The game-changing Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton artistic director has died of cancer, aged just 41

In news that has sent a wave of shock through the fashion industry and beyond, Virgil Abloh has died. A statement issued by LVMH across social media revealed he had been “privately battling” a rare and aggressive cancer for a number of years. He was just 41. 

Born in Chicago in September 1980, Abloh grew up in nearby Rockford. It was there he got his first taste of what would later become his career, as he watched his seamstress mother, a Ghanaian immigrant, piece together clothing. He didn’t study fashion, or anything adjacent to it, however. Instead, he enrolled on a civil engineering undergraduate degree at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, with what he learned across the three years of his course going on to inform many of his fashion collections for both Off-White and Louis Vuitton. 

Rumour has it that he skipped his graduation to meet with Kanye West’s then-manager, John Monopoly. Soon after, the young graduate and the rapper began working together – once captured in an infamous photograph outside the Comme des Garçons show they blagged their way into during Paris Fashion Week in 2009. Later came an equally infamous internship, during which West and Abloh turned their hand to design at Fendi. 

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Soon after, Abloh launched his first label, Pyrex Vision. The label saw the rising designer plaster hoodies, shirts, and varsity jackets with bolshy logos and Renaissance artworks, as part of his early attempts to disrupt fashion’s status quo. Then came the #BEENTRILL# collective, which Abloh launched alongside Matthew Williams of Alyx and Heron Preston, before Off-White officially came into being late 2013, its first offering landing on the catwalk for AW14.

Fusing streetwear sensibilities with high fashion flourishes, Off-White became one of the industry’s most hyped labels – regularly topping Lyst’s most-wanted reports, its bold cross logo ubiquitous on backs around the world. Referring back to his degree in civil engineering, the Abloh tapped into architecture and structural design throughout his offerings, with Manchester’s legendary Hacienda club and – rumour has it – Glasgow Airport’s distinctive markings providing inspiration. Keen to reimagine the mundane, he also reworked everything from Evian bottles to IKEA’s unmistakable big blue bag.

A landmark, industry-shifting moment came in early 2018 for Abloh, as the designer was announced as the new artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear. Picking up the mantle from Kim Jones, Abloh made his debut at the helm of the revered house during Paris Fashion Week in June 2018 – a little under 10 years after he’d snuck his way into the Comme show. As the first African-American man to helm a historic maison, it felt, as former Head of Dazed Fashion Emma Allwood noted at the time, “Like seeing fashion change”.

Having previously encouraged his fans to show up to Off-White shows by posting invites on Instagram, Abloh continued in this vein as he took over at Louis Vuitton. In a bid to open up and democratise an industry renowned for its gatekeeping, he invited hundreds of students to his first LV show, fuelled by his knowledge of what it’s like to be on the outside looking in. After the show, he took to Instagram to post a picture of himself during the finale. “You can do it too”, he wrote simply in the caption. 

His commitment to supporting and bolstering a new generation of creatives went beyond words, though. In 2020, Abloh announced a $1 million scholarship for Black students, donating a sum of his own money to the cause, and lobbying the likes of LV, Evian, and Farfetch to also invest. “The goal is to make sure I’m not one of the few, but one of the many in my industry,” he said at the time. 

Abloh’s passing is made all the more tragic by the fact the designer was really hitting his stride at Louis Vuitton. The last few seasons saw the boundary-pushing, trailblazing designer debut a succession of standout short films that dismantled existing archetypes, clashed opposing style tribes, and celebrated significant Black cultural figures, as he continued to explore and expand the distinct language he created. More astounding is that he did all this while his cancer battle was ongoing. 

“Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered. 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. 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,” a post on Abloh’s personal IG reads.

“We are all shocked after this terrible news,” wrote LVMH’s Bernard Arnault in a statement released on the conglomerate’s Instagram account. “Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom. The LVMH family joins me in this moment of great sorrow.” 

Likewise, we at Dazed are deeply saddened to lose Abloh. Our thoughts and condolences are with his family, friends, and all who loved him – as well anyone who ever felt inspired by his monumental journey.