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Virgil Abloh: A life’s work

Fashion editor Kaycia Ainsworth pays tribute to designer Virgil Abloh.

On Sunday the 28th November it was announced that creative visionary and fashion messiah Virgil Abloh had passed away at the frightfully young age of 41. Virgil was an insanely dedicated designer who continued to create tirelessly as he privately battled the cancer that would eventually take his life. He was a multidisciplinary artist whose work changed the course of fashion and streetwear forever. His incredible talent and ceaseless momentum has been pivotal in building the future of fashion and art; anything it didn't change it touched, and in turn, influenced.

Virgil had always had a hand in the design world. In 2006 he graduated with a masters in architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology. It was at IIT that he met Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect, who first introduced Virgil to a world he knew nothing about: fashion. Having never taken a single sewing class, Virgil decided to make t-shirts, and got the idea to start his own brand. Shortly after studying he interned at Fendi, where he met and befriended Kanye West. In 2009 Virgil and Kanye opened a retail store in Chicago called RSVP Gallery. RSVP meant “répondez s’il vous plaît” or “please respond” in English, it intended to invite its audience to not only enter the space, but to react and respond to it. It was an eclectic and avant-garde combination of art space and luxury boutique store. They showed pop art and sold uniquely designed street wear and lifestyle items whilst using minimalism and raw space to advertise the designs. For two black men at this point in history to create a space so dedicated to blurring the lines between the art, engaging with youth culture and the fine art world, was a feat that had never before been seen. The friends became renowned creative collaborators and established an archive of projects such as Kanye’s Watch The Throne album.

In 2012, Virgil launched his first ever collection with a brand intended to represent youth culture, Pyrex Vision. His first collection, named “Youth always wins”, constituted renaissance paintings and graphic text screen printed onto what was rumoured to be repurposed Ralph Lauren pieces and Champion blanks - mainly t-shirts, basketball shirts, socks and hoodies. After a year in operation and plenty of bad press regarding the pricing Virgil closed Pyrex Vision, saying it was intended to be an “artistic experiment.” He used this “experiment” as the point of influence for his next magnum opus, OFF-WHITE. The house style in his earliest OFF-WHITE collections echo remnants of Pyrex Vision industrial repurposing and graphic design. The brand’s visual construction made use of the same blending of street style and high fashion, screen printing clean and clear stripes paired with large text in blocky white font.

OFF-WHITE began to collect distinct markers of its own iconography. The brand became instantly recognisable with it’s signature arrow logo, colourful zip ties, slogans in inverted commas and industrial-style yellow belts. The OFF-WHITE aesthetic sparked a trend among youth and gained focus in the fashion industry, with high-street stores clamouring to keep up with the new vision - a blending of high-fashion, art and street style.

In 2017, Nike collaborated with Virgil in what is now regarded as one of the most iconic collaborations in the history of athletic footwear. Dubbed “The Ten”, Virgil produced ten different takes on classic Nike silhouettes. Sneaker culture exploded in response and the designs offered yet another peek at his deconstructivist, innovative takes on signature design. Quotes cloaked each shoe in inverted commas, next to playful zip ties hanging from the laces.

In the years to come Virgil continued to produce iconic collaborations, displaying his prowess as a visual and conceptual artist. A theme he infamously explored was an ongoing storyline of subtle irony. This was most famously iterated in his collaboration with iconic flatpack furniture behemoth IKEA. Virgil’s collaboration, MARKERAD, featured graphic rugs with the slogan “wet grass”, as well as one resembling an IKEA receipt. Virgil explained his intent, saying, “The ethos of the collection is to add an artful quality to anonymous objects.” IKEA’s Wembley branch even transformed its store logo to include his trademark inverted commas in celebration of the launch.

OFF-WHITE was finally recognised as a luxury brand -The first luxury street wear brand. OFF-WHITE began moving in high-fashion spheres, taking centre stage at fashion week and red carpet events like The Met, developing its craftsmanship whilst staying true to its streetwear roots. Classic tailoring became twisted by Virgil’s dedicated desire to bring an element of innovation. Impeccably tailored suits became walking embodiments of sports symbols and cartoonish novelty, yet simultaneously remained elegant and refined. This work is how Virgil was noticed by LVMH, and in 2018 was made the artistic director of Louis Vuitton. The first black man to helm Louis Vuitton in the history of the brand.

In his first collection at Louis Vuitton, Virgil metamorphosed his vision once again as he adapted his aesthetic within the mould of traditional French luxury. His designs are expertly crafted three dimensional pieces which demand attention from their audience. Throughout his time at Louis Vuitton, Virgil displayed his ability to develop as an artist, and introduced a theatrical playfulness to traditional menswear that had rarely been seen before and harked from the graphic tension and dialectic of American streetwear and hip hop. At the helm of one of the world's largest platforms for design, he allowed men’s clothing to become whimsical and somewhat performative and, better yet, he pushed this movement into the mainstream.

During his life’s work, Virgil Abloh managed to build bridges between the fashion industry and an audience that had never before been forged. His true dedication to young people has been self-evident in the flurry of tributes from emerging creatives worldwide in the last few days - many sharing screenshots of messages of encouragement and recognition that Virgil himself had sent them. As both an outsider of the luxury fashion world and a Black man, he helped to ensure there were doors opening for a new wave of talent to join the industry, whilst staying humble and truly inspirational. He even released a resource centre for new brands called “free game” on his website, where he shared how to construct a brand, from its conception and naming to production and selling.

Virgil Abloh is and will always remain a true legend of the art and design worlds. His name is now immortalised in the history of fashion as one of the greatest minds of the 21st century and one of the most influential fashion designers of our time. May we remember and honour his legacy of work and his never ending toil in ensuring a more creative and accessible fashion industry continues to be forged in his wake.

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