A Sustainable Design Pioneer, Virgil Abloh Reimagined Fashion and So Much More

virgil abloh
Image courtesy Wikimedia

American fashion designer Virgil Abloh died yesterday after a private battle with cancer. He was 41. Abloh leaves behind a legacy of forward-thinking luxury design bookended by his unique approach to sustainability.

Hailed as a design guru who broke barriers, Abloh served as artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection from 2018 until his death. He was also the CEO of the Milan-based label Off-White, which he founded in 2012.

“We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved Virgil Abloh, a fiercely devoted father, husband, son, brother, and friend. He is survived by his loving wife Shannon Abloh, his children Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh, his sister Edwina Abloh, his parents Nee and Eunice Abloh, and numerous dear friends and colleagues,” read a statement posted to Abloh’s Instagram account.

“For over two years, Virgil valiantly battled a rare, aggressive form of cancer, cardiac angiosarcoma. He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture.

“Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design. He often said, ‘Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,’ believing deeply in the power of art to inspire future generations.”

The designer died in a Houston hospital on Sunday, according to a statement from Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy (LVMH). Abloh was scheduled to appear in Miami this week for a show featuring his Spring 2022 menswear collection.

“We are all shocked after this terrible news. Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH, said in a statement.

“The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow, and we are all thinking of his loved ones after the passing of their husband, their father, their brother or their friend,” he added.

“Virgil was a genius, a visionary but most of all he was family,” Davide De Giglio, chairman and CEO of Off-White’s parent company New Guards Group, and Andrea Grilli, CEO of Off-White, said in a joint statement. “There are no words to describe the loss that his passing leaves in our lives. His legend, his love and his spirit will remain with us forever. Thank you for changing our lives, Virgil. Rest in power, brother.”

The sought-after designer debuted his first Louis Vuitton collection in 2019—his first three months in the position boosted the label’s sales by 16 percent. Abloh’s fans were often his collaborators, notably Kanye West, for who Abloh served as creative director before he launched Off-White. He was a member of Been Trill collective with Heron Preston and Matthew Williams, and launched his first label, Pyrex Vision, in 2012.

Abloh brings sustainability to Louis Vuitton

At Vuitton, Abloh was critical in moving the luxury label toward sustainability as competitors like Gucci and Prada had already begun embracing sustainable textiles and deepened their environmental commitments. Abloh played a decisive role in developing the Vuitton Upcycling Signal Logo, which pointed to the luxury label’s sustainability efforts. Abloh incorporated the logo into his Spring 2021 menswear collection, and it also appears on all of the label’s products made from upcycled materials or those containing at last 50 percent recycled or bio-based materials.

That shift led to the brand’s first vegan unisex sneaker earlier this year. The Charlie is made from recycled polyester, corn-based plastic, and recycled nylon. The shoes also come in recyclable packaging.

Abloh wasn’t just a fan of sustainable materials, he was also a fan of deadstock; the designer was known for creative ways of recycling and reusing it—a move that earned him both high praise and deep criticisms.

But despite his less than traditional rise to fame, labels adored the designer. Abloh worked with Nike, Mercedes-Benz, and Evian, among others.

“I don’t call myself a designer, nor do I call myself an image-maker. I don’t reject the label of either. I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal, nor am I trying to be more, now. I would like to define the title of artistic director for a new and different era.”

-Virgil Abloh

His partnership with Nike, which leaned heavily into an upcycled design that didn’t meet sales expectations, turned into a victory for Abloh.

“We ordered way more than the market was ready to adopt of a new design, so we had stock of those that hadn’t sold through initially. And I was like, instead of this being a negative, I immediately went into, ‘This is a great way for us, as a luxury house, to just think about the history of this shoe,’” Abloh told WWD.

Abloh designed a sustainable water bottle for Evian, where he served as Creative Advisor of Sustainable Innovation Design since 2018. The project was years in the making—a partnership Abloh said allowed himself and Evian the opportunities to push boundaries and “explore new areas of revolution.”

“One of the greatest inventions of man is bottled water,” Abloh said in 2018. “It’s an ultra profound concept. You can unravel a simple object and tell the story of humanity.” Through that partnership, Abloh and Evian offered a €50,000 grant for sustainably-focused design projects for young designers between ages 18 and 35 years old.

Building a better future

LVMH supported Abloh’s Off-White, increasing its investment into the label to 60 percent earlier this year, giving the designer a runway to do what he did best: ideate and create.

“My eyes have always been wide in terms of fashion, arts and culture and how they can merge together. So the announcement is leaning on that, that now there’s an opportunity to grow new segments and root myself within LVMH, the group,” he told WWD at the time.

Sustainable design came naturally to Abloh, who saw the intrinsic sustainability in craftsmanship. Abloh subscribed to a quality over quantity mantra. But his vision was bigger than that—he continued to position himself outside of traditional fashion narratives, aiming to reinvent both his definition of the art, and bring the consumer along with him.

“I don’t call myself a designer, nor do I call myself an image-maker. I don’t reject the label of either. I am not trying to put myself on a pedestal, nor am I trying to be more, now. I would like to define the title of artistic director for a new and different era,” he said.

Image courtesy Wikimedia

His vision for that different era was buoyed by a commitment to the Black community. As the first Black creative director for Louis Vuitton, Abloh helped to raise more than $1 million in scholarship funds for Black fashion students with the launch last year of the Virgil Abloh™️ “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund.

“I’ve always been passionate about giving the next generation of students the same foundation for success that was given to me. That’s why I’m excited to launch this Fund in partnership with the [Fashion Scholarship Fund], which has an outstanding track record of helping college students achieve successful careers,” Abloh said in a statement last year. “I’m also grateful to my partners for their donations, which are just a part of the long-term commitments I am working on with them to create greater opportunities for Black people in and outside of their organizations.”

Over his career, Abloh received a number of recognitions such as the 2018 WWD Newsmaker of the Year winner, the British Fashion Awards “Urban Luxe” award in 2017 and 2018, and winning the International Designer of the Year award at the GQ Men of the Year Awards in 2017. In 2018, he made TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list.

“I can tell you that 99 percent of my career most people didn’t care what I was doing or where I was at—when you come from a background that doesn’t guarantee you’ll participate,” Abloh told Forbes last January.

“People are reading into my personal journal. [On] every page is some output. It puts a notion out in the world to make it a better, more inclusive place,” he said. “That’s been my intention since I was a nobody.”

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