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.