[Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article erroneously stated that Abloh and West met in 2009 while interning at Fendi in Rome. In fact their friendship predates the internship and originated during Abloh’s time studying architecture in Chicago at the Illinois Institute of Technology.]
Virgil Abloh, multi-hyphenate designer of objects and clothing, artist, DJ, and the first-ever African American artistic director for Louis Vuitton, has died at the age of 41 in Chicago. According to an Instagram post on Abloh’s official account, the cause of death was cardiac angiosarcoma, an aggressive form of heart cancer that he had been battling behind the scenes since 2019.
Born in Rockford, Illinois, on September 30, 1980, Abloh would retain strong ties to the Midwest throughout his life, receiving a Bachelor of Science in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2002 and a Master of Architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006.
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Interested in the intersection between streetwear, design, and music, Abloh would find success after meeting noted design aficionado Kanye West while working at a Chicago shirt printing shop, and the duo only deepened their ties in 2009 while both were interning for Italian fashion house Fendi in Rome. Abloh was named the creative director of DONDA, West’s creative content company, the next year, and served as art director for 2011’s Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration album Watch the Throne.
In 2012, Abloh founded luxury streetwear brand Off-White—the company would go on to have blockbuster collaborations with established fashion houses and footwear companies including Nike. The success of Off-White also led to a number of design and sculptural collaborations for Abloh, such as the irreverent MARKERAD collection for IKEA in 2019 that blew up IKEA receipts into rugs, put an ironic twist on typical American seating by adding a doorstop to the feet, and sold reproductions of the Mona Lisa.
In 2018, Abloh was named the first-ever African American artistic director for menswear at Louis Vuitton in the company’s 167-year history, a position he retained until his death. In July of this year, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH), the conglomerate that owns Louis Vuitton, Hennessy, Bulgari, and dozens of other high-end brands, purchased a 60 percent stake in Off-White.
“Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” wrote Bernard Arnault, chairman of LVMH, on Twitter as the company announced Abloh’s passing earlier today. “The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow, and we are all thinking of his loved ones after the passing of their husband, their father, their brother or their friend.”
Abloh’s cross-disciplinary approach to design, whether it be sculptural or wearable, drew him considerable praise from his contemporaries as well as his idols. In a 2019 mid-career retrospective, Figures of Speech, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, Rem Koolhaas lauded Abloh’s free-wheeling style and association, noting the benefits of freeing architecture as a field from “the built.” Abloh would extend his collaborations to James Wines, tapping the SITE founder to design Off-White retail stores that translated the name into a light, airy design philosophy. Abloh had also been named the keynote speaker at the AIA’s 2020 Conference on Architecture in Los Angeles before the event was canceled due to the pandemic.
“We share an interest in the concept of inversion,” Wines told AN last November, “and we both like to challenge convention at every opportunity.”
Of course, as with any designer with such a meteoric career, his work wasn’t without controversy. Abloh and Off-White have been accused of plagiarism repeatedly; in 2018, Instagram account Diet Prada accused him of ripping off midcentury designer Paul McCobb for his IKEA chair (the post was later deleted). Just last year, Belgian fashion designer Walter Van Beirendonck claimed that Abloh’s spring 2021 collection for Louis Vuitton hewed too closely to his own 2016 designs, something that Abloh (and friend/defender/employer Kanye West) vehemently refuted.