Three years ago, Louis Vuitton made the streetwear guru artistic director of its menswear collection. When his first show that year for the French fashion house, in the gardens of the Palais Royal, Paris, featured the spring/summer 2019 collection on a rainbow-coloured runway, Abloh invited hundreds of students to it, recognising the power they held in an online age to make or break a brand.
Alongside them were stars such as Rihanna, Kanye West and Kim Kardashian to witness an exciting showcase – tie-dye looks, multi-pocketed neon vests, all-white minimalistic outfits, an aluminium-looking poncho and Wizard of Oz-themed sweatshirts.
The same year, Abloh designed Hailey Baldwin’s lacy, off-the-shoulder dress for her secret wedding to Justin Bieber featuring, in capital letters on her long train, the words “’TIL DEATH DO US PART”.
Abloh first made a splash by getting his T-shirt designs printed in a Chicago shop and sending them to rapper-producer West, who commissioned him, as art director, to come up with covers for his albums.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) originally featured a George Condo painting of a man straddled on a bed by an armless, phoenix-like nude female as part of the design.
West claimed this was a deliberate ploy to get the hip-hop LP banned to ensure maximum publicity. When Walmart refused to stock it, the picture on the front was replaced by a ballerina holding a wine glass, another of five options presented by the artist.
For Watch the Throne (2011), which saw West collaborate with Jay-Z, Abloh chose Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci to design the gold-foil cover art. This brought Abloh a Grammy nomination for Best Recording Package.
He also collaborated with West on stage designs and tour merchandise, and was behind album covers for other artists such as Kid Cudi, ASAP Rocky, Lil Uzi Vert, Octavian, Westside Gunn and Pop Smoke.
In 2012, Abloh founded his own company, Pyrex Vision, aimed at representing youth culture, buying unsold Ralph Lauren clothing for $40 (£30), screen-printing designs on it and selling items for $550-plus.
He described the business as an artistic experiment and closed it down a year later, when he launched his Off-White fashion house, based in Milan. Its clothing, for men and women, featured the unmistakable black and white stripes seen on hoodies and trainers worn by pop stars Rita Ora and Rihanna.
Abloh also leant his eye for excess to furniture. One collection, Grey Area, included tables with leather cushions and Carrara marble tops, and iron-grid chairs.
Off-White’s reach was staggering. Levi, Jimmy Choo and Dr Martens were many brands to collaborate with the designer, all of who were keen to bring Abloh’s talent to their products.
In 2016, he reimagined 10 of Nike’s most popular sneakers, such as Air Max 90 and Air Presto. Two years later, a black ballerina-style dress, bomber jacket and tagged “Queen of Queens” sneakers formed the kit he designed for tennis star Serena Williams at the US Open.
After his move to Louis Vuitton, Abloh’s collaboration with Ikea had British customers queuing overnight at its Wembley branch in 2019. It included a chair with a doorstop attached to one leg, as well as rugs sporting the words “KEEP OFF” and, on red ones, “BLUE”.
Virgil Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1980 to Ghanaian immigrants, Eunice, a dressmaker, and Nee Abloh, manager of a paint company. He learned from his mother how to sew and attended Boylan Catholic High School.
Abloh did a degree in engineering at the University of Wisconsin. It was while studying for a master’s in architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology he started designing T-shirts.
On landing a job at Italian fashion house Fendi, he was an intern in its Rome office alongside Kanye West, who later made him creative director of Donda, his creative content company.
Through West, Abloh met Japanese artist Takashi Murakami and they displayed together at exhibitions in the US and Japan, with an emphasis on synthesising cultures and blurring the distinction between high- and low-brow.
Their America Too show at the Gagosian Gallery, London, in 2018 included a metallic flower sculpture with Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki character at the top and Abloh’s cross arrows at the foundation.
In the same year, when Abloh switched to Louis Vuitton, flagship of the LVMH conglomerate, he sold Off-White to Farfetch for £556m. He was given greater creative responsibilities across the LVMH brand in early 2021.
Abloh is survived by his wife, Shannon (nee Sundberg), the childhood sweetheart he married in 2009, their daughter, Lowe, and son, Grey.
Virgil Abloh, fashion designer, born 30 September 1980, died 28 November 2021