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What Lifestyle Brands Can Learn From the Legacy of Virgil Abloh

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What Lifestyle Brands Can Learn From the Legacy of Virgil Abloh

s a fashion and cultural disrupter, the late, great Virgil Abloh merged streetwear and luxury products in a way no one had ever done before. Between his own streetwear brand Off-White and becoming Louis Vuitton’s first Black creative director, Abloh turned the idea of luxury on its head, bringing urban fashion to the mainstream. He also broke boundaries to create a pathway for young BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) designers to enter the luxury fashion space.

Dubbed the Karl Lagerfeld of his generation, Abloh possessed a creative genius, unnatural energy and savvy business acumen. Like his first show for Louis Vuitton in Paris to rebrand the fashion house for a younger generation—Abloh sent a diverse cast of models strutting down a rainbow runway wearing a collection reminiscent of the 1939 movie, “The Wizard of Oz.” This runway show symbolized Abloh’s own dizzying journey from Illinois to the “Emerald City of Lights.”

As one of the first Black designers to take the creative helm at a major luxury fashion house, he took streetwear to the top of the luxury market. The biggest impacts Abloh had on the fashion industry included elevating streetwear to luxury fashion, introducing luxury products to the youth market and also transforming what high-end fashion can be. 

"If you really want to do what you say you do, leave this conversation and do it. Go and print that T-shirt today, and by today I mean in the next 30 minutes. If you don't do it, that's your problem." 
- Virgil Abloh, in an interview with i-D magazine

Let’s take a look at what Abloh accomplished in less than two decades, and how those impacts will continue to revolutionize the fashion industry. Plus: Lessons from this iconic legacy-making designer, in his own words.

The Rise of a Fashion Legacy-Maker

Abloh, born in 1980 to Ghanaian parents, grew up in Chicago. In 2002, he earned his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and then studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. While finishing his master’s degree, Abloh saw a building under construction by the architect Rem Koolhaas, which sparked his interest in fashion. 

Eventually, Abloh’s newfound interest in fashion led him interning at Fendi, which is where he became friends with rapper Kayne West, in 2009. In 2010, West made Abloh creative director of his creative agency, Donda. In 2010, Abloh earned a Grammy nomination for his art direction of the Kanye and Jay-Z album, “Watch the Throne.” That’s when Abloh really started to kick into high gear. 

Abloh launched his first fashion line, Pyrex Vision, in 2012. He collaborated with Matthew Williams and Heron Preston on a collective called Been Trill, before partnering with the company that would become the, New Guards Group, to launch Milan-based Off-White in 2013. Abloh explained the name as, “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.” In 2014, he launched a women’s wear line for Off-White and showcased his collections at Paris Fashion Week.

In 2017, Abloh’s career accelerated even more, as he debuted a landmark collection with Nike, where he deconstructed 10 pairs of the brand’s signature sneakers. He also won the British Fashion Award for the best Urban Luxe Brand. Then, in 2018, Abloh succeeded Kim Jones as artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, which catapulted him to becoming listed as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

In July 2021, Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH acquired a majority stake in Off-White, with Abloh owning the brand’s intellectual property and giving Abloh a major role working across LVMH’s collections to “leverage together the group’s expertise to launch new brands and partner with existing ones in a variety of sectors beyond the realm of fashion.”

Tragically, Abloh passed away on November 28, 2021 at age 41 after a battle with cardiac angiosarcoma cancer, anguishing his colleagues and admirers in the fashion, music and art worlds. Bernard Arnault, LVMH’s chairman and chief executive, said Abloh was a “genius designer, a visionary. He was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom.”

Lesson From a Fashion Legacy-Maker:

“The idea of modernity speaks to my beliefs about inclusivity and being open-minded and respectful to people from all walks of life,” Abloh said after his Louis Vuitton debut in 2019. “That’s at the heart of what I’m pursuing in my own work. In this position, at this brand, there’s a responsibility to represent what society could be.”

A Transcendent Design Point of View

Abloh is regarded as one of the pioneers of high-end street fashion. He called his work part of the “post-streetwear movement,” with roots in old school streetwear and hip-hop. Once Abloh joined Louis Vuitton, everyone was suddenly merging luxury and streetwear, like Balenciaga’s puffer jackets and Gucci working with Harlem designer Dapper Dan.

Abloh’s own non-traditional point of view owned the moment, with musical and architectural elements woven into his designs. He’d spent time as a DJ, so hip-hop sampling was at the core of Abloh’s approach, mixing in fleeting elements of street culture that he cemented in his collections.

