Virgil Abloh at his Off-White women’s show in Paris, February 2019.
Photo: Yvonne Tnt/BFA.com
Since “Figures of Speech” opened in July, the Brooklyn Museum has filled with pilgrims, a diverse group, many in the Air Force 1’s, boxy tees, and droopy tank tops of this summer, there to genuflect at the altar of Virgil Abloh. The exhibition is a celebration and reliquary of the work of the designer and fashion polymath, who died this past fall of a rare cancer at 41, much to everyone’s surprise. Because who dies at such an age, least of all someone who had spent his short superstar career espousing a radically democratic self-help ideology and a set of “cheat codes” for young people — especially young people of color, who rarely saw themselves represented at the top levels of elite creative fields like fashion and industrial design — to “jump the timeline” of their lives, never take no for an answer, and charm, cajole, and connect their way into these inner sanctums.
Abloh had been a protégé of Kanye “Ye” West’s and then the founder of his own fashion label, Off-White, which, in under a decade, has grown to a reported $300 million in annual sales and some 68 stores worldwide. And without much in the way of formal fashion-design training, Abloh became the men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton in 2018, an appointment blessed by Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of Vuitton’s owner, LVMH, and encouraged by his millennial son, Alexandre, among a few others who shared his willingness to take this chance. The company, to retain its relevance, needed the respect of exactly the kinds of kids — steeped in hip-hop, skate culture, and an anti-hierarchical, slide-into-my-DMs sense of how the world works — who showed up at the Brooklyn Museum. “If you walk through an LV store and look at the crowd, it’s a very different crowd than there was five, seven, ten years ago, just by their age,” says Alexandre Arnault, who befriended Abloh. “Younger people are much more interested about fashion, art, design, music, thanks to him.”
The partnership was only getting deeper. Abloh’s Vuitton contract, not yet expired, had already been extended, and the summer before he died, LVMH reached a deal with him to acquire a majority of Off-White. The Arnaults had big plans for him — beyond Vuitton, the company teased a larger “group-wide role” launching new brands and sprinkling his magic over existing ones, including non-fashion endeavors like hotels and liquor. After his death, LVMH was left with some difficult decisions: What do with it all, without Abloh himself, a world-hopping dervish weighing in on every decision from any given plane seat, hotel room, or DJ gig on WhatsApp, his preferred method of communication.
Virgil Abloh spins at a party celebrating a collaborative Air Force 1 sneaker at Garage in New York, 2017.
Photo: Amy Lombard
Vuitton and Off-White were only two of Abloh’s many projects. A relentless, seemingly indefatigable multitasker, Abloh designed silverware for Alessi, furniture for Vitra, sneakers for Nike, and water bottles for Evian. He made paintings with Takashi Murakami. His website lists 34 companies, organizations, studios, affiliations, and nebulously defined somethings, from his SoundCloud to his unrealized Virgil Abloh Automotive Designs. Abloh always saw his work as about consciousness-raising as much as moneymaking — “The goal of Off-White is not to buy Off-White; it’s to know about it” was one of his many, oft-repeated-by-him maxims — and Abloh philosophized as much as he designed.
His goal, as his friends often remind anyone asking, was to give support to and raise up those who, like him, hadn’t always been destined for art. “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself” was another of his mottos, a description no less of his designs than of his spiritual mission.
As if to underscore this, at the Brooklyn Museum, the guards wear lime-green Nike Air Force 1’s that he designed. When I was there, I noticed that one had pinned on an Abloh-issued black fabric tag reading TROJAN HORSE to his shoe. The Trojan-horse concept was a recurring motif: Abloh loved the idea that he could sneak his message into the kinds of institutions that until very recently weren’t interested in it. “He was an artist who worked the system to his great benefit,” the curator Antwaun Sargent, who collaborated with him on the Brooklyn show, says.
