Inside Virgil Abloh's Unexpected Private World

Virgil Abloh, founder of genre-defying label Off-White and artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, saw his influence sweep through the fashion world and beyond.

By Natalie Finn Dec 05, 2021 8:00 AMTags
Watch: Louis Vuitton Designer Virgil Abloh Dead at 41

Virgil Abloh died Nov. 28 following a private two-year battle with a rare cancer. This story was published Sept. 30, 2020.


Virgil Abloh generally never sat still long enough to warrant a desk. 

"I literally have no desk in the world. I work on the street, phone in hand," the founder of luxury streetwear label Off-White and men's artistic director at Louis Vuitton explained to the New York Times in 2017. "I've occasionally been stuck at the corner of Prince and Mercer Streets in Manhattan not even realizing I've been standing there for 20 minutes responding to messages."

"I don't like being in offices," Abloh continued, "and the main reason is that it can interrupt my train of thought. Being in that environment, like, everyone can ask you a question. And I've found that I'm best when I'm just sort of roaming around and noninterrupted and thinking these long-winded thoughts. That's why my office is really my phone. As long as it's charged I'm good."

Fast-forward to 2020 and the man hasn't changed. But the world has, and while he stayed inordinately busy during quarantine (among his projects this summer: a limited edition skateboard in collaboration with DGK founder Stevie Williams created specially for the members of froSkate and the Boys & Girls Club on Chicago's West Side, where he spent time as a kid and whose basketball facilities he teamed with Nike to refurbish pre-pandemic; and a "Swing State" Voter Registration Incentive T-shirt to benefit Post-Modern, the scholarship fund he launched), Abloh has been working on incorporating stillness into his routine.

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"I'm hanging up art and building a new work space, a recording studio," he told Vogue in April 2020 from his home base in the Chicago area when the publication checked in to see how he was passing the pandemic-addled time. "Under Construction is kind of the title of the image. I'm inspired by the fact that fashion can mean something different out of the end of this. It doesn't feel like it did a year ago. Today it seems useless, in a way: a new handbag, a pair of shoes. Getting groceries seems more important than buying a new garment that I already have 30 of in a closet."

Nabil Elderkin

That being said, "I don't think of that as a bad thing," Abloh continued. "I'm also trying to find some solitude. You hear about these things: wellness, well-being. Meditating—that's something I need to learn. I'm relishing the idea of not having to do something all the time, but that's a trait I have to learn. I'm not wired that way."

He is highly adaptable, however, as his peripatetic ways would indicate, and no sooner did the doors of LV and Off-White boutiques around the world temporarily close and masks became de rigueur did he start pondering the future of fashion in a post-COVID world.

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"Life is what it is, you know—we don't have control over these macro issues," he told Document in May, also appearing in a special edition cover for its Spring 2020 issue in which he's toting an axe and a chair by a creek bed in the woods, a receipt from a German grocery store near his London studio imposed over the photo. "So my mentality remains the same. I'm still optimistic and exuberant and excited about the future, and I think this is the time for creatives to define what the future is."

Asked if the way fashion fit into his overall outlook had changed in recent weeks, Abloh said, "I think just keeping a broad sense of creativity, you know? Same as what I was doing before in not limiting my approach. It just more gives me confidence that overall creative expression is my mode of activity—not just within fashion, music, art, etcetera."

While his geographic mobility may have been limited, "for the most part I'm just interested in thinking free." And he can do that anywhere.

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In 2018, Abloh, the son of Ghanaian immigrants who championed their son's relentless interest in design, music, art, architecture and everything that goes into building and creating, was named artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, becoming the first African-American to ever have that role at the 166-year-old French fashion house. He ended up as one of only two fashion designers on TIME's 100 Most Influential People list that year.

In turn, he ended up with a very nice office in Paris—the one that used to belong to Marc Jacobs, LV creative director from 1997 until 2013 and a huge inspiration to him, in fact.

That office now holds decks and Pioneer speakers, Abloh also being a DJ who curates the music for his shows as carefully as he considers fabrics and fit. (Naturally, he released a self-isolation playlist in March featuring an eclectic array ranging from Miles Davis and Gil Scott-Heron to Atlanta rapper Young Nudy and British drill artist Frosty.)

