Virgil Abloh, who died a year ago this November, made waves and history in 2018 when he was appointed creative director of Louis Vuitton’s men’s division, becoming the first Black designer to hold the position at the venerable French fashion house and one of the few to lead a major European luxury giant.
It was a major coup for the designer and deejay, then just 37 years old. The son of middle-class Ghanaian immigrants, Abloh’s entrée into high fashion six years earlier had been tarred by accusations of plagiarism and knee-jerk rejections from critics and commentators. But he would soon become a household name, his Off-White label jumping 31 places to become third on the 2017 Lyst Index of the world’s hottest brands (it became number one on the list the following year).
At the same time, Abloh was making good on his promise to prop open the door behind him, mentoring numerous young designers of color through his Post-Modern scholarship fund, the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center, the educational online series Free Game, and more. He invited some 1,500 students to his very first runway show for Louis Vuitton, an event that also attracted Kanye “Ye” West, Rihanna, A$AP Rocky, and fashion’s best and brightest. “I often refer to my career as a bit of a Trojan horse: It exists to traverse two spaces and allows other people to partake in it,” Abloh told WSJ. Magazine in 2021.
Just a few months after that interview, Abloh was dead, felled by a rare heart cancer that he hid from the public. The fashion world hasn’t been the same since, and it still struggles to categorize Abloh’s unboxable creative output. Abloh himself rejected the “street wear” moniker that often trailed his work, contesting it as a racist dismissal of his legitimacy. “The systems recognize me as different: They label the work as street wear, they say I’m not a designer, they say it’s not art—the list goes on,” Abloh told the hosts of the Ethical Fashion podcast in 2021. “I need to tell my own narrative . . . I’m not waiting for a narrative to come back about whether my work is valuable or not.”
So far, public opinion has been on Abloh’s side. Figures of Speech,an exhibition of his work cutting across music, fashion, architecture, and design, has toured five art museums so far and has been received with worshipful admiration at each. The Brooklyn Museum, the first to host the exhibit since Abloh’s death, recently rolled out commemorative items unique to its iteration of the exhibit, ongoing through January. After months of anticipation, Nike also dropped the limited-edition lime-green Air Force 1 Lows designed by Abloh and worn by exhibit security earlier this month, just as it did for the Lows worn in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (sky blue with red accents) and in 2021 at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (a vibrant marigold). Unsurprisingly, they’re already sold out.
Speculation still smolders about the Abloh-less future of Off-White. Ibrahim “Ib” Kamara, Abloh’s stylist, was named art and image director several months after Abloh’s death; the first Off-White collection created under his leadership hits runways in early 2023. Louis Vuitton continues to salute the fallen designer, but as of this writing, the house has not named Abloh’s successor. Instead, those who best enshrine Abloh’s legacy will likely be the same enthusiasts he happily chatted up via Instagram DMs and mentored, rather than the slow-moving institutions he couldn’t help but feel he sneaked into.
In addition to founding his own brands, including Off-White, Abloh collaborated with countless others—Equinox, Gore-Tex, Jimmy Choo, Kith, Sunglass Hut, and Timberland, to name a few. Listed below are his six most essential collaborations.
In 2003, Abloh Trojan-horsed his way into his first big break: his collaboration with Kanye “Ye” West. That year, Abloh graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, where he’d built a reputation as a planner of buzzy parties; his college roommate, Gabriel Stulman (today a New York restaurateur) would cook or bartend while Abloh deejayed. When Abloh noticed that he and West’s record label patronized the same Chicago silk-screening shop, he sneakily “left” some of his designs strewn around the store. Sure enough, West’s label came calling; Abloh allegedly skipped his last college final to take the first interview for a design internship with West’s team.
Abloh rose from a lowly intern to become the creative director of West’s design consulting firm DONDA. He would forever refer to West as his “greatest mentor,” but West easily owed just as much to Abloh, cited as the creative force behind some of West’s most distinctive album visuals. Abloh connected West with artists Takashi Murakami (for Graduation, 2007), George Condo (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010), Riccardo Tisci (Watch the Throne, 2011, in a cover design nominated for a Grammy), and Vanessa Beecroft (stage design for West’s Yeezus tour, Yeezy collection reveals, and more).
The year 2009 was pivotal for West’s couture ambitions. His coterie, which included Abloh, famously and unforgettably crashed Paris Fashion Week; later that year, West and Abloh interned at Fendi together. At that point already a superstar, West later said he and Abloh “didn’t do shit” at the internship except fetch execs coffee and make photocopies. But that hands-on experience helped pave the way for Yeezy, which was first a collaboration with Nike, then with Adidas.
The collaboration that made Abloh a household name in the fashion world wasn’t a collaboration to begin with at all, but it set the tone for Abloh’s ambitions and outlook in a major way. In 2012, Abloh spun out from his sartorial projects with West to start his own short-lived line, Pyrex Visions. Instead of producing its own textiles, Pyrex Visions screen-printed its designs on Champion gear, emblazoning the clothes with branding, slogans, and the odd Caravaggio opus. But when Pyrex Visions began screen-printing Ralph Lauren Rugby flannels and marking them up by several times the cost of materials, Abloh came under fire for plagiarism and opportunism. He shut down Pyrex and parlayed its success into the brand with which his name would become synonymous, Off-White.