Abloh made it inside the walls before he died and propped the gate open for others to follow. “He felt a tremendous sense of purpose in opening doors for others,” Shannon Abloh, his widow, said this year, introducing four nominees for the $1 million “Post Modern” (he loved to deploy quasi-academic lingo) scholarship he endowed for the Fashion Scholarship Fund. “He would say, ‘The work isn’t simply about opening the doors; it’s about laying the groundwork to ensure these doors remain open permanently for others to walk through.’ ” But what kept the doors open was the desire Abloh’s products inspired.
“Everyone’s walking in here and offering the guards, like, thousands of dollars for the shoes,” Sargent tells me, and the on-site exhibition shop, which Abloh both designed and filled with $15 sticker sets, $65 T-shirts, and $55 hats, was frantic with shoppers. “The first week we opened the store, I was on the train and seven people had the hats,” a museum worker says. “I’ve never seen that.” Abloh called the shop Church and State, a typical tongue-in-cheek Virgilism, but Sargent noted Abloh saw no distinction between art and merch. “My objects are my objects,” Abloh told him. “They’re gonna exist on the same plane.”
There has been much brave talk about how Abloh left behind more than enough ideas for the Off-White team to riff profitably on for years to come. But behind the scenes, executives admit, there was little prepared for life without Abloh. The stakes are high. LVMH, which owns brands like Dior and Patou, has deep experience enlivening labels after their founders have passed on. (Dior died in 1957, in fact.) And the company is, despite his death — or perhaps even because of it — betting that it can turn Off-White into a billion-dollar business.
What happens next with Abloh’s legacy — who can define it and profit off it — is up for grabs, including the roles to be played by his disparate collaborators: the hand-picked lieutenants of Alaska Alaska, his London design studio; the operating executives and behind-the-scenes studio designers of Off-White in Milan; the suits in the Paris headquarters of LVMH; and, perhaps most of all, Shannon, who mostly stayed out of his jet-set, aphorism-dropping public life, choosing instead to raise their two children in Chicago, and who is now the founder and chief executive of a still somewhat undefined organization dedicated to his legacy, Virgil Abloh Securities.
“I think there’s a big gap left by Virgil,” designer Kim Jones, Abloh’s friend and predecessor at Louis Vuitton, says with some understatement. “It’s a pretty hard space to fill.”
The Off-White Jordan 1, 2017.
Photo: Evening Standard/eyevine/Redux/Evening Standard / eyevine/Redux
I first met Abloh in 2013 in an office tower in Chelsea. I knew him as a member of the Ye entourage that had gate-crashed Paris Fashion Week a few years before and as the creative force behind an upstart label called Pyrex Vision. But “designer” seemed like a tag that fit him badly. Pyrex, it turned out, was actually batches of Ralph Lauren Rugby deadstock that had been silk-screened with PYREX (a reference to cooking crack borrowed from rap) and 23 (Michael Jordan’s uniform number). Fashion bloggers were dubious. “It’s highly possible Pyrex simply bought a bunch of Rugby flannels, slapped PYREX 23 on the back, and resold them for an astonishing markup of about 700 percent,” Jian DeLeon wrote in January of that year. “Yes, it’s egregious that these Rugby shirts became such a coveted streetwear item, but what’s worse is that they sold out.”
But egregious, if properly tuned, has its appeal. And Abloh was usually pitch-perfect. His magpie philosophy was embodied by his “3 percent” axiom: that any design needed to be tweaked only 3 percent to create both a new work and a commentary on the old one. Although its crossed-arrows and diagonal-stripes logos — adapted from the 1960s graphic signature of the Glasgow airport — are now recognizable worldwide, Off-White has never had a single coherent design style; in fact, as Abloh used to say, “the best thing with Off-White is that no two seasons have to look the same.” The connecting thread was Abloh. His signal gesture was deploying ™ freely and putting anything and everything into ironizing quotation marks. He claimed descent from the Dadaists and their readymades. “Duchamp is my lawyer” was how he put it, probably the most quoted of his many quotable Ablohisms.
