Style

Virgil Abloh, Ambassador and Infiltrator

In recent years, it could often appear as if there were several Virgil Ablohs, all working at the same time. There were the multiple annual collections of Louis Vuitton, where he was the artistic director of men’s wear, and Off-White, his own label, which he’d founded while still in the orbit of Kanye West. There were the seemingly endless collaborations, with brands as disparate as Nike, Ikea, Evian, Rimowa, Vitra, Chrome Hearts and more.

And perhaps just as important, there were his daily Instagram missives. Seemingly no one posted more than he did — a couple dozen images on his story, easily, consisting of new designs, new music, screen grabs of conversations, fit pics posted by the super-famous, fit pics posted by the unknown. He was a geyser of ecstatic creativity.

What he was doing wasn’t flaunting his ubiquity and success, but rather offering up the blueprint for how to replicate it. The community of ideas doesn’t meet in private, he knew; it was fortified by exposure to sunlight and scrutiny. His mind was constantly churning, and his solution was to build an archive in real time, for everyone to absorb.

Look around at the way young men now think about clothes, design and music, and the ways in which those pursuits all intersect: It’s hard not to see Abloh everywhere.

Mr. Abloh, who died on Sunday at 41, repurposed this ethic from hip-hop and skateboarding, two cultural pursuits premised upon the provocative and ultimately correct misuse of what came before. He succeeded at the highest levels of luxury by importing the bootleg, the remix, the alternate point of view. Crucially, Mr. Abloh was part of a generation raised to believe it was entitled to the luxury that high fashion houses offered, an idea and agitation he inherited from West. In his framing, though, the difference between those on the inside and those on the outside looking in was only a matter of who had placed the window, and where. Mr. Abloh simply shattered that window.

Mr. Abloh with Swae LeeCredit…Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Mr. Abloh with GunnaCredit…Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Mr. Abloh with SkeptaCredit…Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
Mr. Abloh with OffsetCredit…Pierre Suu/Getty Images

In this, he was part of a profound lineage. Since the 1980s, hip-hop had been doing shadow work in boosting the power and cultural relevance of high fashion, whether it was Dapper Dan’s cut-and-sew remakes in the 1980s or the Notorious B.I.G.’s embrace of Versace in the 1990s or ASAP Rocky’s early 2010s gestures to the avant-garde.

And yet there had never been a designer of the hip-hop generation — to say nothing of a Black designer — at the head of a French luxury house until Mr. Abloh took over Louis Vuitton in 2018. He became an ambassador, and an infiltrator.

In recent years, plenty of high-fashion companies have attempted to incorporate hip-hop language or swagger or silhouettes into their collections, but those conversations have generally felt strained, clearly the product of observation. Mr. Abloh’s contributions were a product of immersion. In Louis Vuitton stores right now, for example, there is a stunning pattern-quilted leather jacket inspired by the ones made by the Detroit store Al Wissam that were a hip-hop staple at the end of the 1990s into the early aughts. He understood that hip-hop was luxurious long before LVMH came calling.

Hip-hop had long ago “knighted” luxury, he said in a recent text exchange with this reporter. “Still surreal that it’s my day job to close the loop.”

Atop Louis Vuitton, he suddenly became the template for a generation of young designers, stylists and fashion dreamers who came up in the Abloh mold, an astonishing victory. He helped incubate the culture of hype that began with streetwear and sneakers and has now become the dominant ethos of luxury. He made limited-run merch for seemingly every occasion, a statement about fervent, unsatiable creativity and also the sense that every gesture was worth commemorating.

And while he reached out to elders to work together in various formats — Arthur Jafa, Goldie, Futura and more — Mr. Abloh also displayed a granular interest in other people’s creativity, especially young people. He was dizzyingly accessible in his DMs — several people posted screenshots of his private encouragements, emotional labor that was free and unseen, but not without consequence.

Because of that, the scale of his impact can’t be measured in garments or collections. Rather, it’s in the establishment of a universe in which Mr. Abloh wasn’t just a fashion designer but a folk hero and a superhero. Still, at root he was a fan, ravenous.

That was a position he understood all too well. As he ascended the fashion ranks in the 2010s, he was often reminded of his outsider status by naysayers, critiques that sometimes smacked of gatekeeping and, at worst, racism. When Raf Simons, a designer Mr. Abloh admired, dismissed him as unoriginal in a 2017 interview, Mr. Abloh responded by titling his next Off-White collection “Nothing New.”

