Virgil Abloh, visionary designer, artist and creative director, passes away aged 41

Tributes have been pouring in from across the creative world for the Off-White founder, who had been privately battling a rare form of cancer since 2019.

29 November 2021

Few contemporary fashion designer’s names have been as recognisable in popular culture as Virgil Abloh’s. Yesterday, 28 November, it was announced that Abloh had sadly passed away at the age of 41, to the surprise of many, since he had chosen to keep his cancer diagnosis private.

Abloh, who had cardiac angiosarcoma, was “undergoing numerous challenging treatments,” as his official Instagram page notes, “all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art and culture.” Yet, “Through it all,” the caption continues, “his work ethic, infinite curiosity and optimism never wavered. Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design.”

Only a few weeks ago, Abloh had launched a mid-career retrospective Figures of Speech at Qatar Museums as his first gallery exhibition in the Middle East, showing 55 works, hoping to offer a vast survey of his work and a deep-dive into Abloh’s multifarious creative practice. Broken into several categories, with one dedicated to the “Black gaze” – a scrutinisation of the elite fashion industry’s long-standing exclusion of Black talent – it is perhaps ironic that the last category of the exhibition, titled The End, is described as: “For Abloh, ‘the end’ can only be a figure of speech.”

Tributes have come flooding in from all corners of the creative world, a testament to how far-reaching Abloh’s impact was and how many lives he touched, both creatively and personally. Hassan Rahim, a creative director, collaborator and friend of Abloh’s with whom he co-created the BIPOC Studios list, has honoured him by claiming that Abloh “tore down the walls for every Black kid who ever dreamt of creating”, when writing about the designer. And artist Hassan Hajjaj stated that “we have lost a genius who has broken doors to open them.” A common thread in all tributes is Abloh’s perseverance in redefining streetwear and the designer’s determination in creating accessible platforms for emerging Black and BIPOC creatives. This was echoed also in Ruohan Wang’s comments that Abloh “broke the status quo in fashion, culture and art, [and] he supported the Black communities and younger generations.”

From a start in studying architecture and engineering at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Abloh went on to blogging about New York streetwear culture, first designing clothes in 2012. When he was named head of menswear at Louis Vuitton in 2018, he became the label’s first Black designer and almost certainly the highest-profile Black fashion designer of his time.

Embodying the modern multidisciplinary creative practice, he was also an artist, a DJ and a furniture designer. Designing for music as well as the streets and the runways, he created album covers for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, and West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, before he designed for fashion. Collaborating with the likes of A$AP Rocky, Takashi Murakami, Nike, Jimmy Choo, Levi’s, Mercedes-Benz and even Ikea, Abloh had no problem evolving his vision to meet the needs of the creative production process. He seemingly had the power to cross bridges between various facets of fashion, art and culture, and convince others to cross those bridges with him. Earlier this year, Abloh had delivered a speech as an honorary Rhode Island School of Design degree recipient, claiming that the irony wasn’t lost on him: he was rejected from the school as a young man before having one of the most notable influences on the zeitgeist as a designer.

Another long-time collaborator and friend of Abloh’s, Edward Enninful, British Vogue editor, wrote that Abloh, “a giant among men,” had “changed the fashion industry”. He added: “He always worked for a greater cause than his own illustrious career, to open the door to art and fashion for future generations, so that they – unlike himself – would grow up in a creative world with people to mirror themselves in.”

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About the Author

Dalia Al-Dujaili

Dalia is a freelance writer, producer and editor based in London. She’s currently the digital editor of Azeema, and the editor-in-chief of The Road to Nowhere Magazine. Previously, she was news writer at It’s Nice That, after graduating in English Literature from The University of Edinburgh.

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