Those from whom Abloh borrowed — and those he competed with — sniffed at his appropriations. “I was a little taken aback by how evident it was that my own history had been an influence to him,” the graphic designer Peter Saville told GQ. Asked if any up-and-coming designers excited him, Raf Simons sniped pointedly, “Not Off-White.” “I’m inspired by people who bring something that I think has not been seen, that is original,” he said. Puckishly, Abloh titled his next Off-White collection Nothing New.
“ ‘New’ is a farce to me,” Abloh said in an interview with the European style journal Vestoj. “It’s a critique intended to keep people like me out. I’m not trying to pretend that I’m inventing something that’s never been seen before. My work exists because I’m inspired by the work of others.”
The pique of the infringed upon could be ridiculous or justified, but with cheerful, Teflon finesse, Abloh simply continued the conversation by making even the objection into art. For his showroom, Abloh made a rug screened with the words IT’S HIGHLY POSSIBLE PYREX SIMPLY BOUGHT A BUNCH OF RUGBY FLANNELS, SLAPPED “PYREX 23” ON THE BACK, AND RESOLD THEM FOR AN ASTONISHING MARKUP OF ABOUT 700 PERCENT, from DeLeon’s online critique. (You can see it at the Brooklyn Museum, near a tabletop display of his Nike shoe collaborations.) Then he sent DeLeon one and the two became friends. Not everyone was so easily won over, and Abloh kept a team of lawyers — Duchamp not being able to practice law from the afterlife — on retainer to parry the aggrieved, like the general counsel of the United Nations, who asked Abloh to please stop using its logo on his DJ flyers without permission. (Undaunted, he simply framed the U.N. attorney’s letter, also on view at the museum.)
“I don’t know if it was possible for him to have a chip on his shoulder,” DeLeon, now the men’s-fashion and editorial director at Nordstrom, tells me. “In our conversations, he would say that the single greatest invention in human history was a mixer. And I realized that’s because that’s how his brain is.”
Music — remixing, sampling — seemed to be the appropriate metaphor; not for nothing had Abloh DJ-ed around the world. “We weren’t designers. No one in the company was a designer,” says Marcelo Burlon, a fellow nightlifer who also started his own streetwear brand, who introduced Abloh to his backers, the company that became New Guards Group, and took on the production and distribution of Off-White. “We were all from the dance floor, not from the privé — you know, the podium of designers. We were part of the crowds.” Social media was breaking through the velvet ropes that had long held the people who created fashion, and a new generation of designers like Burlon and Abloh could now court their young fans directly. The crowds liked, and the crowds bought.
Without ever winning over fashion purists — as late as 2020, Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times wrote that “critics, myself included … don’t think he is particularly great at his day job” — Abloh conquered the world. “Streetwear,” fashionspeak for the sort of clothing that young people could do things like skateboard in (hoodies, T-shirts, denim), was ascendant, and Abloh elevated it by having it made of luxury fabrics and charging luxury prices. “There’s tons of brands mirroring the Off-White formula. You see it all over the place,” Kim Jones says. “That’s always the way it is — like, How do they do that?” He paraphrased Louise Wilson, the late famously foulmouthed professor at London’s Central Saint Martins school, who had mentored both Jones (as a student) and Abloh (when he showed up with Ye to discuss their early fashion collaborations): “If it’s so easy, you go fucking do it.”
Could anyone go and do it? Few had the rare combination of ambition, acumen, and energy and the connections that drive marketing in the celebrity era. (Ye, Jay-Z, Future, and Justin Bieber all wore Off-White almost from the start.) “Virgil had something unreplicable, which is access,” Alexandre Arnault tells me. “So he would be texting with Beyoncé or Bella Hadid all day long. And everyone, whether it’s an executive, Pioneer the DJ company, or Beyoncé, they all had a relationship with him, and he could connect the dots super-easily. I don’t know how that can be replicated.”
