Virgil Abloh, who passed away Sunday after a private two-year battle with cancer, was a designer, a DJ and a world-builder. He was smart and talented and hard-working and prolific and cool. But it's not his arrow motif, industrial yellow belt or sans-serif quotation marks that made him great. It's not the many Nike drops over which sneakerheads lost their minds, nor the way he refreshed Louis Vuitton menswear with streetwear elements and childlike whimsy.
Abloh would be the first to admit that designing clothes was a means to an end. The end, we now know with more heartbreaking clarity than ever, was to inspire, encourage and open doors for the next generation; to show young people that they could be great like him. That was the answer to the question on everyone's minds when it came to Abloh: How and why did he do so many things at once, churn out new projects at such a breakneck pace and share so much of himself with so many people?
"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," read a statement announcing his passing. "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." What made him especially unique was that behind those words was selfless, fervent action — especially in what turned out to be his final years.
In one sense, that mission was simply embedded into the way he operated. He invented a new pathway to success in a famously exclusive industry by speaking its most fundamental languages: money and relevance. He brought in both for every profit-oriented institution he worked with, whether it was a major luxury conglomerate like LVMH, a global sportswear giant like Nike or a mass retailer like Ikea. Everything he did proved to the white male executives at the top that people like him — young Black men, children of immigrants, rule breakers, those who came up through the worlds of hip-hop or skateboarding, those without formal fashion training — are worth investing in.
"Virgil's life was a testament to how much Black Lives Matter by showing what Black lives are capable of," Dapper Dan wrote on Instagram. "His march took him to the top of luxury fashion. Virgil started out as a foot soldier but died a general."
While juggling a multitude of jobs and projects, this master multitasker also made it a point to offer advice, inspiration and sincere encouragement to practically everyone he came across, whether it amounted to an ongoing mentorship or a few words over text or DM; the evidence is all over our social media feeds: To many of those lucky enough to have received even the smallest bit of individualized attention or validation from Abloh, it meant everything.
"I feel an immense sadness for someone I was lucky to be able to call on," stylist and Black Fashion Fair founder Antoine Gregory tells me, via email. "And he always answered. He always answered."
Many of the anecdotes Abloh's friends and collaborators have shared in the days since his passing illustrate this characteristic, or the impact it had on them.
On Instagram, Abloh's close friend Heron Preston remembered the time his own Paris Fashion Week presentation was scheduled immediately after Abloh's Louis Vuitton debut. Preston was "bummed" that he wouldn't be able to attend that history-making show, and that Abloh wouldn't be able to make his own. And then Abloh showed up.
"I was crying and couldn't believe that I was even in the position I was in. We had always dreamed this up. On top of him coming it was all a bit much for me. I was shocked. I asked myself how," he wrote. "He put everything aside and he remembered me at a peak of his career."
For jewelry designer and fellow Chicago native Jameel Mohammed, founder of the 2021 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund-winning brand Khiry, it was a chance encounter with Abloh at a restaurant he was working at that may have shifted his whole trajectory.
"I had moved back home with a sense of defeat after failing to turn my traction in the press into a sustainable livelihood and wasn't sure if there was a way forward," Mohammed wrote on Instagram. "That brief meeting made me hungry to try again, to explore some of the possibilities he had inspired me to envision. Within a few weeks I made another sample set and bought a ticket to Paris to show the second collection. Each time we met spurred me to action, inspired me to put the puzzle pieces together, to follow his lead, and to conquer what felt insurmountable."
Sergio Hudson, who famously dressed Kamala Harris and Michelle Obama for the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, wrote about how "[Abloh's] advice and encouraging words were priceless and will never be forgotten": "You told me my destiny was set all I had to do was walk through the door. Those words gave me the confidence to ask for what I wanted and to push even harder."
Of course, Abloh didn't only inspire those who knew him personally. Through candid interviews and a constant stream of Instagram content, he was always transparent about his processes and ideas, so that his fans and followers had a blueprint and that they saw he was just a person, that what he did was achievable.
"I know there's a younger generation that will be the future designer in my position," he told Vogue last September. "And hopefully he or she will have been inspired by the trail that I've left behind so they feel they can achieve these goals too."
Tommy Bogo, founder and designer of Tombogo, tells me it was Virgil's "you can do it" mentality that made him believe that becoming a designer was a possibility. "Virgil showed me by example that my dreams were possible and that the act of doing is most important," he writes. "He was the first designer I truly looked up to and considered a role model."
"Virgil inspired me to create rules, language and structure in my design process, while simultaneously influencing me to break all the rules of fashion," he continues.
On top of the time and energy he gave to so much of the current crop of emerging Black fashion-industry talent, he may have given even more to the future ones. In addition to famously inviting design students to his runway shows and giving away hours of his valuable time speaking at art schools and HBCUs, he also set up the Virgil Abloh "Post-Modern" Scholarship Fund in 2020, leveraging his power and connections to raise $1 million to help Black undergraduates pursue their goals in fashion and working with the Fashion Scholarship Fund (FSF) to identify 20 worthy recipients from a variety of educational backgrounds.
When they began working together, FSF executive director Peter Arnold was struck by Abloh's sense of urgency. The already-busy designer wanted to get the fund up and running as quickly as possible. Now, Arnold says, he sees why.