Abloh, for his part, maintained that creating an uproar had been the whole point. He gleefully used a Complex writer’s criticism of Pyrex Visions as the basis for a rug that for many years appeared in Off-White’s stores. (One now is included in the traveling retrospective.)
The Pyrex/Ralph Lauren fracas would inform a design mantra Abloh echoed for the rest of his career: the 3 percent rule. He maintained that a product needed to be changed by only 3 percent to become a distinctive design, connecting this view to the magpie mentality of his own deejay practice. “It’s like hip-hop. It’s sampling. I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song,” he told The New Yorker in 2019.
As for Ralph Lauren himself? Apparently there were no hard feelings, as evidenced by chummy photos of the two designers captured at a 2018 Wall Street Journal event.
Abloh and Murakami’s collaboration could be considered one of this list’s longest running, given that they first teamed up in the mid-aughts to design Ye’s Graduation cover. However, the two artists did not formally collaborate under their own names until a decade later. Abloh stopped by Murakami’s 2017 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, where the two first floated the idea of a collaborative exhibit. At the time, curator Michael Darling was working on Abloh’s own retrospective, Figures of Speech, for the MCA, and Murakami had blasted onto the fashion scene years before with a defining 2003 partnership with Louis Vuitton, which would name Abloh head of its menswear division within the calendar year.
In 2018, at Murakami’s invitation, the two artists collaborated on a number of large-scale works for America, Too, a one-time-only show at Gagosian in Beverly Hills. Some of the exhibit’s most distinctive works blended Murakami’s cartoonish, colorful style with Abloh’s on-the-nose social critiques: An American flag overlaid with the two artists’ visual leitmotifs (Murakami’s mouselike Mr. DOB and Off-White’s interlocking arrows), a diptych labeled “Flower” “Power,” and a standing neon sculpture combining Murakami’s rainbow flower motif and the Off-White logo, as though a roadside advertisement.
Murakami and Abloh had little in common besides huge cult followings and a certain self-aware humor—Murakami’s work is busily maximalist, Abloh’s more architectural and ironic—but Abloh always cited Murakami as a major influence. “What stuck to me about Takashi’s process from the very early days is the impact of his creative exercise. I saw the way he executes an idea in an artistic sense—how not only it is creative but that it is well-versed and well-executed in every way,” he told Cultured in 2018.
By the time they got to working together on America, Too, however, Murakami was the one in the younger artist’s thrall. “Thanks to him, my perception of the fashion scene has greatly expanded,” Murakami told ARTnews the same year. “At first glance, his first LV runway show was an accessible homage to high fashion and street fashion of the past 20 years, but at the same time, it represented a strategic move toward a complete transformation of fashion. Whereas fashion used to be about appearance, texture, and wearability, he has made it conceptual.”
Abloh was nothing if not a man of his time. So, like any millennial worth his salt, he jumped at the chance to collaborate with the Swedish budget furniture titan IKEA. In 2019 he designed a limited-edition line of puckish home accessories angled toward first-time homebuyers—or, if we’re being realistic, toward young adults trying to put some artsy touches on a crummy starter apartment.
The line included a wooden chair with a doorstop cheekily appended to one of the legs, as though to level it; a monochrome wall clock whose face is shadowed by the word “TEMPORARY”; a carpet runner designed to look like an IKEA receipt; and a Persian-style rug with a block-letter directive to “KEEP OFF.” The first iteration of Figure of Speech assembled the entire collection into a tumbleweed-style sculpture titled Dorm Room.
Jacob & Co.
“Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,” Abloh often said. Office Supplies, his collaboration with famed celebrity jeweler Jacob & Co., was one of the more literal outgrowths of this philosophy.
While growing up in Rockford, Illinois, Abloh didn’t have much disposable income: His mother was a seamstress, his father a paint factory manager. But his parents’ creativity, together with Rockford’s skate scene (explored in the 2018 documentary Minding the Gap), fueled an early interest in street wear, with Abloh mimicking his favorite rappers by wearing paper-clip-chain necklaces.
In 2017 the adult Abloh tapped Jacob & Co. to recreate that budget bling for an event at a Chrome Hearts jewelry store. The bespoke collection, released three years later, is made entirely from 18-karat gold paper clips and optionally studded with diamonds. It includes earrings, money clips, bracelets, and—you guessed it—necklaces.
Easily Abloh’s most famed collaboration, Off-White first teamed up with Nike in 2017 to create “The 10,” his remixes of 10 classic shoe designs by the sportswear giant. The shoes—especially his once-ubiquitous red Air Jordan 1s—were wildly popular, inspiring redux collections released sporadically over the following years. They were also immediately recognizable, thanks to Abloh signatures like ironic quotations (“AIR” on Air Force 1s, “SHOELACES” screen-printed on some laces, etc.) and the occasional eye-catching zip tie.
Off-White x Nike creations have long inspired something of a frenzy in dyed-in-the-wool sneakerheads. Security guards at various Figures of Speech iterations report that patrons have tried to buy the Abloh-designed Air Force 1 Lows off their feet for thousands. But hypebeasts aren’t the only ones who have snapped up Abloh’s Nike gear: Serena Williams repped the crossover in a head-to-toe Off-White x Nike ensemble during the 2018 U.S. Open, which included branded Off-White sneaks and a chic black tutu. Abloh’s collaborations with Nike continue posthumously through a recently released Louis Vuitton x Nike crossover, the last sneakers Abloh designed before his death.