Abloh could be freewheeling to unnerving degree. Oana Stanescu, an architect who first met him via projects with Ye — she designed a 50-foot volcano for him to summit onstage on his Yeezus tour — bonded with Abloh at Ye’s 2014 wedding to Kim Kardashian and agreed to design Off-White’s first retail store, which was in Hong Kong. Back in the U.S., Stanescu met with Abloh for a walk through Chelsea to discuss the project. “He hadn’t been to Hong Kong yet or wasn’t familiar with Hong Kong,” she says. “There was basically the one conversation where we talked: ‘Okay, what’s on your mind? What would you want from a space?’ And that was the last time we spoke in person all the way to the opening of the store.” The space, a tiny plant-filled oasis that could be retrofitted for a DJ set or as a gallery, opened in 2014 and was the first of a number of stores and shops-in-a-shop the two designed together, always primarily on WhatsApp. “Because he’s exposed to the creative world and has an interdisciplinary understanding, it was quite easy,” she told me. “But I wouldn’t recommend doing projects” like that with other clients. “It’s kind of suicidal in many ways.”
Not everyone thrilled to the out-of-office mentality. Stanescu recalled a multimillion-dollar project she and Abloh worked on together for Cannes, which was unnervingly touch-and-go as its debut neared. “He got this really intense email from a collaborator telling him, ‘Look, we’re trying to pull off this incredible project, and it’s hanging on a thread. This is insane. This is absolute madness,’ ” she says. “It was a really intense email and actually to quite a few people. And Virgil’s response to that was, ‘I know! Teamwork is dreamwork!’ It encapsulates him perfectly. What can you even say to that?”
Abloh continued charging merrily along, growing his brand and his profile, working without break. His world was without gatekeepers. Annette Bovenschulte, a designer who freelanced for him in the first few years of Off-White, showed me sketches and prototypes she would send him via WhatsApp, which he’d mark up with a finger and send back. There were rarely any intermediaries.
In 2015, he applied for the LVMH Prize, a young-designer award that acts as a de facto talent incubator and job fair, and was named a finalist. He ended up losing to Marques’Almeida, a Portuguese design duo he soon eclipsed.
But he had caught the eye of the group. “We definitely had him on our radar,” Alexandre Arnault says. When Kim Jones left Louis Vuitton to take over Dior menswear — an intragroup hop — he recommended Abloh for the position; they’d known each other through Ye and had even worked on an Off-White–Louis Vuitton collaboration that Jones left before realizing. “I was very clear that I thought that was the best choice,” Jones says.
I asked Alexandre Arnault if, within the family and the group, there was some hesitation about the appointment. “I think it’s fair to say there’s always hesitation regardless of who you give the position to,” he says diplomatically. Michael Burke, Vuitton’s CEO, who fought for Abloh’s hire, put it more bluntly in an interview a few years ago: “Beyond Bernard Arnault,” he said, “I didn’t have too many people in my corner — inside and outside.” Abloh got the job in 2018.
Abloh’s rapid-fire, out-of-the-box ideas required Vuitton’s ateliers to adjust. Alexandre Arnault remembers a light-up LED bag. “That scared a lot of people,” he says, “but they made it work.” (Another idea, for a literal gold suitcase, never saw the light of day.) But the product sold; in January 2019, a thousand people lined up in Japan to buy Abloh’s first Vuitton collection in an expression of what Burke, its CEO, rhapsodized about as “pure, unadulterated desire.” Abloh had to learn to fit into the rigid structures required to keep a billion-dollar business working on schedule (with, meanwhile, his separate studio for Off-White in Milan). But he continued to take on other projects (for Nike in 2017, for Ikea in 2019) and to seed other studios and working partnerships with whomever might find their way across his transom and grab his interest.
The constant in all these projects was Virgil: magnetic, collaborative, and joyful. At his Harvard Design School lecture in 2017, he stayed optimistic and on message. “This was already in the Trump years,” Stanescu says. “It’s kind of an intense time to grow up between that, technology, climate change. And yet there he was sort of telling them, ‘Look, it’s an amazing time to be alive.’ ”
The first public sign that all was not well came in September 2019 when Abloh announced that he would sit out Off-White’s upcoming Paris Fashion Week show. “On Doctor’s Orders, Virgil Abloh Is ‘Taking a Few Months Off,’ ” Vogue reported. “Ultimately,” he said, “everything is fine, but the doctor told me, ‘This pace that you’ve sort of pushed your body — to fly all these miles, do all these different projects — is not good for your health.’ ” He would take three months off at home in Chicago.
