Virgil Abloh is, without a doubt, one of the biggest icons in contemporary fashion. A name that rose to prominence over the past few years, it's safe to assume that the majority of sneakereads didn't really know of his existence until around 2017 when he teamed up with Nike for the legendary "THE TEN" collection. With that said, who exactly is the American designer? Was he an overnight success or did it take years of hustle to get to where he is now? Let's find out, as it's time to meet your maker.
Born in 1980 in Rockford, Illinois to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Abloh actually never wanted to be a fashion designer to begin with. While he currently holds prestigious titles such as Founder and CEO of Off-White and Artistic Director of Menswear at Louis Vuitton, he actually studied civil engineering at university before attaining a Masters of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006.
Fate had different plans for him though, as his love of fashion and style began to develop when he looked into the works of famed Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The mind behind some of Prada's most iconic stores, including the one at Beverley Hills and the Broadway flagship in New York City, this encouraged Abloh to write about fashion and design and make his own T-shirts at a screen-printing store in Chicago called Custom Kings, and this is where he met Kanye West.
After graduating from university, Abloh's career took a detour as he focused all this time and energy into fashion. In 2009, he started an internship at Fendi with West. While it's doubtful that the duo went through the same application process as the rest of the interns, according to Yeezy himself, they had to the regular nine-to-five, get their supervisors all the coffee they wanted, and spend endless hours photocopying. Who said the fashion world was all glitz and glam?
They were also paid $500 a month, which was nothing compared to what Kanye was already earning as he had already won multiple Grammys at this point.
From then on, the pair continued their pursuit to take over the fashion world by partnering up with Don C for RSVP Gallery - an upscale designer boutique that has been inspiring the culture since, then Abloh took to centre stage by unveiling his first-ever clothing company: Pyrex Vision.
The godfather to what we now know as Off-White, if you look closely you'll find a ton of similarities between both streetwear labels. Established in 2012, Pyrex was made with a small collection of Champion T-shirts, hoodies, basketball shorts, socks, and flannel shirts, all plastered with collegiate lettering and Renaissance artwork - two elements that still feature prominently in Virgil's current Off-White collections.
While this might sound like a cool DIY side hustle that was made for the masses, Pyrex was extremely controversial when it first launched, mainly due to its insanely high prices.
For instance, in an interview with Complex, Virgil explained that he took a bunch of old $40 shirts, slapped his logo onto it, and priced it an eye-watering $550 a pop - that's around £430 for you Brits out there. While this proved pretty successful among celebrity A-listers and the fashion elite, the brand was later discontinued as he did not intend for it to be a commercial enterprise but rather an artistic experiment.
The next year is where his rise to prominence really began. In 2013, Abloh started Off-White - a multi-platform creative endeavour based in Milan. Defined as "the grey area between black and white", it introduced the perfect balance of minimalism and maximalism. Just one year later, Virgil launched his first collection at Paris Fashion Week, where quotation marks, zip-ties, and barricade tape played a huge role. This line was then nominated for the prestigious LVMH prize, making him the only US designer in the group that year.
At the time, Off-White was only available to purchase online, so in 2016, Abloh set up his very first concept store in the Aoyama area of Tokyo. The unique thing about this space is the water cooler that used Off-White branded plastic cups. Visitors were encouraged to take these for free and resell them on the secondary market.
In fact, some are still online today for around £100 a pop, which is insane considering it's literally just a clear cup with the words "PLASTIC CUP" printed across it. Moments like this made it quite apparent that Virgil had the Midas touch, as everything he laid his hand on immediately turned to gold.
In the same year, Abloh unveiled his furniture collection dubbed "Grey Area". Referencing his experience as an architect, the range featured iron grid chairs, benches, and tables, all infused with a brutalist approach that paid homage to modernist designers both in the past and in the present.
2017 marked the American designer's debut into the world of art. A frequent collaborator with Takashi Murakami, they produced a range of hand-printed T-shirts that were inspired by the legendary Japanese artist's 1992 to 2007 Signboard project.
While twelve months seems like an awfully long time for many, Abloh does everything in his power to fit in as much as possible. Within these mere 365 days, he released his first song, opened his New York flagship, and teamed up with Warby Parker, Jacob the Jeweler, and Jimmy Choo. With all that said, the biggest thing that he achieved in 2017 has got to be his partnership with Nike, which undoubtedly transformed the sneaker industry as we knew it.
Dubbed "THE TEN", what made this collaboration so significant was that it deconstructed ten of the Swoosh's most iconic silhouettes. Comprising of the Air Force 1, the Air Jordan 1, the Air Max 90, the Air Max 97, the Air Presto, the Air VaporMax, the Hyperdunk, the Zoom Fly, and of course, the Converse Chuck 70, each shoe was given a simple yet striking makeover that somehow completely transformed them.
Along with other accoutrements such as "AIR" branding and stitched-on Swooshes, Abloh's signature red zip-tie had now shot up to become one of the most iconic fashion items of all time. Sitting alongside the Burberry trench coat, the Hermès Birkin, and the YSL Smoking Jacket, what was first seen as a lowly plastic piece used to hold two things together had now become somewhat of a status symbol, and this was all propelled by his partnership with the Beaverton brand.
As he began to dominate the streetwear scene, rumours were going around suggesting that an Off-White x Louis Vuitton collaboration was in the works, though these were quickly brushed off as it just didn't seem believable at the time. However, when March 2018 came around, the high fashion industry as we knew it changed forever.
As if out of nowhere, Virgil was crowned as LV's Artistic Director of Menswear, stepping into the role that was vacated by his friend and mentor Kim Jones. This move was extremely important from a diversity standpoint as well because the Parisian label has never had an African-American artistic director. It also meant that Abloh was one of the very few designers of colour to helm a major fashion house, following Olivier Rousteing for Balmain and Ozwald Boateng for Givenchy.
"I feel elated. This opportunity to think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean at a brand that represents the pinnacle of luxury was always a goal in my wildest dreams. And to show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look is a fantastically modern spirit in which to start."
“This opportunity to think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean at a brand that represents the pinnacle of luxury was always a goal in my wildest dreams.”
The next year, Abloh continued to take over the art world, showcasing a range of artworks at his Figures Of Speech exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. He also revisited his love of architecture and furniture design by teaming up with none other than IKEA for a full collection.
Dubbed "MARKERAD”, the millennial-focused product line encompassed a ton of different furnishings, but the highlight has got to be the IKEA x Virgil Abloh "KEEP OFF" Rug that sells for almost £900 on StockX. Another must-have piece was his "SCULPTURE" bag which was his take on IKEA's signature blue and yellow FRAKTA bag - an item that has become somewhat of a couture piece that has been used on runways across the world.
Well, what’s next for Virgil Abloh? When Dazed asked him about the idea of streetwear in the 2020s, he responded by saying, "Wow. I would definitely say it's gonna die, you know? Like, its time will be up." For someone who is considered by many to be one of the most influential fashion designers in history, these are some strong words. In less than a decade, Abloh transformed from an intern at Fendi earning just $500 a month to the head of Louis Vuitton’s $48 billion menswear empire, and it doesn’t look like he’s stopping anytime soon.
As he said during an interview with Business Of Fashion, "It's important to evolve and not sit in one space."