Virgil Abloh - Culture Influencer
Virgil Abloh challenged the fashion industry and made something beautiful. As the first African-American art director at a French luxury fashion house, Abloh was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018. This was the culmination of years of work with Louis Vuitton, his own fashion brand Off-White, and his collaborations with the most recognizable names in the sneaker industry. Perhaps it was fate that the son of a seamstress and student of architecture would build a legacy in fashion.
Who Is Virgil Abloh?
Virgil is recognized as a world-class designer. His Nike shoe collabs sell out in minutes, his Ikea rugs retailed in 2019 for $500 but now sell for thousands of dollars on StockX, and almost every item he has created has received massive demand. Virgil had a distinct style to his work and while he was best known for his design, he was also loved for his philanthropy.
He contributed hours of his time towards mentorship and donations. His contagious spirit impacted thousands of entrepreneurs, dreamers, and activists. His “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, announced in July 2020, raised $1 Million Dollars to Support the Next Generation of Black Fashion Industry Leaders. To date, over forty “Post-Modern” Scholars have received $7,500+ college scholarship awards through the Fund. His reach carries well beyond fashion, into the world of art, music, and even furniture. Virgil’s ability to connect seemingly unlike things, may be a tribute to his childhood.
Early Life of Virgil Abloh
Born in Chicago, 1980, Virgil was the son of Nee and Eunice Abloh. His parents moved to America from Ghana prior to their son's birth. The Ablohs moved with a dream in mind, to make it in the western world. Virgil credits his drive and motivation to his parents, their move across the globe, and being the son of immigrants in America. He shared with Fader how he easily could have been a child in a third-world country with fewer opportunities.
The opportunities presented in America were not lost on Virgil nor his parents, who instilled a diligent work ethic and principles in Virgil that would help shape his vision. Unsure of what path he wanted to follow, Virgil listened to his parents and studied Civil Engineering after high school, graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002.
While in college, Abloh took an art history class that sparked something within him. “That’s when the bulb went off,” he told The Guardian.
However, his transition into the fashion industry did not start there. After earning his Bachelor’s in 2002, Abloh continued his education at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), receiving his Master’s in Architecture. IIT opened a new building designed by Rem Koolhas during Abloh’s time that piqued his interest. Rem Koolhaas’s style was known to bring fashion design to world of creating buildings.
Underground Success of Abloh
While furthering his education, Virgil had several hobbies and interests. He wrote for the popular blog The Brilliance and worked at a Chicago print shop as a designer. The print shop, Custom Kings, was beloved locally, and frequented by both up and coming artists and big names - one of whom was Kanye West’s manager. Legend has it that Virgil skipped his final critique to take a meeting with Kanye West’s manager, John Monopoly, who would later introduce the two. By the mid 2000’s, Abloh was Kanye’s creative assistant. Kanye loved Abloh’s work ethic, and perhaps most importantly, they shared a creative vision.
Later in the decade Kanye had a sneaker collaboration with Louis Vuitton while frequently visiting Paris for fashion shows. Abloh accompanied Kanye and the two were eager to learn while simultaneously questioning the status quo. Their curiosity was respected, and the two worked an internship at Fendi together. Their presence, willingness to learn, and connections in the fashion world led to some unique moments. NSS Magazine detailed their time as real interns "...going to work every day, walking to work and getting some cappuccinos." Fendi's CEO at the time, Michael Burke, said: "I paid them 500 dollars a month! I was really impressed by the news they brought to the studio, they were disruptive in the best sense of the term."
The collaboration between West and Abloh continued to grow, as they started designing everything from merchandise to special effects to album covers, and much more. Virgil Abloh was soon named Creative Director of West’s company DONDA.
Perhaps the final significant venture Abloh did prior to Off-White was his clothing brand Pyrex Vision. However, he viewed this brand as more of an experiment. Pyrex Vision purchased deadstock Ralph Lauren clothing for $40, added unique screen printing onto the deadstock, and sold the clothing for upwards of $550.
Virgil Abloh Reaches The Mainstream With Off-White
Shortly after Pyrex Vision, Abloh launched his second fashion company, Off-White. He labeled the brand this since it describes the gray area between black and white. Moreover, it was a connection to Abloh being African American in an industry that is historically dominated by white men and women. Through this brand, he was infusing street culture and unique aesthetics into the world of high end fashion.
The company based in Milan, Italy was an immediate success. Often recognized by bold capital-letter words in quotation marks, zip ties, and designs influenced by barricade tape - his background in architecture clearly played a role in the company's aesthetic.
Virgil Abloh Collaborations
It’s hard to separate the cultural success of Kanye West and Virgil Abloh. Kanye has done some amazing things in pop culture by presenting to the world his vision and ideas. This is evident by Kanye’s massive success in collaborations with Nike, Adidas, and other major fashion brands. During these collaborations, Virgil was Kanye’s Creative Director.
The fashion industry took notice of the integration of DONDA's vision and street culture. This helped to propel Virgil to the mainstream, along with Off-White’s massive success. Fashion brands who wanted to question the status quo knew Virgil was the one to call.