Exhaustion seemed a reasonable explanation for Abloh’s pause, but, unbeknownst to all but a handful of intimates, everything was not fine. He had cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare, almost invariably deadly cancer of the blood vessels around the heart. Abloh seemed at first to respond well to treatment; before long, he had resumed much of his previous schedule. Plans continued apace for new Off-White collections, Vuitton collections, and Nike collections. Friends and collaborators say now that there was no indication of darkness on the horizon. “I never felt like he was a man running out of time,” DeLeon, who stayed in contact with Abloh over the years, tells me.
But in 2021 his condition deteriorated. Abloh attended the July wedding of Andrea Grilli, Off-White’s CEO, on Lake Como that year; the bride wore custom Off-White, and in photos, Abloh is smiling and, to all appearances, his normal self. “He looked great!” Marcelo Burlon, who attended, says.
At the end of Thanksgiving weekend, on November 28, 2021, Abloh died. The family announced his cancer for the first time in his obituary in a post to @VirgilAbloh’s 7.2 million Instagram followers. “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,” the post read. The account has not posted since.
His posthumous show at Paris Fashion Week, February 2022.
Photo: Getty Images
Teams at Vuitton and Off-White carried out the preparations for Abloh’s posthumous shows. The Brooklyn Museum exhibition, adapted from an earlier version that debuted at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2019 and traveled to Atlanta and Doha, had been mostly complete. “The ideas flew until our last message shortly before he died,” says Sargent. A Vuitton show that had been scheduled for Miami’s Art Basel only two days after Abloh’s death became an ad hoc memorial; the brand unveiled a monumental Abloh sculpture and programmed drones to write VIRGIL WAS HERE in lights across the sky. The following week, Abloh was sent off with a private memorial attended by Ye and Kim Kardashian, Rihanna and A$AP Rocky, Frank Ocean, and many others in Chicago. Lauryn Hill sang; Tyler, the Creator delivered one of the tearful eulogies.
Few definitive succession plans had been made. Despite knowing of his cancer, “we never imagined” he might die, Davide De Giglio, the co-founder of New Guards Group, told the Business of Fashion earlier this year. “There was no planning.”
The ongoing uncertainty, and the unanswered questions, has been painful for some who knew Abloh. “It’s a grieving process that doesn’t end,” Kevin McIntosh Jr., who had worked with Abloh for years, tells me. Nevertheless, Grilli, the Off-White CEO, told Business of Fashion, the Abloh “pipeline” was well stocked. “The number of ideas that we have directly from him — that were unmanageable on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis — it’s endless,” said Grilli. “This is the legacy that we’re going to build around.”
But what is the legacy of Abloh, and who gets to decide? So far, Off-White’s retailers say enthusiasm has not diminished. “We’re very bullish on both the present and the future,” says Lana Todorovich, the president and chief merchandising officer of Neiman Marcus. “It was started by Virgil, but I think he made it such a strong expression of his values that people identify with those values and will continue to buy it. We have seen double-, triple-digit increases in the past 12 months.” Laure Hériard Dubreuil, the founder and CEO of the Webster, a chain of specialty stores, was one of Off-White’s first stockists; Abloh once set up an “office” in her Miami store. Off-White is one of its top-five brands. “We’re not worried at all,” she tells me. There was no rush on his last collection, which she interprets as a sign that the brand has a life beyond its creator.
In May, Off-White announced that Abloh’s stylist of three years, Ibrahim Kamara — their relationship, like so many others, was “born and nurtured through DM messages on Instagram,” as the announcement put it — would become its art and image director, a title whose contours remain vague. Kamara, a Sierra Leonean Londoner, is, by several accounts, a quieter, more reserved presence than the gregarious Abloh. Word is bubbling out that Kamara is already more likely to say no than Abloh was, whether that’s to loan a starlet an Off-White dress or sit for an interview (including one for this piece). His first collection will not be seen until early next year.
