From Rockford to the runway

Abloh’s unorthodox rise to mainstream prominence began in Rockford, Illinois, in 1980. He was born to Ghanaian immigrant parents, and at a young age showed varying interests in skateboarding culture, music and art. He walked a traditional path in education, majoring in civil engineering at University of Wisconsin–Madison and receiving his Master of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Still harboring a desire to work in a creative field, Abloh began to pursue a career in fashion. In 2007, he met rapper Kanye West, and started designing albums, concert merchandise and overseeing the creative think tank Donda, named after West’s deceased mother.

“His working relationship with Kanye definitely did help propel him to a more mainstream place, but I think he was really one of the trailblazers of streetwear fashion,” said Shelton Boyd-Griffith, a fashion writer. “Pyrex Vision, his T-shirt brand, was huge.”

Abloh launched Pyrex Vision in 2012 with a film and collection of sportswear, made up mostly of vintage Ralph Lauren T-shirts the designer bought for $40 and then screen-printed designs onto. Abloh would shut down Pyrex that same year, saying it was never meant to be a full-fledged brand. The next year he became more intentional, launching Off-White. With its use of quotation marks around words, trademark zip-ties, capital letters and barricade tape, the brand became one of the most recognizable streetwear lines.

“I think being in spaces, these cultural spaces, and just being in these rooms with so many different creatives, I think people just took notice and you had no choice but to take notice,” Boyd-Griffith said. “Eventually Louis Vuitton was like, ‘Yeah, we need you!’”

Abloh’s ascent to artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection began in 2018 and was widely viewed as a grand step in diversifying the overwhelming white luxury business. Abloh was one of the few Black designers at the helm of a legacy French fashion house.

“He always talked about touching back into a child’s innocence, and how when you’re a child, you just are so unafraid to create, try things and to do things,” Boyd-Griffith said. “And looking back at his career, he did so many things.”

“He opened the doors to everyone”

Jesse Walk, a multi-hyphenate designer and artist with his own agency and clothing line, has been a fan of Abloh’s since the Pyrex days, and actually met the designer last year in Paris.

“We went to the Louis Vuitton store, and I jokingly asked the employee as we’re looking around, ‘Where’s Virgil?’” Walk said. “And she goes, ‘He’s actually like right outside – good luck!’”

Walk and his friends found Abloh and his team celebrating the release of a new collection, and followed them to a nearby movie theater where a movie made for the new collection was being screened. As the event began to wrap up, Walk approached Abloh to congratulate him.

“I’m like, ‘Congrats on the event, that was super cool!’” Walk recalled. “He was like, ‘Thank you so much!’ And I was like, ‘I’m not gonna lie – I snuck in.’ And then he goes, ‘I would do the same!’” Walk said.

Walk said he’d been aware of the exhibition since its inception in Chicago, and couldn’t wait for it to come to New York City.

“I still think about Virgil’s work all the time,” he said. “He showed everyone again just through kindness and generosity that you can do it too. And he opened the doors to everyone.”

“Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through January 29th, 2023;