Profile: Virgil Abloh  (1980-)

Virgil Abloh is an American designer, entrepreneur, artist, and DJ who has been the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s wear collection since March 2018. Abloh is also the chief executive officer of the Milan-based label Off-White, a fashion house he founded in 2013.

A trained architect, Abloh, who also worked in Chicago street fashion, entered the world of international fashion with an internship at Fendi in 2009 alongside rapper Kanye West. The two then began an artistic collaboration that would launch Abloh’s career into founding Off-White. The first American of African descent to be artistic director at a French luxury fashion house,  he was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018.

Early life and education

Virgil Abloh was born on September 30, 1980, in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanaian immigrant parents. His mother was a seamstress and his father managed a paint company. Abloh was raised in Rockford, where he attended Boylan Catholic High School, graduating in 1998. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2002 with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. He received his Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in 2006. When Abloh was attending IIT there was a building on campus under construction designed by the architect Rem Koolhaas which helped spark his interest in fashion. While studying architecture, he designed t-shirts and wrote on fashion and design for a well-known blog, The BrillianceAbloh first met popular musician Kanye West while working on his designs at a Chicago print shop.

Career

2009–2013: Rise to prominence

After graduating from university, Abloh interned at Fendi in the same class as rapper Kanye West in 2009. Placed in the company’s Rome, Italy office, the two began a collaborative relationship. During his collaborative work with the rapper and designer, he caught the eye of the Louis Vuitton CEO, Michael Burke, through his work at Fendi. Later that year, Abloh and West’s companion, Don C, launched a retail store, called the RSVP Gallery, located in Chicago. Their founded retail space became known for carrying a mixture of fashion apparel, and for its reflection of Virgil’s style on his design for the store interior. A year later, West appointed Abloh the creative director of his creative agency, DONDA. In 2011, West asked him to serve as the artistic director for the 2011 Jay-Z/West album Watch the Throne. In 2012, Abloh launched his first company, Pyrex Vision. Abloh purchased deadstock clothing from Ralph Lauren for $40, screen-printed designs on them, and sold them for prices upward of $550. The stated goal of Pyrex Vision was to represent the importance of youth culture, by centering the designs around a garment that most youth would notice from gym class. Virgil’s ideas could be clearly geared around the importance of the now. He closed the company down a year later as he did not intend it to be a commercial enterprise but an artistic experiment.

2013–2017: Off-White and mainstream success

Abloh founded his first fashion house and second business overall in 2013 with the high-end streetwear brand Off-White, designing a logo inspired by Ben Kelly. Based in Milan, Italy, the company was described by Abloh as “the gray area between black and white as the color off-white” to investors and fashion critics. During the launch of his brand, he received help from the New Guards Group, who also assisted many other designers and brands, such as Palm Angels, Heron Preston, and Marcelo Burlon.  Abloh’s brand leads towards a widespread gain of attention for his apparel beginning in Paris, then expanding to China, Tokyo, Japan and the United States. The clothing line can be identified through its use of quotation marks, zip-ties, capital letters, and barricade tape. He launched the company’s women’s wear line in 2014 and showed the collections at the Paris Fashion Week. His line was selected as a finalist for the LVMH Prize, an industry award, but lost to Marques’Almeida and Jacquemus. Abloh launched his first concept store for Off-White in Tokyo, Japan, where he started the company’s furniture arm, Grey Area. In 2017, he was asked to design a new collection in conjunction with Nike entitled “The Ten” where he re-designed a variety of the company’s best-selling shoes. Through Abloh’s re-designing he exercised his self-made rule of only editing the shoes 3% of the way because he was intrigued by still maintaining the original design of the shoe.

2013–2018: Off-White and collaborations

Virgil also partnered up with the Swedish furniture company IKEA to design furniture for apartments and houses also easy to carry tote bags imprinted sculptures in the middle. The collection was named Markerad, which is a Swedish word meaning “clear-cut; crisp; pronounced”, and was released in 2019. Virgil envisions the collection to include practical furniture that features contemporary designs. Abloh has worked towards fulfilling his vision for the collection by sketching out drafts of generic pieces of furniture, while adding his own aesthetics to the designs by using a doorstop to level out furniture items. Abloh worked on designs for chairs, coffee tables, beds, storage cabinets, mirrors and carpets apart of his collaboration with IKEA. Abloh uses quotation marks to convey detachment from society and social norms. During the rise in neo-nationalism in 2017 Abloh worked with conceptual artist Jenny Holzer to create a line emphasizing the positive aspects of immigration, cultural integration, and globalization. In December 2017, he worked with Holzer again to design T-shirts for Planned Parenthood in response to the Women’s March on Washington.

2018–present: Louis Vuitton

Abloh was named artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear ready wear line, marking him the first person of African descent to lead the brand’s menswear line, as well as one of the few black designers at the helm of a major French fashion house.

In 2019, Abloh was appointed to the board of directors of The Council of Fashion Designers of America. The council seeks to promote the American fashion industry.

Abloh created a custom Off-White gown and veil for Hailey Bieber’s wedding day. On the veil, he included his famous quotation marks design around the words “till death do us part”

Art

Virgil Abloh has been working with Japanese artist Takashi Murakami, whom he met in 2010 while designing the cover for West’s Graduation album.

Abloh was given a solo art show in Murakami’s Kaikai Kiki art gallery in Tokyo, Japan. On numerous occasions, their artwork has been showcased together such as the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and Mukarkami’s shop Oz Zingaro in Tokyo. 

Abloh’s first solo museum art exhibition occurred at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago in 2019. After Chicago, Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech travels to the High Museum of Art, the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, and the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibition offers a mid-career retrospective of Abloh’s endeavors in art, design and music.

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