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Portrait of Virgil Abloh at the Copenhagen International Fas
Portrait of Virgil Abloh at the Copenhagen International Fashion FairPhotography by Louise Damgaard

A brief history of Virgil Abloh

As the designer gets set to take his throne at the head of LV menswear, we take a look back at his rise (and rise)

The SS19 menswear shows are drawing to a close – in just a few days, Paris will be done and dusted – but not before two of the most highly-anticipated shows of the season take place. Making his debut at Dior Homme is Kim Jones, and at Louis Vuitton, Virgil Abloh, in his new role as the French house’s artistic director of menswear. As the designer prepares to take the monogrammed throne at LV this afternoon (and the fashion industry looks on with bated breath), we take a look back at his rise and rise.


Before he began annotating clothes, Abloh was a civil engineering student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, but he found the course “super boring” as he revealed in an interview with The Cut. Seemingly not that boring though, given he went on to gain a second degree in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology. His studies in the field have (quite obviously) lent his work an industrial edge: take the clean lines of each Off-White collection, the reconstructed, anti-tamper sneaker he created for Nike, or, more recently, his entirely transparent polycarbonate suitcase – designed in collaboration with German luggage label Rimowa – as proof.


During his time at the Institute of Technology, architect Rem Koolhaas – a favourite of Mrs Prada’s – finished the construction of a new campus centre within the university complex, which was originally built by modernist-instigator Mies van der Rohe in the 50s. The new one-story orange-clad building appears to squeeze out from under Chicago’s famous elevated train network which bisects the site – what could have been seen as a design constraint was turned into an architectural asset by way of a  concrete and corrugated steel tube that wraps the tracks, and its completion triggered something in Abloh. The student centre’s completion, along with Koolhaas’s work and his relationship with Miuccia piqued his interest in fashion. “I never made a conscious decision to be a designer, I just had an exorbitant amount of ideas,” he told Dazed. “Fashion design is a place for people like that because there are a lot of decisions to make.”


Abloh has had a long, successful working relationship with Yeezy corp, which all started in 2002 when he skipped his graduation (so the rumour goes) to meet John Monopoly, Kanye West’s former manager, and soon began to work for the musician himself.  It was perfect timing. The next year Kanye released “Through the Wire”, taken from his Grammy-winning debut album The College Dropout, which followed quickly after. Kanye was propelled from background producer to rapper-on-the-rise, and Abloh was there at his side, right from the beginning.


While he’s famously tight-lipped about his relationship with Twitter-enthusiast West, Abloh has worked with him on merchandise, album artwork, and set design, and ultimately became his creative director. When Kanye headed to Rome to undertake an internship at Fendi in 2009, Abloh even decided to join him. The pair reportedly took home a monthly wage of $500, picked up coffee, and ran errands like any other intern, and they must have made quite the impression: Fendi’s former chairman and CEO Michael Burke is the man behind Abloh’s appointment at LV. “I’m thrilled to how his innate creativity and disruptive approach have made him so relevant, not just in fashion, but in popular culture today,” Burke, now CEO at Louis Vuitton (surprise!) stated. “His sensibility towards luxury and savoir-faire will be instrumental in taking the brand into the future.” The message? Interns: work hard and you may well take over the world one day.


Remember that image of Kanye West wearing a tartan trench, carrying a Goyard briefcase, and clutching a pair of tan leather gloves outside the Comme des Garçons show in Paris? To his left stands P Diddy’s former personal assistant Fonzworth Bentley, and to his right an almost unrecognisable Virgil Abloh, in a bright blue Moncler gilet. In 2009, the trio headed to the city’s biannual fashion week and saw a few shows – but, despite their stature, couldn’t get into many. For Abloh, it was a turning point. “We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there,” he told magazine, with the outsider-looking-in experience encouraging him to begin shifting the sphere of influence: to stop being a consumer, and instead start creating. “We saw it as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.” 


Obsessed with skateboarding, Air Jordans, Supreme, and DJing since – basically – forever, Abloh channelled his affinity for streetwear into launching his own label, Pyrex Vision. Debuted in New York in December 2012, the idea behind it was simple: he took $40 deadstock Ralph Lauren flannels, screen-printed on a Pyrex logo and re-sold them for $550. Abloh took his creative license from his self-confessed ‘lawyer’ Marcel Duchamp, the pioneering French artist who took mass-produced, ready-made objects and subverted their intended use, adding new, original meaning in the process.