"My door is always open. There's no hierarchy," he explained to British GQ, whose writer noted the "fashionable young people in caps and trainers moving languidly around the rails, discussing fabric samples in hushed tones." Abloh said, "I don't shut the door and get people to ask permission to come in. You know, we're a team. I just happen to have done a series of things that allow me to be at the head of it, so I take responsibility."

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That series of things started years ago for the artist and entrepreneur, who's celebrating his 40th birthday on Sept. 30.

Born in Rockford, Ill., he and his sister were raised in a middle-class household and attended a Catholic high school where the kids wore uniforms. Dad Nee managed a paint company and his mother, Eunice, a seamstress, taught him how to sew. Abloh played varsity soccer and deejayed on weekends (spinning as Flat White). He graduated with a degree in civil engineering from University of Wisconsin-Madison and then earned a master's in architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology, concentrating on the work of Mies van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas. His first foray into the fashion business was designing T-shirts. 

"I was just, like, an average sort of suburban kid, born in 1980, into watching Michael Jordan or listening to Guns N' Roses or NWA, skateboarding and that whole aesthetic," Abloh told the Times in 2017. "That was my fashion upbringing."

It was through the rapper's favored Chicago printing shop that Abloh first crossed paths with Kanye "Ye" West. "We're all the children of Kanye's trailblazing," Abloh told W in 2017. "This generation wouldn't have the freedom to cross genres had it not been for his passion to find more than what was delivered to him."

They became fast friends and, in 2009, they both interned at Fendi—where, West would later claim, he and Abloh came up with the idea for leather joggers that the Italian fashion house summarily dismissed. "Whether I'm at a dinner with Anna Wintour, or I'm at a listening session with Pusha, or me and Virgil are in Rome giving designs to Fendi over and over and getting our designs knocked down," West said on BBC Radio One in 2013. "We brought the leather jogging pants six years ago to Fendi, and they said, 'No.' How many motherf--kers you done seen with a jogging pant?"

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Nevertheless, it was during their time in Italy when Fendi chief executive—and future Louis Vuitton CEO—Michael Burke first glimpsed Abloh's talents.

"I was really impressed with how [Abloh and West] brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way," Burke told the New York Times in 2018. "Virgil could create a metaphor and a new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi. I have been following his career ever since."

After Fendi, West appointed Abloh creative director of DONDA, the agency he named after his late mother, Donda West, and Abloh was nominated for a Grammy for his work as artistic director on West and Jay-Z's Watch the Throne album

In 2012, Abloh opened and shuttered a streetwear line called Pyrex Vision, but he went ahead and launched Off-White the following year in Milan. 

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While taking the reins of a major fashion house was a longtime aspiration for Abloh, Off-White isn't exactly a slouch in the industry. Growing in profile along with its creator, the brand swiftly acquired a huge celebrity following and is sold at the finest department stores around the globe, as well as at myriad boutiques.

Serena Williams' LOGO dress at the 2018 US Open and her cape-accented ensemble at the 2019 French Open were custom Abloh creations for Nike, two in a series of collaborations with the sports behemoth. Their Air Jordan "The Ten" won 2017's Shoe of the Year, and the latest new Nike x Off-White sneaker, "Rubber Dunk," debuts Oct. 1 (one color per region, making them super envy-inducing)—the first offering since Abloh formed Public Domain, a Black-led creative team under the umbrella of his Nike deal.

Since 2014, Off-White has only shown in Paris, and the tradition continued with his Women's Fall-Winter 2020-21 collection this past February. Abloh also showed his latest menswear collections for Off-White and Louis Vuitton in the City of Light in January.

He decided this summer, however, that he is done showing on the fashion industry's seasonal schedule and he'll be shaking up the locations of his shows as well.

"I work at the pace of my ideas, and those come often," he explained to the New York Times in August as a very different-looking New York Fashion Week got underway. "The consumer today is a hyper being. I'm not one to say, Let's go back to the old days when we had rotary phones or something." He called revising his schedule an "obvious fix, more so than a profound idea or anything."

