Virgil Abloh & the Power of Clout: How Fashion’s Hottest Designer is Using his Cult Following and Artistic Genius to Bring Louis Vuitton into the 21st Century

A designer, entrepreneur, artist, and even a DJ, Virgil Abloh is a man of many talents. Born in 1980 in Chicago, Illinois to Ghanaian immigrant parents, Virgil Abloh became interested in art from a young age, with his mother, a seamstress, giving him his first glimpse into the world of clothier. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin, Madison with a degree in Civil Engineering, he continued his studies at the Illinois Institute of Technology, eventually earning his Master’s in Architecture in 2006.

In 2009, Abloh interned at Fendi alongside Kanye West. The two quickly became close friends, traveling around to PFW shows together. In fact, in 2010, West appointed Abloh Creative Director of Dona, West’s creative agency. Essentially, Abloh became West’s personal Creative Director. As CD, he directed the art for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 2011 hit album, Watch the Throne.

Virgil Abloh (far right), Kanye West (third from right), and friends pose for street style photographers during Paris Fashion Week, 2009. Photo credit: GQ

In 2012, Abloh branched off to start his own label, Pyrex, in NYC. Buying cheap Champion shirts and deadstock Ralph Lauren pieces, Abloh would then screen-print his own designs onto the clothing and sell the shirts for $500 a piece. Pyrex was something of a practice run for Abloh, as he experimented with techniques, treatments, and designs that would eventually form the core of his Off-White brand.

Some of Abloh's pieces from his Pyrex brand, 2012. Photo credit: GQ

Finally, in 2013, Abloh founded Off-White, basing it in Milan. When asked, Abloh described the brand’s name as “the gray area between black and white as the color off-white,” according to Vogue. In 2014, Abloh presented his menswear and womenswear collections at PFW, and in 2015, Off-White was named a finalist for LVMH Prize, a prestigious award for breakout young designers that includes a mentorship program with LVMH and $325,000 in seed money.

Pieces from Abloh's very first Off-White collection, 2014. Photo credit: Kingsdown Roots

In 2017, Abloh hit the big time with “The Ten,” a collaboration with Nike in which he redesigned 10 of their iconic shoes, giving them an industrial, deconstructed design, adding his signature hovering quotation marks, safety tags, and pops of bright orange.

All of the shoes from Virgil Abloh's original "The Ten" collaboration with Nike, 2017. Photo credit: Grailed

From there, Abloh and his Off-White brand became a force, collaborating with more than 20 different companies, including Champion, SSENSE, Jimmy Choo, Selfridges, Rimowa, Hirshleifers, Burton, Browns, Kith, and most recently, Ikea. In 2017, Abloh received the Urban Luxe award and Designer of the Year at the GQ Men of the Year Awards. His collections sold out immediately, despite the $1500 price tags on sweatshirts, and his sneakers selling at a nearly 450% markup on the secondary market. Abloh’s designs have become the most coveted on the planet.

The Jimmy Choo x Off-White Black Satin and TPU Claire Pointed-Toe Pumps. The collaboration launched in 2018. Photo credit: The Luxury Closet
Abloh working on one of his "Sculpture" totes for his Off-White x Ikea collaboration, launched in 2019. Photo credit: The Evening Standard
One of the designs for the Off-White x Rimowa collaboration, launched in 2018. Photo credit: Grailed

In 2018, Abloh was tapped to replace Kim Jones as the Creative Director for Louis Vuitton menswear. Since his appointment, Abloh has presented three outstanding collections that have completely reimagined the heritage French house’s classic look. While Louis Vuitton menswear used to be somewhat of an afterthought, its colors muted and its designs typical, Virgil Abloh has completely reimagined it, applying his modern edge to the house’s timeless designs.

Models lined up backstage at the Louis Vuitton menswear Spring-Summer 2019 show, Abloh's first show as Creative Director. Photo credit: Vallerio Mezzanotti
A model walks the runway at Abloh's Spring-Summer 2020 Louis Vuitton show during Paris Men's Fashion Week. Photo credit: Getty Images
The translucent luggage bandoulière bag from Abloh's Spring-Summer 2019 show; one of Abloh's most iconic redesigns. Photo credit: Pinterest

By redesigning Louis Vuitton, Abloh has given the label a new, younger audience. During a CNBC interview regarding his role at Louis Vuitton, Abloh said, “I like the challenge of translating a brand that could be one hundred years old to someone who’s 12. I specialize in that.” By sitting celebrities like the Kardashians, A$AP Rocky, Travis Scott, Rihanna, Billie Eilish, and the like on the front row of his shows, giving everything a grunge, city-slicker undertone, and using Instagram as his canvas, Abloh has created a Louis Vuitton that is not only recognized but revered by Gen-Z.

Kylie Jenner, Kim Kardashian-West, and Kanye West sit front row the Louis Vuitton men's Spring-Summer 2019 show in Paris, Virgil Abloh's debut fashion show for the house. Photo credit: High Snobiety

Ultimately, Virgil Abloh has used his Off-White brilliance to create a Louis Vuitton that is not only younger, brighter, and edgier, but that transcends its time-honored “LV” print. As Abloh notes, “being able to brand content that shapes a generation is no small thing,” yet he has accomplished this feat twice, first with Off-White and now Louis Vuitton, and he’s only getting started.

Carolyn Hammond

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