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Looking back at Virgil Abloh’s career-defining moments

To celebrate the life of the fashion designer, we’re taking a dive into his work and impact on Black culture

10 Dec

canva / image via Virgil Abloh's instagram

Everyone remembers the iconic Paris Fashion Week photo of six men of colour seemingly dressed for six different events, confidently posing for Tommy Ton’s camera – Kanye West and his band of fashion avengers. On the far right stood Virgil Abloh in trousers, yellow sneakers, bright red sunglasses, a baby blue puffer and grey graphic button-down; none of it made sense – but ultimately it all did.

This can only be described as a precursor to the Virgil we all got to know as a cultural disruptor through clothing, music, art and architecture. Virgil Abloh made it a point to exist in all the spaces where Black and Brown men never saw a reflection of themselves, and he did so on his own terms.

His plan was never to assimilate, it was to claw his way through the door of an industry that so seldom celebrated Black creativity”

The Black experience in spaces of luxury can be deafening in its isolation and its ability to make you feel like an outsider. For years I watched Virgil revel in being just that…an outsider. His plan was never to assimilate, it was to claw his way through the door of an industry that so seldom celebrated Black creativity. He worked under the moniker of ‘designer’ but anyone who arguably becomes one of the most celebrated and important creatives of the 21st century is much more than that.

I remember when Karl Lagerfeld so blithely told us “sweatpants are a sign of defeat”, years later Abloh would turn this on its head by doing for streetwear what many didn’t have the foresight or cultural references to do. Sweatpants, sneakers, and hoodies were no longer a sign of defeat, they were a shining beacon of hope and inspiration for Black youth watching Virgil Abloh’s climb. Virgil Abloh showed us through his creations that to exist, you have to break down long-established boundaries because ultimately if we don’t storm ivory towers, stagnancy is the only prize. 

The Fendi internship 

Before Virgil could give us Off-White, he went back to basics, that being an internship at Fendi. In 2009 Kanye and Virgil interned at the Italian house and were reportedly given a monthly stipend of $500. It was never about the money for the duo (Kanye was a Grammy-winning artist at the time) – it was about access and knowledge. Though a protégé and friend to one of the world’s biggest artists, Virgil was still on the outside looking in, starving for an entry point into the fashion industry. During his tenure at Fendi, Virgil did all the menial tasks most interns despise, running for coffee and making photocopies. On the surface it didn’t seem like much but many interviews later Virgil and Kanye would share the importance of simply existing at Fendi. For these two Black men from Chicago access was enough, just to be in the building was enough, at the time. “We couldn’t do anything, we were just happy to have a key card,” Kanye explained in an interview years ago. 

Pyrex Vision 

If there is one thing Black people are accustomed to when a space hasn’t necessarily included us in the narrative, it is to hustle our way in. Pyrex was Abloh’s first foray in fashion but, at the end of the day, it was a hustle. Pyrex was the beginning of Virgil’s take on the luxury streetwear trend: t-shirts, basketball shorts and socks with braggadocious lettering plastered all over it. It was Off-White before Off-White. It was also something we had all seen before, through Dapper Dan’s reimagining of Gucci pieces. At a time when inclusion and diversity weren’t the name of the game Dapper Dan would take high-end designer pieces and remake them for his Black and Latino clients. Virgil was accused of doing the same with Pyrex, taking deadstock items like Ralph Lauren rugby shirts then screen printing his logo and reselling them at astronomical prices. Raise your hand if you bought a $550 Pyrex shirt? If you did, you supported Abloh’s hustle, helped him build a streetwear empire and you’re a part of his legacy. 

Off-White 

Off-White picked up where Pyrex Vision left off and perhaps where it couldn’t really go. The label was tongue-in-cheek from its inception and it wasn’t without critics. I’ve admittedly questioned some of Off-White’s design choices because, though I was elated to see a Black man at the head of his own label this didn’t mean he was untouchable. Often we’re afraid to critique Black art or Black creatives because finally, we see ourselves in spaces we never imagined possible. The label continued Virgil’s signature of braggadocious lettering but this time there was a nuanced – and sometimes not so nuanced – intentionality to his work. Off-White was about flipping conventional themes on their head, the epitome of juxtapositioning. “I’m always trying to prove to my 17-year-old self that I can do creative things I thought weren’t possible,” he said in a 2017 interview.

The perfect representation of the man behind the brand, because he was everything fashion wasn’t, and Off-White was heavily influenced by this. With Off-White, Abloh was able to usher in new energy into fashion and make it a little easier for Black creatives to hold space in an industry that doesn’t support outsiders. 

Artistic Director of menswear at Louis Vuitton 

Being heralded as the ‘first Black’ anything is oftentimes met with mixed emotions by the Black community – we have always existed, and we have always taken up space,  just not on the world stage. In 2018 when Virgil was announced as Louis Vuitton’s first Black artistic director, as a community, we were awash with pride because the meaning wasn’t lost on any of us. This moment forever crystalised in history said plain as day ‘you can do it too’ as did his first Instagram post for the brand. 

His tenure at Louis Vuitton was a masterclass in stifling the naysayers with commercial success. When you are appointed the artistic director of a French fashion house that has never had a Black person at its helm the only option is to succeed. He brought streetwear to its highest pinnacle on the world stage at a brand that is synonymous with the word luxury. Louis Vuitton was yet another opportunity for him to continue to inspire Black youth to show up, make mistakes, experiment but always try. 

Louis Vuitton runway show

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Virgil’s Louis Vuitton SS19 show debut in 2018 was Black excellence personified and the sheer magnitude of what he was doing wasn’t lost on the audience. Black musicians, models, creatives and actors at the height of their careers assembled to watch him make history. In front of his peers and the world, he showed Black creatives that the glass ceiling can be shattered if you continuously work on your craft. 

Virgil brought his community to Paris, and of the 2,000 guests in attendance 1,000 of them were Parisian fashion students. It was a move that showed how deeply he loved young people and championing the arts. He ensured that the models walking the show represented every continent in the world, an answer to the plea for diversity on the runways, especially the European ones. The show was an amalgam of Louis Vuitton’s future dreamt up from his culture, experiences and his Blackness. It couldn’t get any better, but it did, with the hug that tugged at all of our heartstrings. It wasn’t necessarily the hug but more so what it represented for Kanye and Virgil. Decades of struggle, perseverance and fighting for an invitation to the table – they would later find out they didn’t need – is what these two men openly cried about on the Louis Vuitton runway. 

What we witnessed during Virgil Abloh’s career was an individual who didn’t fit into any of the boxes and, instead of seeing it as a deterrent, turned it into an advantage. He was able to meld worlds like no other; things that shouldn’t be combined somehow made sense in his mind and with this, he was able to usher in an age of new Black vanguards. Virgil’s legacy is a community of idea-bending, trailblazing non-conformers who brazenly share their art regardless of who tells them it doesn’t make sense.