At least comfortable streetwear isn't going out of style anytime soon.

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"I didn't imagine I would be in the center of [the fashion world]," Abloh told Anne Pasternak for Document in 2018 after joining Louis Vuitton. "I imagined I would be in whatever place was available on the outskirts. And that's called 'streetwear,' and that's what I was content with. Then I saw the opportunity, because the world was changing, to make a narrative with that through high fashion, which was sort of the pinnacle."

His musing on his approach to design proved fairly timeless. "All of the different realms that I play in or make things in are simply, in my mind, part of a story arc that's a much wider narrative. Fashion is only one prong to communicate during the time that we're living in," Abloh said. "Where I was coming from, it was the only device to get on a pedestal and have a voice loud enough to have an impact. For that young generation, it's really how we communicate."

This past May, he told Document, "It's a weird thing, the importance of fashion, especially when people are quarantining at home, worried about their health and safety—where does that land amongst everything? I think it's just important, in any sort of creative expression, to ask questions and think how it relates to the humanity aspect at hand."

Kristy Sparow/Getty Images

In 2015, he was the only American finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize for Young Fashion Designers, which recognizes under-40 talent from around the world. He won the Urban Luxe award at the 2017 British Fashion Awards, and was nominated for Menswear Designer of the Year in 2019, after which he joined the CFDA's board of directors.

But, Abloh acknowledged to the Times in 2018 when the news was announced, he felt "elated" to join Louis Vuitton. "This opportunity to think through what the next chapter of design and luxury will mean at a brand that represents the pinnacle of luxury was always a goal in my wildest dreams," he said. "And to show a younger generation that there is no one way anyone in this kind of position has to look is a fantastically modern spirit in which to start."

Abloh has been all about changing perceptions of what's possible in all of the artistic spaces he's chosen to occupy over the past decade.

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He has delivered lectures at Harvard and Columbia's Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. He champions the work of other cultural disruptors he admires who are coming up in his wake, be it in design, music or architecture. Several months after landing the Louis Vuitton job, he performed at Lollapalooza (though taking the LV gig meant cutting back on his deejaying). A few years ago he showed his first furniture line at Art Basel Miami, and in November he did a limited edition line for IKEA, the Markerad collection.

"I'm super-organized," Abloh quipped to Vanity Fair in 2018, remarking on how he managed it all. "And passion—that's it."

But he was not an overnight success, Abloh reminded The Guardian in 2019. "My career had been 15 years long and there's only been people paying attention for the last three. I've been doing this exact amount of work and type of work for a long time. It's the life of a designer and artist that not everything works, but when everyone's watching hopefully it's working."

It was working. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago hosted "Figures of Speech," an exhibit of his work, in the summer of 2019. A neon sign reading, "You're obviously in the wrong place"—ripped from the mouth of the snooty clerk who disparages pre-makeover Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman and used as a prop at an Off-White runway show in 2015—held court amid the artifacts of his multi-faceted career.

Still, when he was first approached by the museum's curator about a possible exhibition, Abloh admitted that he thought they wanted him to deejay an event.

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In 2017, Abloh recalled his first trip to Paris Fashion Week, with Kanye, in 2009.

"We got into about 60 percent of the shows," he told W. "We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren't supposed to be there. We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was."

"I don't come from where I'm supposed to come from," Abloh also said, referring to lack of formal fashion education. "So I have to prove that this is design, that this is art, that this is valid."

Regardless of his naysayers, which every artist has, Abloh has obviously tapped into an aesthetic and an ethos that a certain sector of the market was ready to clamor for. People love to be in on the conceit, to wink at consumerism while headily consuming. Others will just happily consume that cool new thing the cool kids are all excited about, whether they understand why or not.

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Though he's an avowed jet-setter (or is in normal times) for work, his beloved iPhone is full of A-listers and influencers, and he has 5.5 million Instagram followers, Abloh himself doesn't live the fast life. "I don't want to be a celebrity designer," he told W. "I want to keep my personal life out of it."

