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From Hype to High-End: Understanding Virgil Abloh’s Legacy

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Virgil Abloh’s final Spring/Summer 2022 men’s wear collection for Louis Vuitton will be presented Tuesday in Miami, just two days after he died at the age of 41 from a rare form of cancer.

The collection will mark the end of a design era in fashion, but it is just the beginning of the industry’s dissection into the legacy left behind by the visionary Off-White founder and Louis Vuitton artistic director of men’s collections.

“It’s hard to overstate the effect Virgil had on the streetwear and luxury markets, being such a game-changer in both. Endlessly innovative, he brought the rarified gaze of the luxury market to a world where hip-hop and skate culture held sway, amplifying the voices of many who would otherwise not have been heard,” said Nick Paget, WGSN senior men’s wear strategist.

Before Abloh, Gilles Lasbordes, Première Vision general manager, said streetwear basically was a niche market for a small crowd of special fans. “However, thanks to his unique way of communicating and his extremely personal and free vision, his reality became everybody’s reality,” he said. “He took streetwear to a higher level; not clothes any longer but transposition of ideas. The voice of a generation has become a scream which reinvented the rules of the fashion system. His creativity managed to go beyond, invading all parts of our life and of contemporary visual culture.”

“[Virgil] recognized fashion’s impact on the greater cultural landscape and used his designs as a means to communicate ideas bigger than any one garment or collection,” said Kristin Breakell, Trendalytics content strategist. “His unique ability to create designs that resonated with teenagers just as much as they did with industry insiders allowed him to push the boundaries of both streetwear and luxury.”

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“No matter how people viewed or felt about Virgil, you can’t deny the fact of him turning the streetwear industry upside down and shaking it how he seemed fit,” said Solomon Russell, owner of Left Hand Twill. “When we think about streetwear, those clothes are supposed to encapsulate the spirit of the youth and those same kids ultimately decide if your product speaks to them enough to wear it.”

While so much of fashion today is dictated by algorithms, influencers and the media, Russell pointed out that it was “the streets” that first accepted Abloh’s Pyrex Vision collection (a line of low-cost blanks and Ralph Lauren flannel shirts remade with his graphic prints) in 2012 and how it “sent Virgil on the trajectory that we all simultaneously watched.”

There was also a musical element to Abloh’s design, influenced by his career as a DJ. “The importance of hip-hop-influenced ‘sampling’ was at the heart of Abloh’s approach, remixing elements of street culture, considered ephemeral, and making them far more permanent and even more covetable,” Paget said.

“Virgil really embodied the resurgence of streetwear and music in fashion. It’s such a big part of the ’90s and early aughts influence we are seeing in fashion now,” said Benjamin Ayer, owner of Benjamin Bellwether Consulting. “His work was cheeky and modern, it really got people talking.”

Founded in 2012, Off-White’s quotation marks, zip-ties, diagonal stripes and nods to industrial design helped redefined logomania in fashion, offering an edgier alternative to the monograms and initials that gatekeeping luxury houses had served consumers for decades. In this way, Ayer said Abloh made Off-White into an accessible luxury brand, boosted by a devoted fan base that included high-profile names like Gigi and Bella Hadid, Kanye West, Billie Eilish and Hailey Bieber. Fans could sport the brand’s industrial belt (which retails for under $300), or in the case of Bieber, don a custom-made Off-White wedding gown and veil.

Gigi Hadid and Virgil Abloh in 2019.
Gigi Hadid and Virgil Abloh in 2019. Lexie Moreland/WWD

Christine Rucci, president and creative director of Godmother NYC Inc., worked with Abloh on a project for Kanye West. “Virgil accomplished what many designers could only dream of,” she said, adding that his early days as a stylist gave him the ability to create new style. “He was able to pull together key denim pieces which crossed from street to high-end denim and pull together unique collaborations.”

Abloh was named a Rivet 50 honoree in 2018 and 2019. In denim, his influence was seen through relaxed fits and logo placements, which Kayla Marci, Edited market analyst, noted always paid homage to his streetwear roots.

“Denim is intrinsic to streetwear and I loved his take on denim,” said Amy Leverton, Denim Dudes founder. “He understood that 90 percent of good denim design isn’t reinventing the wheel, it’s about customization. Whether that’s through the subtlety of his signature duck egg back patch for Off-White or a full-on Louis Vuitton jacquard, it was all about elevating the humble five-pocket.”