"I now realize... he came to us a year and a half ago, right after his diagnosis. He was very pointed in terms of what he wanted to do and that he wanted to get it started right away," Arnold tells me over the phone.
During a recent call that Arnold did not know would be their last, Abloh expressed his appreciation for all the work the FSF had put into getting the fund off the ground so quickly. "It was so lovely of him to take the time to say that, and now I understand," Arnold says. "He had set something up very thoughtfully, that he intended as a legacy of his."
It's stunning to consider that while traveling the world, fulfilling countless professional demands, raising a family and quietly battling an aggressive illness, he was thinking about how to set up the next generation for success with something solid, like a life insurance policy in which all marginalized aspiring creatives were listed as beneficiaries.
Abloh didn't just raise money, share his name and platform and secure internship opportunities at the companies he worked with: He also participated (mostly virtually, due to Covid) in mentoring sessions with large groups of students that would go on for hours longer than intended, ignoring whatever professional obligation may have been next on his packed schedule.
"He never wanted to stop hearing from young talent, wanting to hear the newest ideas, the freshest takes, the newest music someone was listening to, saying, 'Tell me what you're doing, tell me the business you want to start,'" Arnold says. "He would say, 'I've got this sneaker I'm not supposed to show anyone but I want you guys to see.'"
Abloh would also share things that gave context to his persistent desire to help and engage with young people — anecdotes that surely resonated with the people in those sessions, because they're so universal: his Ghanian immigrant parents not letting him attend FIT because they wanted him to become an engineer, or the time an architecture professor stopped him during a presentation to tell him and the class that "not everybody in this room" was going to become an architect.
"He was using that moment to say, 'This young Black man is not going to get there,'" explains Arnold. "That was a powerful moment that [Abloh] felt should never happen to anybody. All people of color have stories like that, and that's what he was trying to solve for or fix."
Thanks to his swift action — when many other fashion companies were still crafting the press releases that would announce their intention to do something about the industry's diversity problem — Abloh lived to see some of his impact.
"There were kids who said, 'This experience changed my life, it changed my future,'" Arnold says.
Maryam, one of the recipients of the scholarship, shared as much on Instagram: "I'm truly saddened that I wasn't able to tell him how much he meant to me and how he inspired me to start my own business. He was beyond giving, cared for the little guy in the fashion world, driven and dedicated to his craft. Virgil, you're a legend and your legacy will live through not just us, FSF Scholars but through all the lives you touched."
It had only been days since Abloh's unexpected passing when we spoke, and while he was sad to have lost a friend, Arnold was also optimistic about the "Post-Modern" Scholarship's future, having already heard from members of the designer's network and supporters who want to see it continue.
"I'm very confident this initiative will have a very, very long if not perpetual life. I know there are friends of Virgil's anxious to succeed him and do for these kids what Virgil did for them," he tells me. "It's been given this other breadth and depth that I think our friend knew would happen. I feel this has been part of the plan."
"In an industry that often breeds competition and, with it, ego, elitism and self-interest, Virgil chose community," Keiser Clark co-founder and creative director Marc Keiser wrote in an email to Fashionista. "Beyond the designs, his example and legacy — his momentous legendary tale — will forever be his selfless love, to give more than you take and to truly celebrate those around you."
"Virgil was a hero to so many," Gregory adds. "Not because we always agreed, but because we didn't. That's the beauty of Black culture choosing to believe in him; the love we gave even when that love was tough. The proudness we all felt and continue feel. He was not our perfect hero, but he was ours to hold and uplift."
As Aurora James, founder of Brother Vellies and 15 Percent Pledge, tells Fashionista, "The power of Black vision he gave us transcended industries and will live on eternally in the legions of Black youth he inspired."
To gain further insight into what Abloh's life and career will mean in the greater pantheon of fashion history, I spoke with Kimberly Jenkins, fashion historian, professor and founder of the Fashion and Race Database. We pushed back our call a few minutes to watch the livestream of Abloh's final Louis Vuitton show in Miami, which ended with a beautiful, celebratory tribute that (to my own surprise) left me an emotional wreck, barely able to get out a coherent question. Fortunately, Jenkins was more successful in keeping it together.
She begins by telling me, "One thing I immediately thought [after hearing he passed], was, 'He just birthed a million Virgil Ablohs.'"
While it's true his death has left a void, there's an argument to be made that it also marks the beginning of something big.
"For years of teaching fashion history, people have said they want to be the next Karl Lagerfeld, the next Coco Chanel, the next Calvin Klein, the next Lee McQueen — I knew that this meant that, now, people will say, 'I want to be the next Virgil Abloh,'" she says. "He's left this archetype. Now he's this approach to design, a kind of designer people resonated with. We've now seen the body of his work. He enters the history books as another pathway of brilliance and design genius."
It's overwhelming to think about how young Abloh was and how suddenly he was gone, but it's just as overwhelming to think about all that he achieved by 41. Had he achieved it all by 81, I think we would speak about him with the same reverence and awe. Though his life was cut short, it's obvious that his legacy will not be. As Kerwin Frost put it, "Virgil Abloh will live forever."