The label grew a cult following fast. Stocked by iconic stores like Colette and with a direct line to his young demographic via endorsements from Jay-Z, A$AP Rocky, Kanye and more, Abloh’s designs were difficult to come by, flying off the rails despite their high price point. But all good things come to an end, and in 2013, Pyrex Vision was shuttered suddenly: “I just legally can’t use the name “Pyrex” anymore,” he told The Fader. But we all know what came next...


The launch of Nicolas Ghesquierè’s AW12 collection for Balenciaga – the one with the neoprene ‘Join a Weird Trip’ sweatshirts – was a breakthrough moment for Abloh. It gave him hope that his evolving vision for streetwear could be taken seriously. “[That collection] connected to the street in the same way that a Supreme box logo t-shirt did. People want that [elevated sweatshirt] no matter what season it is, and at that moment I saw myself in high fashion,” he told Business of Fashion.


Moving operations to Milan, Chicago-based Abloh set up an atelier in the Italian fashion capital and was soon well on his way to becoming the shamanic shepherd of youth culture. First teased on his personal Instagram account, he ambitiously committed to creating men’s and women’s lines for Off-White, with the SS15 menswear collection debuted first. It was, essentially, an expanded Pyrex Vision: sweatshirts and torn denim, tees and sweatpants were tonally layered and screen-printed, splattered with paint or military patched. It also introduced his new, diagonally-striped insignia – part road sign, part nod to iconic Manchester club the Hacienda, and part call to arms for hypebeasts everywhere. By SS16, Off-White had made it to the official Paris Fashion Week calendar, where fashion’s great and good take the mainstage: Abloh’s idols Phoebe Philo and Raf Simons among them.


“Off-White is two things. It’s the consumer product, but then it’s also a theory, it’s a modern proposition,” Abloh informed Dazed. “The obligation isn’t to buy Off-White, it’s to just look at it. It’s just to be conscious of the concept. That’s what I’m doing, making a concept around streetwear, which feels very modern to me. And my goal is for people to absorb the fashion show images or understand the layers of the fashion show that I’m putting together.”


As the collections roll on, so too do Virgil’s collaborations. The apparently sleep-phobic creator has partnered with BYREDO, Heron Preston, Sunglasses Hut and Levi’s. He’s created herbal energy drinks, one coloured International Klein Blue – because: aesthetics – for French juice bar Wild & The Moon, and, to the collective horror of the world’s oceans and those trying to salvage them, presented plastic bag-covered stilettos for Jimmy Choo. Less environmentally damaged are his collabs with Takashi Murakami, who he’s worked with since back in the 808s and Heartbreak days. But the one we’ve all been waiting on? Still in the works…


Using the mass-production methods of IKEA to create personal artistic pieces, Virgil’s given us a series of sneak-peeks at his homeware collection for the Swedish behemoth across social media (where else?) Telling Dazed that the collectIon is designed “for millennials”, he chose to live stream an impromptu focus group for his fans, putting design development back into their hands. “I’m trying to embed an artistic quality in things that you already have,” Abloh explained to Dazed about the collection. “So the chair is elevated because it feels more like an art object than a typical chair that serves its function with four equal legs.” And yes, there will be a Virgil version of the iconic Frakta bag that Balenciaga re-envisioned too.


The designer has made no secret of the inspiration he draws from the world’s youth (when he’s not channelling Princess Diana or Carrie Bradshaw within his collection that is). Having previously worked for Abloh as a graphic designer, Samuel Ross is making gains with his emerging label A-Cold-Wall* – and ex-boss Abloh was there to cheer him on, turning up at his immersive SS19 show at last week’s London Fashion Week Men’s. As Jian DeLeon of WGSN told BOF recently, not only is the designer inspired by youth culture, he remains an active part of it: “Whereas Kanye West says ‘listen to the kids’, Virgil is actually out there with them.” 


The appointment of Virgil Abloh at Louis Vuitton signals a seismic shift in how the luxury juggernaut anticipates the future of fashion. Perhaps it marks the start of a new era of designer whose cool capital and audience reach outweighs that of the house, and even conglomerate, itself. Will the French fashion house deliver its goods through hushed weekly drops in true hypebeast form? To what lengths will Abloh go to ultimately subvert the famous LV? Given the sneak peeks the designer has been posting on his Instagram over the past few days, we think it’s pretty safe to say the storied French house is about to be well and truly shaken. In just a few hours, all will be revealed.