In 2016, he partnered with Levi’s Made & Crafted on a capsule collection that reimagined classic Levi’s silhouettes with Off-White detailing like color-blocking, exposed seams and oversize zippers. He reconnected with Levi’s again in 2017 to design a special Trucker jacket for the style’s 50th anniversary.

Denim was near and dear to the designer. In a 2016 interview with BET, Abloh described denim as a “modern staple” and a “clash of culture and fashion.” In the truest denim head sense, he likened the fabric to a diary. “Denim is a fabric that records your actions,” he said, noting that he followed Hedi Slimane’s career in denim from Dior to Saint Laurent for his vision on fit and detail.

Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2019 collection
Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2019 collection WWD

In general, Abloh was intrigued by products used in everyday life and collaborations became an outlet for him to explore new ideas and concepts. “Going beyond tangible designs, Abloh’s work was a melting pot of culture and innovation, earning his title as a true visionary transcending fashion, art and music,” Marci said.

While his ongoing partnership with Nike will go down in the annals of sneaker culture, his partnerships with Evian, Ikea, Rimowa and Moët & Chandon—which resulted in champagne bottles with “Do not drop” printed on their side—showed a playful side to his designs.

“Abloh worked at the intersection of several disciplines–he was never just a fashion designer or just an architect or just a DJ. His non-traditional approach and ability to connect the dots brought a fresh perspective to the industry when it needed it most,” Breakell said.

In March 2018, Abloh was named Louis Vuitton’s artistic director of men’s collections, sending the industry into a tizzy of curiosity about the legacy brand’s next direction. At the time of the announcement, Abloh said: “I find the heritage and creative integrity of the House are key inspirations and will look to reference them both while drawing parallels to modern times.”

“With Off-White, he showed streetwear in the context of high fashion, and, for the first time, many people started recognizing it as a style worthy of respect. His ideas challenged the exclusionary, top-down, and often out-of-touch practices of the traditional luxury industry, which is why his appointment as artistic director of men’s wear at Louis Vuitton represented such a turning point for the brand and for the industry as a whole,” Breakell said.

“Abloh’s multidisciplinary approach to streetwear forced the market to evolve with the times. His designs worked because they were a product of the surrounding culture,” she said.

Searches for Virgil Abloh spiked following Louis Vuitton’s announcement and again in June 2018 when he presented his debut collection for brand, according to Trendalytics data. His arrival at Louis Vuitton opened the brand to a younger market—millennials—thanks to a clever mix between high fashion, street style and collaborations with different brands, Lasbordes said. The first collection for the French fashion house centered on bright colors, psychedelic prints, prismatic accessories and utility pieces, presented on a rainbow-hued runway before a crowd that included Rhianna, Kanye West and thousands of students.

Virgil Abloh's first show for Louis Vuitton.
Virgil Abloh’s first show for Louis Vuitton. Stephane Feugere/WWD/ Fairchild Archive

“I think Louis Vuitton knew they needed a jolt and by appointing Virgil to that position, they received exactly what they were looking for,” Russell said. “He brought a strong streetwear influence to the luxury market and they paired well together.”

Abloh, the individual, also represented the 30-40-year-old consumer evolving out of their streetwear-driven youth. The consumers “who rocked with him in 2011” were also growing up, Russell said. Rather than figurative lines blurring between street and luxury, Russell said Louis Vuitton was an example of the next step in people’s personal growth in what they’re wearing.

His appointment at Louis Vuitton not only signified streetwear’s influence on luxury—it represented a recognition of the impact that Black designers have on the category. “Luxury fashion has also long held a presence of exclusivity and elitism,” Marci said. “Giving a Black designer a seat at the table and within an executive level was a significant movement towards diversity and inclusion and awarded him greater influence [on] action change from within.”

“For years, we’ve witnessed luxury brands inspired by streetwear and then make a half-baked attempt to capture trends born in the cities and neighborhoods often disregarded in society,” said Donwan Harrell, president, creative director and co-founder of Artmeetschaos. “Not only did Virgil blur the lines, but he brought legitimacy to the collective contributions of the Black community to fashion. He was a beacon of light for those whose odds stacked against them.”

