Former Off-White artistic director Virgil Abloh, whose breakout bout with cancer caught the world’s attention and catapulted him into stratospheric success, died on Sunday, March 3, in Los Angeles. He was 41.
Abloh became an overnight favorite in fashion circles a couple of years ago when he joined Louis Vuitton, a major luxury brand whose global presence could send mainstream consumers on a one-way trip to fashion confessionals.
But his designer appointment at Vuitton, following decades of designing for the rock-and-roll brands Dazed & Confused and KUSH, was no small deal, inspiring some debate over whether he would make history. His first Vuitton runway show, held in October 2016, was a major hit that had some calling it a modern-day “bazillionaire’s runway.”
While few could take that claim seriously, Abloh did make fashion history when he announced his battle with esophageal cancer shortly after arriving at Vuitton. “I am not just a designer,” he wrote, “I am a warrior who fights for things I believe in.”
After the show, Abloh celebrated in a dressing room with Yannick Bolloré, CEO of Louis Vuitton. At a photo shoot two days later, the designer encouraged his models to take selfies with Abloh in front of the camera.
But Abloh, who had also been openly gay, spoke about the toll that cancer had taken on him — seeing friends, family and colleagues die of the disease was heart-wrenching.
“I wanted to do more with life,” he said during an interview. “I wanted to give more to life.”
The humility wasn’t just bravado. Though the industry gave Abloh unbridled praise for his work on Louis Vuitton, few in fashion saw him as a genuine risk-taker. He kept his Vuitton designs affordable and aimed to promote the brand within the rap community. In both respects, he claimed that his work appealed to the common man.
The campaign photograph shows the artist standing next to a machine he uses to create his signature prints. The machine bears a cardboard box, a reference to the one he was using when he was diagnosed. The grills, in the shape of pick axes, are part of a monogram. Abloh proudly told the audience that he wanted people to feel that they were wearing a piece of a Native American culture they “didn’t know existed.”
Abloh was considered one of the most daring and groundbreaking fashion stars of his generation — a sort of hipster-Black Panther — a description that appeared to set him off in a fit of jealousy. He sometimes referred to his peers as “garden gnomes” and took to mocking some of their prep and hyper-sexualized images.
In an interview with the New York Times last month, Abloh said he hadn’t treated his status as a fashion star as a burden. In fact, he said, it had led to excitement.
“All that anxiety and angst that we so often feel around it, it ends up being like a relief,” he said. “It becomes like, oh, this is what I’m supposed to be doing, this is what I’m supposed to have to do.”
After announcing his cancer battle, Abloh brought designers like Virgil Abloh himself onto the runway. Then, at a major Paris fashion week fashion show, he appeared uninterested in making clothes for the catwalk. Instead, he created a collection that consisted entirely of T-shirts and shorts he had designed and sold directly to the public.