Mr. Abloh in D.J. mode at a party hosted by Garage magazine at Rose Bar in 2018.Credit…Amy Lombard for The New York Times

It was a reminder of his playfulness. With his quote-marked approach to references, he chose to emphasize accessibility over preciousness. Which isn’t to say that he wasn’t intellectually committed to his practice, but rather underscoring that iteration is a kind of innovation, something that often goes unspoken on in creative fields. In his public lectures and conversations, which often ricocheted around social media as rapidly as his sneaker designs, he discussed what he called the “three-percent rule”: Altering something ever so slightly, he insisted, was more than enough. It was wisdom received as a provocation but meant as an encouragement.

Mr. Abloh often didn’t speak in finished product; he spoke in component parts, peeling back the fourth wall, and also the third, second and first ones, too. In some of his designs, especially his Nike collaborations, the visible signs of production became part of his finished designs. He was modern in his process — he conducted most of his business over WhatsApp — and embraced the transparency of the social media era and made it part of his business and aesthetic plan.

But Mr. Abloh most assuredly understood the traditional power he held. The section on his website devoted to cataloging his myriad projects was titled Land I Own. The section where he broke down the steps it would take to begin a brand was called Free Game.

Rappers, naturally, loved him. When Drake needed a design for his personal Boeing 767, he turned to Mr. Abloh, who rendered it the palette of a cloudy sky. “Virgil was sending me drip just to see if I like it,” Young Thug rapped. Mr. Abloh sat Pop Smoke and Westside Gunn — who’d rapped, “Tell Virgil to write ‘BRICK’ on my brick” — front row in Paris.

From left; Edward Enninful, Virgil Abloh, Rosalía, Drake, John Donahoe, and Gabby Douglas at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic collection fashion show in New York City.Credit…Bennett Raglin/Getty Images

This was the ultimate full-circle acclamation for Mr. Abloh, who was also a curious and expansive D.J. — in the 2010s, he seemingly flew around the world more to spin records than to work on collections — and who made music of his own. He was a connoisseur of emerging sounds from around the globe, from Atlanta hip-hop to British jazz to Ghanaian drill.

In this, as in all things, he prioritized the power and innovation of Black art. In his earliest promotional campaigns for Louis Vuitton and up through the video setting up the collection Louis Vuitton will show in Miami this week, he prominently featured Black children.

When he had his first museum exhibition in Chicago in 2019, he installed a work referencing the police killing of Laquan McDonald amid the advertisements and sneakers (and also a photo of the Chicago drill pioneer Chief Keef). In his collections, he wove in direct references to Africa and Martin Luther King Jr. He also imported hip-hop’s sense of collectivity into his garments, once delivering an intarsia sweater depicting the outline of 38 people who worked on his clothing.

“OPTIONS”, 2019, Virgil Abloh’s artwork referencing the police killing of Laquan McDonald in ChicagoCredit…Whitten Sabbatini for The New York Times

Mr. Abloh had gotten his sure footing after years working alongside West — the two interned together at Fendi in 2009 — who had long agitated for an opportunity to head a luxury house but had been denied; Mr. Abloh eventually fulfilled that dream. The hug the two men shared at the conclusion of his first Vuitton presentation was one of the most nakedly emotional moments to occur on a runway in recent years, and also a euphoric release celebrating the ascent of a Black designer to the highest realms of luxury fashion. At the same show, at the end of his runway walk, Mr. Abloh copped a rap squat and posed for pictures.

In July, LVMH announced that Mr. Abloh had been promoted to a role in which he would work across the conglomerate’s several dozen brands, spanning clothing, spirits and hotels. (It also took a majority stake in Off-White.) It was a vote of confidence not simply in Mr. Abloh’s design work, but also in his vision for luxury, and how it would scale across various properties. It acknowledged that the sort of cross-pollinated cultural engineering Mr. Abloh naturally excelled at was indeed the most promising path forward, even for a company as steeped in tradition as LVMH.

That was one version of Mr. Abloh’s future. But he was just as preoccupied with an alternate, parallel path. He mentored of Black fashion aspirants. He organized scholarships for Black fashion students. He agitated behind the scenes for more diversity in the high fashion industry. He helped build a skate park in Ghana. He sold T-shirts that read “I Support Young Black Businesses” and donated the proceeds to charity.

So many seeds, sprinkled in so many places, guarantee flowers for generations to come. Look around a few years from now, and it will be hard not to see Ablohs everywhere.

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