Virgil Abloh ‘changed the shape of the luxury fashion industry’

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Late Sunday afternoon, as Glossy’s fashion reporters connected with industry insiders about the unexpected death of Virgil Abloh, a new Twitter account dubbed @VirgilAblohNFT followed Glossy’s account on the platform. It was fitting, considering our sources’ takes on Abloh’s impact on the industry, as well as their expectations, in terms of fashion’s response to the news. 

“[Abloh] skillfully absorbed culture, and that culture is now going to skillfully absorb his creations,” said Ana Andjelic, luxury brand strategist and author of “The Business of Aspiration.” That will be seen in NFTs and the resale market, among other mediums, she predicted.

According to a statement released across LVMH’s social channels on Sunday, Abloh, who was the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton and founder and CEO of streetwear label Off-White, passed away on Sunday following a years-long battle with cancer. In response, fashion insiders and fans flooded social platforms with posts expressing their shock and sadness, and paying their respects. Many pointed to his great impact on fashion, in expanding the realm of possibilities for designers and brands alike.

Collaborations were at the heart of Abloh’s work — and it was his use of collaborations that served as his No. 1 contribution to the industry, according to Andjelic. He positioned collaborations as a “new cultural form” that’s not synonymous with streetwear, she said. “[And] he proved that, in order for luxury brands to stay relevant, they need to collaborate. It changed the shape of the luxury fashion industry.” 

Abloh’s love for remixing and synthesizing ideas was evident in all of his work, which spanned fashion, music, art and architecture. He managed to bridge the artistic and the commercial worlds with collaborations that read as genuine, thanks to “his background, the diversity of his interests and his unceasing work,” said Andjelic. She called out Off-White’s array of collaborations and the need for designers to act as curators of culture.

Within the last 10 years, via Off-White, Abloh collaborated with companies big and small, luxury and mass-market, both within and outside of fashion. They included Champion, Kith, Moncler, Nike, Sunglass Hut and Ikea. Many of the resulting products were cheekily self-aware, like a 2017 bag made in collaboration with Heron Preston that was splashed with “collaboration.” In keeping with Abloh’s signatures, the word was flanked by quotation marks and featured in Helvetica Neue Bold font.

Abloh also collaborated with individuals, like A$AP Rocky and Takashi Murakami. And he helped usher in one of the defining collaborative moments of the 2010s as art director of Kanye West and Jay-Z’s 2011 “Watch the Throne” album. West and Abloh interned together at Fendi, after meeting and working together in Chicago in the early aughts.

Perhaps the most seminal collaboration Abloh ever produced, however, was 2017’s The Ten, with Nike. The initial run was composed of 10 classic Nike sneaker silhouettes that were broken down and reimagined by Abloh. Along with the subsequent styles that debuted in 2018 and 2019, they were among the most hyped sneakers to ever be released, according to Highsnobiety. Streetwear publication Sneaker Freaker called it “the collaboration of the decade.” 

And beyond individual brand collaborations, Abloh helped bring together the worlds of luxury and street fashion, which is a defining feature of modern fashion. Abloh’s appointment as men’s artistic director of Louis Vuitton in 2018 was not the first crossover between these two worlds, but it was among the highest-profile. It embodied the same trend that saw Balenciaga releasing its Triple S sneaker and Supreme working with Louis Vuitton two decades after reportedly being sued by parent company LVMH. More recently, French luxury brand Dior teamed with street artist KAWS, starting with its spring 2019 collection.

Yet, as the luxury fashion industry increasingly looked for inspiration in streetwear and hip-hop subcultures — areas that were shaped by the contributions of Black designers, artists and icons — most companies remained primarily white behind the scenes. Abloh was one of very few Black creatives in charge of a European luxury house, and he used his position — in the spirit of collaboration — to elevate others. His first Louis Vuitton show featured Black artists Kid Cudi, Dev Hynes, Playboi Carti and A$SAP Nast walking the runway. And he designed the NikeLab Chicago Re-Creation Center in his native Chicago, which houses a mentorship program for local youths.

Abloh’s love of collaboration and cross-cultural synthesis is now the norm in fashion. Just as he changed the face of fashion, he helped redefine the parameters of what a creative director can do. Like Kim Jones and Jeff Staple, he bounced between designing for his focus brands and collaborating widely across companies, industries and art forms. His restless, eclectic energy, which he poured into a vast array of design, music, architecture, art and business projects, influenced a generation of up-and-coming designers and artists. 

“Virgil Abloh taught us how to dream,” said Staple, in an Instagram post on Sunday.

Likewise, Albert Ayal, founder of Up Next Designer, an Instagram-based platform for emerging designers, told Glossy, “[Abloh] gave designers hope by consistently pushing the boundaries.”

That forward-thinking translated to his approach to the digital world. 

From playing Nintendo games as a kid to cultivating an online cult following for his Off-White label, Abloh understood the value of creating community through digital spaces. Take the Off-White spring 2021 collection, which was shown through an immersive digital experience called Imaginary TV. Like flipping through TV channels, viewers could bounce between the virtual landscapes housing the collection’s concept. The experience read as an early depiction of an eventual Off-White metaverse. Abloh understood the value of futurism, and he saw it as a fertile opportunity for the advancement of Black voices and innovative creators, rather than simply a shiny territory to conquer. 

More than anything, the Imaginary TV digital landscape Abloh created was meant to break down silos and boundaries between fashion fans and industry leaders. In a press release for the collection, he stated that the show aimed to capture “a universal approach to creativity by promoting inclusivity and pushing the envelope forward, in terms of how the industry, consumers and fans alike interact with one another.” 

Abloh supported VR and AR designers through his platform at Louis Vuitton, enlisting emerging creators like Nigel Matambo to design the first AR filters for the legacy brand. His work was just as much about the potential to integrate new areas of culture, like the metaverse, into fashion as it was about creating new ways to see culture itself. 

On that note, his impact on fashion is set to be felt for years to come. He provided a new playbook for the industry that wasn’t necessarily new, but it was cemented through the scale and scope of his projects. As Andjelic pointed out, LVMH’s Tiffany & Co. and Rimowa brands are among those that now are currently taking the same “meme-riff-reference” approach to their products and marketing. 

The NFT world is also experiencing the Virgil Abloh effect. By early Sunday evening, @VirgilAblohNFT had posted links to 10 NFTs that the owner is newly offering on NFT marketplace OpenSea, “in loving memory of Virgil Abloh.” One features Abloh hugging Kanye West following his first Louis Vuitton runway show, while another shows Abloh playing a DJ set in Paris. They range in price from around $4,300-$17,400. By Sunday evening, OpenSea was housing NFT collections owned by other users that were labeled “Virgil Abloh, ‘Rest in Peace’” and “Remembering Virgil Abloh.” 

Andjelic said that “every single Off-White look, every single Louis Vuitton collab and every single Off-White collab” will soon be available to own in the form of an NFT. 

What’s more, she said, we can expect the price of Off-White items to skyrocket. “The [price] jumps in the secondary market are going to be insane,” she said.

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