Virgil has a long list of collaborations that include companies in and out of the fashion realm. Some of these companies are Ikea, Mercedes Benz, Levi,and Vitra, along with world renowned artists like Jenny Holzer and Takashi Murakami, and lastly philanthropic groups such as Planned Parenthood and Boys and Girls Club of America.
Finally, and perhaps most notably, his collaboration with the largest sneaker company in the world, Nike.
Off-White x Nike
Nike had first worked with Abloh when he was working with Kanye West. Eventually, Nike started working with Virgil as an individual and allowed him to explore a new creative vision. When a Virgil x Nike collaboration was announced, the hype was explosive and sneakerheads were practically drooling. As we look back, it’s no wonder that just one collaboration between the two fashion giants, simply wouldn’t be enough.
Abloh x Nike - “The Ten”
The first collaboration between Abloh and Nike was critically acclaimed and dubbed ‘The Ten.’ ‘The Ten’ refers to the line released in 2017, which consisted of ten, deconstructed, iconic Nike silhouettes, with Abloh’s twist of course.
The ten can be broken up into two sets of five: ‘REVEALING’ and ‘GHOSTING.’ ‘Revealing’ includes the Air Jordan 1, Air Max 90, Air Presto, Air Vapor Max, and Blazer Mid. These shoes are unified by the idea of using design techniques to make the shoes feel hand-cut and rebuilt. The words in all caps and in quotations clearly indicate Abloh’s involvement.
‘GHOSTING’ consisted of Air Force 1 Low, React Hyperdunk, Air Max 97, Zoom Fly SP, and a Converse Chuck Taylor. Unified by a common material, the set signifies transparency.
These shoes were consumed by sneakerheads immediately, and their impact was long lasting. Consider this–in November of 2017 when the Virgil-designed Air Max 97 was released, it had an original price point of $190. Today, that same pair is selling for over $1,000 on StockX.
Earlier this year, it was reported that a full set of ‘The Ten’ would be heading to auction, with the expected winning bid to be around $40,000. While the price point is high, having a full set of sneakers from an important collaboration is priceless.
Abloh x Nike - “The 50”
After the massive success of ‘The Ten’ shared between Nike and Abloh, the pair decided to come out with another line. They named this new line ‘The 50.’ ‘The 50’ is in reference to the 50 different colorways of Nike Dunks designed by Abloh. Nearly all of the 50 were white with gray overlays with various color accents throughout, depending on the design number.
The set was sent out as exclusives to SNKR app users, not knowing which number they would receive. As you can imagine, the set was a massive success and the shoes still hold up both aesthetically and as an investment. Listings on StockX provide real time evidence that a pair from the original set of 50 can easily go for upwards of $500.
Abloh x Jordan
Jordan, whose parent brand is Nike, also received the Abloh treatment. Outside of the original AJ1 which was part of ‘The Ten’ there were multiple other collaborations between arguably the two biggest names in street fashion culture.
Some of the most famous editions of this pairing include the AJ5 ‘Sail’, Womens AJ4 ‘Sail’ and the most recent before Virgil’s passing, AJ2 Retro Low SP. The AJ2 was historically one of the worst selling Air Jordans, possibly due to the fact that Jordan missed the season that these sneakers were released due to an injury. Abloh’s design on the AJ2 was a breath of fresh air. Currently these AJ2’s are going at a minimum of $700 on StockX.
How Did Virgil Abloh Impact Sneaker Culture?
Virgil Abloh passed away from a rare form of cardiac cancer in 2021. While his physical body left us, his vision and overall impact did not. Virgil’s impact on sneakers propelled the subculture to radical new heights through his unique sense of style and fusion of street fashion with mainstream fashion.
Virgil is one of the reasons that sneakers turned into a collectible piece of art and fashion. His vision and aesthetic is timeless, and time will tell if it has the ability to withstand trends of over several decades. But, if we learned anything, it's to never underestimate Virgil Abloh. From a humble upbringing in bustling Chicago, Virgil captured the city's essence in design and is beloved the world over. Louis Vuitton CEO Bernard Arnault said after Abloh’s tragic passing, “Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom.”
Q: Why did Virgil Abloh start Off White?
A: Answers vary. His previous company Pyrex Vision may have had legal trouble with kitchenware brand Pyrex. But ultimately, Off White symbolized the grey area in design in which Abloh thrived. He was a mentor to many and helped to spawn and evolve hundreds of new designers who, without his philanthropic endeavors, may have never had a chance.
Q: Is Off-White owned by Nike?
A: Off White was owned by the late, great, Virgil Abloh. Virgil had several creative endeavors and collaborations with Nike. Months prior to his death, it was announced Louis Vuitton would own 60% of Off-White, with Abloh owning the remaining 40%.
Q: Are Virgil Abloh and Kanye West Friends?
A: Yes. The two were pals and business partners, and met through mutual friends. Virgil worked at a print shop in Chicago, frequented by Don C. Don was looking for a designer and Virgil was an up-and-coming one. Don C introduced Virgil to John Monopoly (Kanye’s Manager), who introduced Kanye West.