“I think his appointment for Louis Vuitton made it possible for young designers and designers of color to see that anything is possible,” Rucci added.

In September 2019, Abloh told Vogue he planned to take three months off from his hectic schedule to focus on his health and family. At the time, he explained that Off-White and Louis Vuitton “shows will go on” without him thanks to his teams at both companies.

It appeared that business was back on his agenda in 2021. Off-White’s transition into the luxury space was sealed when LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton acquired 60 percent of Off-White LLC in July. Although LVMH was tight-lipped on details, Abloh retained a 40 percent stake in the brand and was to continue as creative director while still serving his role at Louis Vuitton. New Guards Group, the Italian contemporary luxury fashion production and distribution holding company, remained the brand’s operating partner.

Additionally, he was said to be working with the fashion conglomerate to develop new brands and partner with existing ones in sectors outside of fashion.

Though streetwear is where Abloh made his first mark, he proved to be more than graphic T-shirts and ‘It’ accessories. Louis Vuitton’s Fall/Winter 2021 collection, for example, highlighted how fashion can be a catalyst for cultural change. A combination of film, poetry, and music, Breakell said the collection explored Abloh’s Ghanaian-American heritage and addressed current social issues, proposing the idea that fashion can be bigger than itself. “It’s also regarded as one of his best collections for the house, representing his ascent to the pinnacle of high fashion,” she said.

By making these moves, he actually “starts the battle toward a more inclusive fashion [industry],” Lasbordes said.

Living up to the hype

Though Abloh infamously said streetwear was on its way out in 2019, his passing magnifies his impact on the category and its stronghold on fashion in general.

“The success of Off-White was a core component in streetwear’s meteoric rise from being once perceived as a fashion trend to a modern zeitgeist,” Marci said. “The clout associated with the brand placed it at the forefront of drop culture, challenging product seasonality and disrupting what luxury fashion actually is, helping to cement sneakers, hoodies, and T-shirts as this generation’s status symbols.”

Indeed, Off-White sneakers (with the all-important signature zip-tie) and industrial belts and bags (distinguished by Abloh’s brazen black and yellow logo design) emerged as hallmarks of cool-kid fashion in the late 2010s. The allure of Off-White effortless style also caught the attention of competitors, which led to multiple lawsuits for infringing products spanning shoelaces and sneakers, to an ice cream brand’s T-shirts that riffed on Off-White’s diagonal stripe motif.

The brand was consistently named the most searched by The Lyst Index, a quarterly ranking of the hottest brands and products. In the 18 quarters The Lyst Index has been running, Off-White has appeared in the hottest brands list every time, taking the top spot a total of five times. “The only brand to have more No.1 positions is Gucci, while Balenciaga and Nike are the only other brands ever to have made No. 1,” said Emily Dylan Gimpel, Lyst communications executive. “This shows Off-White’s outsized impact on fashion and culture, as Gucci, Balenciaga and Nike are all much longer established and larger.”

Off-White’s cachet was evident, when its logo face mask—a product that was in the brand’s line prior to the coronavirus—was named the hottest item of 2020 by Lyst. The mask saw a 496 percent increase in searches from January to March and became a big-ticket purchase on the resale market. An Off-White mask featuring the brand’s signature arrow design, which originally retailed for $100, sold for $466 on the resale platform StockX.

Off-White mask
Off-White mask Lyst

Abloh’s collaborations with Nike were also driving forces in both the sneaker and resale space. “The launch was incredibly successful and started a new era for the world of sneakers,” Lasbordes said. “From then on running shoes took a new meaning, becoming the object of desire These 10 styles, which were almost considered an insult by older customers became a social (and social media) phenomenon as had never happened before, becoming the icons of a new generation.”

When comparing a sneaker’s resale price premium to its original retail price, StockX said Nike’s “The Ten” collaboration with Abloh was nearly untouchable in 2019. The Off-White x Air Jordan 1 “UNC” sold for 479 percent of its retail price on the platform, and the three sneakers with the most markup as a percentage of retail price were all Off-White x Nike silhouettes. In 2020, The Real Real reported that the Off-White and Nike’s collaboration have a resale value about six times greater than either of the participating brands alone.