He married his high school sweetheart, Shannon Sundberg, in 2009 and they have two kids, daughter Lowe and son Grey. They all relocated to Paris from Chicago when Louis Vuitton came calling, and settled in Saint-Germain-Des-Prés (but rode out the quarantine back in the U.S.).

Fittingly, Abloh proposed during one of the couple's routine drives to the airport to drop him off for yet another work trip. When Sundberg walked around the front of the car to assume the driver's seat once Abloh got out, she found him kneeling next to the door instead.

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Purple, the bride's favorite color, dominated the look of the ceremony, held at a luxury hotel in Chicago, though she mixed in a little pink to coordinate with her pale pink Amsale gown. The couple wrote their own vows—separately, Sundberg told Inside Weddings, but "they were very similar!"

Abloh, a physical presence to be reckoned with at 6-foot-2, also keeps his daily go-to look pretty simple—black pants and a black T-shirt, almost always. His ride of choice is a black Bentley.

"For the last eight to 10 years we've been having this conversation about what's new, and for me, that has to do with making luxury relatable across generations," Abloh told the New York Times about his vision for Louis Vuitton. "The first thing I am going to do is define new codes. My muse has always been what people actually wear, and I am really excited to make a luxury version of that."

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In the summer of 2018 the contents of his Chicago office were moved and set up as an art installation in Montreal—and his fans flocked to see the array of Post-Its, a pair of Off-White prototype reading glasses, design books and an IKEA table cluttered with stuff, including some loose cash.

His "literal brain on display," Abloh called it.

Asked about the repeated criticism by some that he's less a creator of objects or fashion than a re-packager of others' ideas, he told SSense, "Native to my work is the idea that you could literally do it, too. That's the whole trick. If you can't afford it, go to your local screen-printer and make your own version."

Abloh acknowledged to Pasternak in 2018, "The end goal isn't clothes. I'm not even that into clothes, to be honest. I'm more into what clothes mean to people."

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As for work-life balance, the universe may have basically ordered him to slow down at just the right time.

Last September, the Off-White Women's Spring/Summer 2020 show at Paris' Pompidou Centre had to go on without him because he was, simply, exhausted.

"Ultimately, everything is fine," he said at the time, explaining his absence, "but the doctor told me, 'this pace that you've sort of pushed your body–to fly all these miles, do all these different projects–is not good for your health.'"

At least he could rest easier in October, when parent company Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy reported a 16 percent increase in revenue, year over year, driven by sales at Louis Vuitton and Dior.

But it's not as if even a doctor's warning (not even the one we all got from the CDC) could slow him down for long. "Work is relaxing to me," he told GQ in 2018. "I'm happy making things. So relaxing is the opposite of making something, probably not the healthiest, but..." He paused. "So, I gotta jet."

Forced to stay put, or at least given license to remain in one place for longer than he was used to, Abloh isn't shying away from the new challenges he's facing as a purveyor of luxurious indulgences—no matter how work-at-home-worthy those $350 Off-White T-shirts and $515 sneakers are.

"It's a weird thing, the importance of fashion," he mused to Document in May 2020, "especially when people are quarantining at home, worried about their health and safety—where does that land amongst everything? I think it's just important, in any sort of creative expression, to ask questions and think how it relates to the humanity aspect at hand."

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And he never ceased trying to meet the moment. After weathering some social media backlash in June when evidence he'd made a $50 donation to go toward a bail fund for protesters was misinterpreted as evidence he'd donated only $50, he wrote that he'd actually donated $20,500 and would continue to give to related causes.

"My particular aim is to change opportunities for young kids that look like me to design and ascend to the same position I have," he shared. "Some upcoming projects include: items releasing shortly where all proceeds support bail funds for protestors [sic]. A platform titled 'Community Service' launched earlier this year that support [sic] emerging Black artists and designers with financial support and mentoring."

In addition to his new Nike team, his scholarship fund and the items he's produced to benefit various groups, he also helped launch the voter-registration initiative Fashion Our Future 2020, aiming to increase voter turnout in November.

Because there's always more work to be done and, when that's the case, Abloh just won't quit.

(Originally published Feb. 23, 2020, at 3 a.m. PT and updated Sept. 30, 2020, at 9 a.m. PT)