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Fashion designer Virgil Abloh dies of cancer at 41

For the last two years, the Illinois Institute of Technology grad battled cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer in which a tumor occurs in the heart. 

Virgil Abloh gives a thumbs-up after presenting the Off-White Men’s Spring-Summer 2019 collection in Paris on June 20, 2018.
Thibault Camus/AP

NEW YORK — Designer Virgil Abloh, a leading fashion executive and Kanye West collaborator educated in Chicago, has died after a private battle with cancer. He was 41.

Abloh’s death was announced Sunday by the luxury group LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy) and the Off-White label, the haute street wear brand Abloh founded in 2013. Abloh was the artistic director for Louis Vuitton’s menswear.

“We are all shocked after this terrible news. Virgil was not only a genius designer, a visionary, he was also a man with a beautiful soul and great wisdom,” Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH said in a statement.

A statement from Abloh’s family on the designer’s Instagram account said for the last two years, Abloh battled cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer in which a tumor occurs in the heart. He died in Chicago, the New York Times reported.

“He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture,” the statement read.

Among those paying tribute Sunday was musician Pharrell Williams, who tweeted, “Virgil you were a kind, generous, thoughtful creative genius your work as a human and your work as a spiritual being will live forever.”

A son of Ghanian immigrants whose seamstress mother taught him to sew, Abloh grew up in Rockford but spent frequent weekends in Chicago with his extended family. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002 with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Abloh went on to earn his master of architecture degree at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology.

Kanye West and Virgil Abloh share a humorous moment during a special private event at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago celebrating the opening of the exhibit “Virgil Abloh: ‘Figures of Speech.”
Kanye West and Virgil Abloh share a humorous moment during a private event at the MCA celebrating the opening of the exhibit “Virgil Abloh: ‘Figures of Speech.”
Courtesy MCA

In 2018, Abloh became the first Black artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton in the French design house’s storied history.

Abloh was often referred to as a Renaissance man in the fashion world. He moonlighted as a DJ. But in a short time, he emerged as one of fashion’s most heralded designers. Abloh called himself “a maker.” He was named one of Time magazine’s most influential people in 2018.

In 2002, Abloh met Kanye West, now called Ye. Abloh had worked at a screen-printing store in Chicago. After he and the rapper interned together at the LVMH brand Fendi, Abloh was Ye’s creative director.

“[Ye’s] body of work is obviously influential and, safe to say, generation-defining,” Abloh told the Sun-Times in 2019. “Being able to work alongside him as he crafted his career gave me insight on me crafting my name as an artist in my own right.”

Abloh was art director for the 2011 Ye-Jay-Z album “Watch the Throne,” for which Abloh was nominated for a Grammy, as well as Ye’s albums “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Yeezus.”

Abloh’s work with West served as a blueprint for future border-crossing collaborations that married high and low. With Nike, he partnered his Off-White label for a line of frenzy-inducing sneakers remixed with a variety of styles and Helvetica fonts. Abloh also designed furniture for IKEA, refillable bottles for Evian and Big Mac cartons for McDonald’s.

Models wear creations (some with an homage to Michael Jackson) by Virgil Abloh for the Louis Vuitton men’s Fall/Winter 2019/20 fashion collection presented in Paris, Thursday Jan.17, 2019.| AP Photo/Francois Mori
Models wear creations by Virgil Abloh for the Louis Vuitton Fall/Winter 2019-20 menswear collection in Paris in January 2019.
Francois Mori/AP

Abloh took what he called a “3% approach” to fashion — that a new design could be created by changing an original by 3%. Critics said Abloh was more brilliant at repackaging than creating something new. But Abloh’s style was also self-aware — quotation marks were a trademark label for him — and high-minded.

“Streetwear in my mind is linked to Duchamp,” Abloh told the New Yorker in 2019. “It’s this idea of the ready-made. I’m talking Lower East Side, New York. It’s like hip-hop. It’s sampling. I take James Brown, I chop it up, I make a new song.”

Stars lined up to be dressed by Abloh. Beyoncé, Michael B. Jordan, Kim Kardashian West, Timothée Chalamet and Serena Williams have worn his clothes.

Abloh’s Off-White label, which LVMH acquired a majority stake in earlier this year, made him an arbiter of cool. But his appointment at Louis Vuitton brought Abloh to the apex of an industry he was once a scrappy outsider in — and made Abloh one of the most powerful Black executives in a historically closed fashion world.

“Part of my equation is to inspire the next generation and to help them think outside the box,” Abloh told Interview magazine in 2018. “When I was growing up, I didn’t know that I could be showing in Paris, because I didn’t see anyone doing that who looked like me. Even when I just walked into a luxury store, people would look at me like I didn’t belong there.”

Virgil Abloh for Nike. — part of “Virgil Abloh: ‘Figure of Speech’” at the MCA.
Shoes designed by Virgil Abloh for Nike were part of the 2019 exhibition “Figure of Speech.”
Hanna García Fleer

The first museum exhibition of his work, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech,” ran in 2019 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and was attended by Ye. At the time, Abloh said his creative approach was “a little about exploration. It’s not taking things as fact.”

A statement from the museum on Sunday said, “We’re deeply saddened by the news of Virgil Abloh’s unexpected passing. We hope his spirit of creativity lives on through all those who are inspired by his work that spanned fashion, music, art, and much more.”

So eloquent was the designer that a book of his quotations, “Abloh-isms,” was published this year by Princeton University Press. “Virgil Abloh says the darndest, most illuminating things,” WWD wrote of the book.

Abloh is survived by his wife Shannon Abloh and his children, Lowe and Grey.

Contributing: Kyle MacMillan, USA Today