Virgil Abloh signing Nike sneakers.
Virgil Abloh signing Nike sneakers. Delphine Achard/WWD/Fairchild Archive

Recent history shows that the passing of high-profile designers can trigger fans to scoop up their final products. According to Edited, sell-outs for Fendi increased 26 percent in 2019 when its creative director Karl Lagerfeld died.

The full effect of what Abloh’s death will have on traditional retail and resale remains to be seen but Edited has noted a price increase for Off-White. The average price of products is up 4 percent across the top 10 sites stocking Off-White in the U.S. compared to the day before the news of Abloh’s death broke, Marci said.

“Designers exiting their houses for any reason have led to their products being particularly lucrative within resale as it drives demand up as people reminisce the end of an era,” she said. “This will be an even more significant trend for Abloh due to the hype already attached to his products and his status within streetwear—a market that already experiences a considerable increase in resell value.”

Legacy lessons

In the coming months and years, fashion will likely celebrate Abloh’s career and creativity with dedicated documentaries, books and magazines. A catalogue of designs as eclectic as his is stuff of which exhibits are made for. Attention will also be paid to the positive and game-changing figure he became for the next generations of designers, particularly young Black creatives.

In July 2020, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and industry-wide wakeup call to its prejudices, Abloh set up the “Post-Modern” scholarship fund “for students of academic promise of Black, African-American, or of African descent.” Worth an initial $1 million, the fund had been endowed with contributions from Abloh and a host of his partners and collaborators, including Louis Vuitton, Evian, New Guards Group and Farfetch.

But perhaps greater will be the be the lasting impression he has made on luxury brands and the conglomerates behind them. “Virgil’s appointment at Louis Vuitton is one of his biggest contributions to high fashion and the industry at-large,” Ayer said. “This pushes the entire industry forward. It allows young men and women to see someone like them at the highest levels of fashion influence. It paves the way for others to follow in his footsteps.”

“We can expect to see Louis Vuitton carry on his legacy, not only by pushing boundaries in design but continuing his work fostering innovation and supporting the next generation of young Black designers who still have considerable barriers entering and succeeding in fashion compared to their white peers,” Marci said.

As a Black man, Paget said Abloh not only opened the door to a traditionally closed, less-inclusive fashion world, he “took it off its hinges, with a clear message that if he could do it, it was possible for other people of color and he made it part of his mission to place other Black talent at his table.”

“His contribution supersedes a collection or design,” Harrell said. “Virgil inspired us to believe a talented Black creative with his roots in streetwear can be at the helm of a luxury brand. His talent precedes his position at Louis Vuitton, but it propelled him to be the Black superhero of street culture. He broke barriers and raised the bar, and served as a reminder to many of us that we need to continue building and that everything is possible. His work steered the ship of luxury brands.”

Virgil Abloh on the catwalk.
Virgil Abloh on the catwalk. Giovanni Giannoni/WWD/Fairchild Archive

“With his legacy mapping the kind of systemic change much of the world is asking for, it seems clear that LVMH has a very weighty decision to make; many will expect the next artistic director not only to carry on Virgil’s progressive vision, as well as taking on the responsibility of keeping shareholders happy, which is the subtext of any creative appointment at this level,” Paget said.

In hindsight, Russell said Louis Vuitton did the right thing by bringing on Abloh. “The first Black artistic director in their storied 167 years as a company—the magnitude of that is really heavy considering the brand they are,” he said. “Virgil has opened up a lot of doors along the way and completely shattered the red tape that a lot of Black designers might be facing.”

While much has been said about the boldness of Louis Vuitton decision on Abloh, the designer and his power to cultivate a loyal fanbase, was an insurmountable asset to the fashion house.

Leverton said his appointment at Louis Vuitton was “was significant because of something that has nothing to do with his design and everything to do with his personality.”

“Abloh empowered others,” she said. “As a person of color with a background in streetwear at the helm of arguably the most luxury fashion house on the planet; that’s a big statement. But Virgil has been described again and again as someone who genuinely touched people’s lives—encouraging, empowering and elevating those around him. There are so many young talents out there that wouldn’t be who they are if it wasn’t for him and that’s the most powerful legacy you can leave.”

As far as who takes on that baton?

“Of course, I’m tempted to say it’s a tough act to follow but that wouldn’t be very Abloh of me,” Leverton said. “Whoever steps into his shoes will create their own spin and I’m sure the magic will continue.”