Day to day, the Off-White studios are still run by the designers who had been quietly working there — Sabrina Mandelli for womenswear and Wayne Fitzell for menswear. Vuitton has not yet announced his successor, though two leading candidates are rumored to be Grace Wales Bonner and Martine Rose, both Black designers. (Another is Jonathan Anderson of Loewe.)
Going forward, New Guards will continue to oversee design, production, marketing, and sales for Off-White through at least 2026. But as part of his deal with LVMH, Abloh ceded a majority stake — 60 percent — of the Off-White brand, including the right to its name. He (and now Shannon) maintained a 40 percent stake. Shannon is now one of three directors listed on Off-White’s Illinois-registered LLC, along with Burke, the Louis Vuitton CEO, and Isabelle Brunetiere, another LVMH executive.
In parallel to Off-White — not in opposition but also not necessarily in sync — is Virgil Abloh Securities, of which Shannon is the sole owner. “Please note that we would like to inform you that VIRGIL ABLOH SECURITIES, a Virgil Abloh founded creative corporation, shall be embarking on continuing Virgil Abloh’s legacy by spreading his ethos and essence globally,” read a statement sent to friends and collaborators by Athiththan “Athi” Selvendran, Abloh’s longtime right hand, now Virgil Abloh Securities’ chief operating officer. Shannon is its CEO and CMO, and its portfolio, the note went on, “shall consist of work in the disciplines and spheres of art, architecture, engineering, creative direction, artistic direction, industrial design, fashion design, music, film, writing, and philanthropy … We are open to new projects, so please reach out with any opportunities that would be of interest.”
Virgil Abloh Securities represents a step into the spotlight for Shannon, who, for most of her marriage, stayed in the background. Many of his collaborators interviewed for this story had met her at shows or events but could, or would, say very little about her personally. “Normal, super-down-to-earth” is how one of his friends described her to me. (She declined to comment for this story.)
Virgil Abloh Securities launched its first project in August, a constellation of in-store installations at Nordstroms in the U.S. and Canada brokered in part by DeLeon. The Alaska Alaska studio designed a labyrinth of arches and cases in the Abloh-approved colors of Yves Klein blue and canary yellow. (One of Abloh’s many nascent companies/projects/ideas was an “art store” called Canary Yellow, where a variety of his collaborations are to be sold.) The Securities pop-ups, which will remain open through October, will sell Off-White pieces and new custom capsule collections, merchandise from the extensive gift shop at the Brooklyn Museum show, and a revived Pyrex collaboration, co-branded with Denim Tears, a label by Abloh’s friend Tremaine Emory.
Emory is a Queens native who first connected with Abloh in 2012 and has since followed in his footsteps as a polymorphous creator. Sitting on a velvet bench in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel — another favorite Abloh spot — he told me about the symbolism of remaking Pyrex, a line that had inspired his own. The original PYREX 23’s references resonated with him. “It’s like, ‘You either got a wicked jump shot, or you sell crack rock,’ ” he said, paraphrasing the Notorious B.I.G. “Or no, you’re an artist. No one tells you you could be an architect, or an artist, or a doctor, or a lawyer on the Southside of Chicago.” Abloh did.
For the new pieces, he used No. 45, Jordan’s returning Bulls number, and an update on one of Abloh’s most famous Renaissance references: not the entombment of Christ, by the artist Caravaggio, as Abloh once plastered on a Pyrex hoodie, but now, instead, Christ’s resurrection (using an image by Cecco del Caravaggio, one of the painter’s followers). “I just ran the idea by Shannon,” he says. “I’m focused on whatever Shannon’s involved in. That’s who I answer to. That’s my boss.”
I ask him what he thought about the various entities competing for Abloh’s legacy and about who his successor might be. “He has no successors,” Emory says. “He has flowers.”