Virgil Abloh, The Late Rockstar
In life and in death, the trailblazing Off-White founder’s career felt more like that of a superstar musician than a designer.
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Usually, when a fashion icon dies, the obituaries mention other designers they influenced. But when news of Abloh’s passing broke yesterday, remembrances mentioned names known primarily as musicians—Kanye West, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky—even more prominently than purveyors of couture.
That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The trajectory of Abloh, who founded the Off-White brand before becoming artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear, always seemed more like that of a rockstar than a designer.
His packed shows required dozens of assistants, drew crowds numbering in the thousands and earned him a social media following in the millions. He tirelessly questioned authority and challenged orthodoxy, as demonstrated by one of his first questions for Louis Vuitton’s brass upon his arrival: “Why do you guys even make clothes?”
Abloh, who leaves behind a wife and two children, succumbed to a rare cardiac cancer. Even though he passed away at age 41, however, his legacy is secure. He smashed barrier after barrier: for Black designers and fashion executives, for cultural movements never before represented in the high fashion world. And it all can be traced back to music.
Abloh’s best-known musical association began at age 22, when he first met West. By 2009, they’d landed internships together at Fendi, earning $500 per week; West hired Abloh as his creative director the following year. For the better part of a decade, they were inseparable colleagues and collaborators.
One might even say that Abloh was a co-founder of a popular hip-hop subgenre: luxury rap. West and Jay-Z’s 2011 Watch the Throne served as a sort of manifesto of the movement, best defined by West crowning himself “the Hermes of verses.” Abloh’s contributions included commissioning the album’s gilded cover, designed by Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci, which earned them both a Grammy nomination.
This wasn’t the first time that designer brands were rapped about, to be sure. But it marked a departure from late-1990s commercial hip-hop, which often felt like bragging about expensive things simply because they were expensive. Luxury rap seemed to be about using brands as a form of currency: by showing off their knowledge of top designers, Jay-Z and West were bragging about their taste more than their wealth.
Both Jay-Z and West had tried to do this sort of thing with prior albums, but never fully resonated until combined with the Abloh alchemy that gave Watch The Throne its unmistakable look and feel. Subsequently, both artists both continued to expand their own fashion portfolios: Jay-Z went on to launch a Barneys collection and West’s Yeezy line became a billion-dollar brand.
By the early 2010s, Abloh had his sights on building an empire of his own. Off-White began as a DJ collective—he moonlighted as a turntablist—before morphing into a fashion brand. In contrast to an industry known for taking itself too seriously, Abloh’s designs were accessible, even humorous. Take his collaboration with Nike’s Jordan brand, reimagining the iconic sneakers, their laces emblazoned matter-of-factly with the word “SHOELACES.”
He called this the “three percent approach,” changing something ever so slightly to create a new design. Some critics dismissed the philosophy as derivative, but more open-minded observers could see in his work the physical manifestation of hip-hop’s tradition of samples and remixes, new art crafted from the reclaimed bones of the old.
One of the most striking similarities between Abloh’s trajectory and that of a musician is the pattern of consumption already taking shape postmortem. Just as acts from David Bowie to DMX saw a spike in Spotify spins upon their passing, the news of Abloh’s death sparked a surge in demand for his designs.
The results can be seen in real time on fashion marketplace StockX. Just a few hours after the news of Abloh’s passing broke, the price of his Jordan 1 Retro High Off-White Chicago sneakers doubled to $10,000 apiece, a pattern echoed in other products from his Ikea collaboration wall clocks to his limited edition sweatshirts created with the Windy City’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
Abloh’s contributions in the unquantifiable category of barrier-breaking will carry on for generations. From a numbers perspective, though, his initial postmortem activity on StockX suggests fans will continue to consume his work with gusto. That means, like his years on Earth, Abloh’s afterlife may look more like that of a rockstar than a designer.
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