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Virgil Abloh, Trailblazing Off-White Founder Who Became Louis Vuitton’s First Black Artistic Director, Dies At 41

Abloh and Kanye West bonded over their love for design, and their collaborations helped bring the Rockford native global acclaim. He died after battling cancer.

Virgil Abloh at the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Creation Center in 2019.
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CHICAGO — Virgil Abloh, a Chicago designer who built his love for streetwear, engineering and architecture into a global brand, and who became one of the only African-Americans to lead a luxury French fashion house, died Sunday. He was 41. 

LVMH, the parent company of Louis Vuitton and Off-White — brands Abloh led or founded — announced his death Sunday afternoon, saying in a statement the designer had been privately battling cancer for several years.

“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,” said Bernard Arnault, chief executive officer of LVMH. “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.” 

Born in Rockford to Ghanian immigrant parents, Abloh received a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University at Wisconsin-Madison and a master’s in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Abloh closely collaborated with Kanye West. The pair met at a Chicago print shop and interned in the same class at Italian fashion house Fendi in 2009. The following year, Abloh became creative director at West’s creative agency, Donda, according to Vogue.

Abloh’s artistic partnerships with West led him to launch Off-White, a streetwear brand based in Milan known for deconstructing fashion by labeling it. He founded Off-White in 2012 and incorporated women’s fashion in 2014, showing his men’s and women’s collection at Paris Fashion Week.

The Off-White brand continued to grow, launching stores in Japan and New York and a furniture collection in Milan. Abloh’s other partnerships included Nike, in which he recreated 10 iconic sneaker designs, and IKEA, where he created another furniture line.

His multifaceted work formed the basis of a 2019 exhibit at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

RELATED: Nike And Artist Virgil Abloh Bring New Workshop To Michigan Avenue — With Free Classes For City’s Youth

Abloh joined Louis Vuitton in 2018 to lead its men’s wear collection, making him only the third African-American designer to serve as artistic director at a luxury French fashion house. His arrival at Louis Vuitton marked a watershed merging of high fashion and streetwear.

Leading Louis Vuitton also was a full-circle moment in his career. He told Naomi Campbell shortly after he was appointed that some of his and West’s first sparks of design inspiration came from visiting the Louis Vuitton store on Michigan Avenue.

Among the many celebrities he designed for were Rihanna and Kim Kardashian, who sported his looks before he debuted his first men’s line at Louis Vuitton; BTS, whom Abloh recruited as Louis Vuitton brand ambassadors and who modeled his spin-off collection; Serena Williams, who wore his looks on the court; Hailey Bieber, who credited the designer for casting her in shows and shoots, and who wore a wedding gown designed by Abloh; and Gigi and Bella Hadid, who have walked in his shows.

Musicians and celebrities including Drake, Pharrell Williams, Lenny Kravitz, Victoria Beckham and Kourtney Kardashian posted tributes on social media.

Abloh stayed at the cutting edge of fashion even while undergoing treatments beginning in 2019 for cardiac angiosarcoma, an aggressive form of cancer, according to an Instagram post on his page. 

“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,” the message said. “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.”

Abloh long kept a home in Lincoln Park, despite his fashion empire taking him to runways around the world.

He remained active in creative circles throughout Chicago, helping to guide young people. He designed the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center c/o Virgil Abloh in 2019, which partially served as the home for a mentorship program for 10 Chicago-area young adults for an eight-week experience with Abloh and mentors he selected. Late last year, he helped bring a skateboarding program to West Side kids.

He is survived by his wife, two children, parents and sister.

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