by The Cowl Editor on December 9, 2021
by Ashley Seldon ’24
Virgil Abloh passed away on Nov. 28 at the age of 41 after privately battling cancer. Abloh was the creative director of the high-fashion brand Louis Vuitton and the founder of Off-White. He became the first-ever Black artistic director for Louis Vuitton, paving a pathway for other young, Black designers to follow suit.
Abloh was controversial and daring in his approach. As a young designer, he would purchase Ralph Lauren shirts for $40 and then print them with his Off-White logo to sell for $550. He forever changed the meaning of streetwear and has made it something that can become high fashion. Before, streetwear was prominent in African American communities, and people who dressed casually were stereotyped as ghetto. Instead, Abloh, through his art, was able to turn hoodies, purses, and t-shirts that were simple in design and style into something considered high-end.
Off-White was a complete breakaway from the rigid designs of Louis, Gucci, Fendi, and Prada and promoted simplicity and edge. Off-White products typically say what they are on the item; for example, an Off-White phone case will display “phone case” on the product in the signature quotation marks. A pair of Off-White sneakers will say “shoelaces” on them.
In one interview, Thom Bettiridge recalled why it was so crucial for Abloh to use quotation marks on his pieces: “Quotation marks are one of the many tools that Abloh uses to operate in a mode of ironic detachment…Abloh rejects the who-did-it-first mentality of previous generations in favor of the copy-paste logic of the Internet and its inhabitants.” Unlike the French high-end brands, Off-White is inherently American, and one can see Abloh’s roots as a second-generation U.S. citizen. One of his most famous pieces is his yellow belt that mimics construction workers’ caution tape; it’s unique and wearable. The prices of Off-White pieces are still expensive but not as bad as Louis Vuitton or Gucci. Belts are around $200, and purses can be as low as $1,500.
Abloh’s most iconic work, subjectively, is Hailey Bieber’s custom wedding dress with the long romantic veil. His iconic quotation, “Till Death Do Us Part,” is embroidered at the bottom. It was a perfect collaboration, seeing that Bieber is known as a famous model for her streetwear, and she was often seen wearing Off-White pieces.
There is truly no other Black designer who has influenced the high-fashion industry like Abloh. He was a key inspiration for Kanye West’s Yeezy line that has consistently sold out and impacts streetwear as Abloh once did. West’s pieces are simple and wearable; they’re on the more affordable side, but his shoe designs are unique.
Another young, Black designer who recently hit the high fashion market is Telfar Clemens with his Telfar bags. The tote purses are simple and wearable and only $200, yet specific designs are exclusive because they sell out so quickly. Many celebrities can be photographed courtside at basketball games or walking down the street wearing multi-colored Telfar purses.
Many models and profiled celebrities have expressed their shock and despair towards the sudden loss of such a talented designer and close friend. Abloh has left behind a legacy for other Black men to become designers. He once said, “I realize my runways and campaigns in my own image: young men of color, who, in the future, might be able to mirror themselves in the historical reflection of luxury as much as any white boy down the street.” As a child of immigrants from Ghana, historically, Abloh was not supposed to become a top designer and artist. However he did not hide his creativity, instead he chose to take a risk and share it with the world. Abloh taught the world that young, Black children could embody wealth and class just as much as any white child in this country. Rest in peace, Abloh, and thank you for breaking barriers for future Black artists.