect, creative visionary, designer, and communicator. He’s known for his love of furniture design, where he’s frequently set up art shows around the globe.
And that’s the way he wants it.
This was his vision for OFF-WHITE. It was always bigger than just clothing.
If nothing else, Virgil’s work symbolizes deconstruction.
He has forced all of us to look at the old structures, racial prejudices, and barriers that have dominated western society (past and present) and question why they’re even there in the first place. Where can we rethink old mindsets and shift them?
His work is an example to anyone, anywhere, who wants to let their creative instincts take them on a ride.
Thank you for inviting us to your journey, Virgil. Rest in peace.