“[Virgil] recognized fashion’s impact on the greater cultural landscape and used his designs as a means to communicate ideas bigger than any one garment or collection,” Kristin Breakell, Trendalytics content strategist, told Rivet. “His unique ability to create designs that resonated with teenagers just as much as they did with industry insiders allowed him to push the boundaries of both streetwear and luxury.”

Lesson From a Fashion Legacy-Maker:

Show your design vision and intent in your artwork and apparel choices. That’s the best way to show your industry colleagues and customers what you’re all about. Plus: If you have an idea, don’t be afraid to execute it. “I always looked at Off-White as my walking, talking resume,” Abloh told Vogue

“I joked that it was my resume with a business plan. Otherwise, I would have been a designer that was talking about what I wanted to do. I’m very much a Type-A, so if I have an idea I execute on it, which is sort of the opposite of my generation, I think. I’m of a generation that can have a lot of ideas, but they don’t always implement them.”
Virgil Abloh, in an interview with Vogue

Elevating Streetwear to Luxury Younger Buyers Love

Abloh tore down the barriers between streetwear and luxury, so he could meld them together. With Off-White, Abloh showcased streetwear as high fashion, which challenged the exclusionary status quo of traditional luxury brands. Now for the first time, many people started to view streetwear as high fashion.

Furthering that, Abloh’s appointment to menswear creative director at Louis Vuitton was truly a turning point for the brand and luxury fashion as a whole. "The end goal is to modernize fashion and steer a [fashion] house because I believe in the modernization of these storied brands," Abloh said in a 2017 interview with The Cut.

Abloh himself represented consumers in their 30s and 40s growing up with streetwear influences. A luxury version of streetwear appealed to these buyers, as a natural extension of what they wore in their teens and 20s. “For years, we’ve witnessed luxury brands inspired by streetwear and then make a half-baked attempt to capture trends born in the cities and neighborhoods often disregarded in society,” said Donwan Harrell, president, creative director and co-founder of Artmeetschaos, in an interview with Rivet. “Not only did Virgil blur the lines, but he brought legitimacy to the collective contributions of the Black community to fashion. He was a beacon of light for those whose odds stacked against them.”

Lesson From a Fashion Legacy-Maker:

Develop apparel and designs that reflect reality and what’s going on in the communities your brand serves. “In fashion, there’s a tremendous amount of quest for what’s happening next,” Abloh told i-D after his Louis Vuitton debut. “But it’s not too mysterious. It’s what’s happening outside the world of fashion. Sometimes fashion ignores that and places itself on a pedestal. But, times are changing and the future isn’t that far removed if you look in the right place.”

Changing Fashion’s Future, Forever

Abloh left a lasting impression on luxury brands, but his appointment at Louis Vuitton, as the first Black artistic director in the brand’s 167-year history, pushed the industry forward—allowing the next generation of BIPOC designers to see a Black designer at the highest levels of fashion. While Louis Vuitton will carry on Abloh’s legacy, in pushing design boundaries, we can expect the company and its counterparts to create a lot more opportunities for young Black designers, since Abloh has now opened that door for good. 

After George Floyd’s murder in July 2020, Abloh set up the “Post-Modern” scholarship fund for “students of academic promise of Black, African-American or African descent.” The fund was endowed by Abloh and his partners like Louis Vuitton, New Guards Group, Farfetch and Evian.

Abloh believed that being disruptive in fashion doesn’t make a designer great. Instead, it’s an inclusive attitude and an awareness of the culture living around you. “Imagine if I really believed I was taking ‘fashion’ and turning it on its head,” Abloh said in a i-D interview  “That to me is easy… All I'm trying to do is create things that are indicative of my surroundings and the community that I come from, so that more people can do them.”

Lesson From a Fashion Legacy-Maker: 

Make the “why” of your brand the driving force of everything you do. “There’s no better feeling than creating or making something new or bringing joy through fashion,” Abloh told Vogue

“What I’m more interested in than anything else is the 17-year-old kid in Kansas that looks like me or grew up like me and didn’t think fashion was ever an industry that he or she could participate in.” - Virgil Abloh, in an interview with Vogue

Abloh’s motivation behind his work impacted didn’t just impact his design aesthetic. It surely impacted every other decision he made, which enabled him to create a legacy that will last forever. Once you find out your “why,” make sure everything you do lines up with it, so your brand can make a long-lasting impact on your community and beyond.

Jun 19, 2022