I learned about Virgil Abloh the way I’d wager a significant amount of folks did: Nike. Of course, there are loads of folks who are up on all things fashion and know who designed what and when with whom and why—especially in urban wear—but I don’t know if that’s the majority of us. But back in 2017, Nike kicked in the door waving the .44 with their Nike x Off-White “The Ten” pack; a collection of popular shoes and silhouettes, deconstructed and reimagined via a collaboration with luxury brand Off-White founder, Virgil Abloh.
Now though, Virgil Abloh (who passed away on November 28 after a battle with a rare form of cancer) is a household name, at least in the world I occupy. Hell, he’s not even Virgil Abloh—he’s just Virgil. Everyone I talk to about shoes and fashion and hip-hop knows exactly who I’m talking about when I say his name. Hell, he’s been memed. He haphazardly turned himself into a story—briefly—in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests with a social media post of himself making a $50 donation to an org, creating the pathway for the Internet to do its thing. Folks used to keep it 100, now some folks keep it two Virgils.
But back then, like most sneakerheads, I coveted the kicks, which included Jordan 1s (in the highly coveted “Chicago” colorway), Air Maxes, Chuck Taylors, Hyperdunks, Vapormax, Blazers, Prestos, etc. The shoes, which came with a signature hangtag were (and still are) all the rage in the sneaker community; Virgil’s death has pushed the resale value of his shoes into ridiculous territory. Currently, I have four pair of Nike x Off-White shoes: Chuck Taylors, Blazers, Vapormax and a pair of Zoom Flys. But much like hip-hop opened my ears and heart to jazz, the shoes opened my eyes and knowledge to Off-White and to Virgil Abloh, who, as it turns out, had been a part of my life even if I didn’t realize it, because of hip-hop.
And forgive me for what will not be a tremendous retelling of his story, but I ultimately realized that Virgil ran with Kanye and art directed his fashion and DJ’d and eventually became the artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear and has worked with damn near every A-lister who ever did A-list at this point. Basically, Virgil was that dude. He came up in so many conversations I had with folks about art, clothing and sneakers. It’s like once I started to pay attention he was in every single place I paid attention to. Or was inspiring people I paid attention to. Or was designing things for people I paid attention to. And since he passed, it turns out that inspiration wasn’t just in spirit; seems like Virgil was the kind of cat who was not only accessible but available for words of encouragement and inspiration to many. Social media has lit up with screenshots of DMs between established and up-and-coming designers (and controversial “designers”) and Virgil. It’s been a sight to see, really.
This is usually what happens when somebody passes. You find out just how far their reach was. Virgil was a little easier; as soon as I started looking back in 2017, I saw him everywhere. I even ran across his Off-White store in NYC on a random walk one day. Virgil ended up in rap battles between Kanye and Drake, and his name became so commonplace in my world that any news about Virgil would invariably end up in my texts somewhere. Like, even amidst any criticism he received, folks were still hype for whatever he was doing. He got to the point where his success wasn’t even notable; it was just expected. Because Virgil.
And then, to learn his story story as an engineering student who got a master’s degree in architecture and eventually flipped that into a career as one of the most prominent fashion designers on the planet? He’s an inspiration to all creatives. I can see parallels in my own life—not comparing successes obviously, but as an economics major who got a master’s degree in public policy only to end up actually being able to use my right brain to support my life and family and become a career—while being able to use those principles and skills I learned in my prior profession and education, it allows the imagination to wander and realize that, cliched as it may sound, it really isn’t how you start, but how you finish. And also, the story isn’t over until it is. There’s a reason so many view him and his story as one of inspiration, and why his passing was such a shock to so many.
I’ve seen a lot of people talk about him suffering in silence. I doubt that’s true; I imagine his close friends and family, those he wanted to know, were very aware. Same with Chadwick Boseman, who passed away in August of 2020 after losing his own battle with cancer, unbeknownst to the general public. I agree with those who point out that had he gone public—either of them, really—their whole story would always be about their health and art in the face of the odds. Rather, Virgil—who was apparently working until the very end—decided to create and let their work and art tell their stories. Today (November 30), his final collection for Louis Vuitton will be presented in Miami. It’s uncanny to think that he was still putting together this collection until the end, but sometimes when you have your purpose you have to see it as far as it can go.
While his collaboration with Nike opened my eyes to who he was, once I looked I saw a man who creatively paved a path and did the absolute most with it. And it’s one that has lasting impact; his shoes and clothes are everywhere and worn by everybody. Even as I write this, I’m wearing my Nike x Off-White Blazer “Grim Reapers” with an orange lace swap from the original Nike x Off-White Blazer, courtesy of my guy Jean DeGrate, who was the first person I saw wearing a pair of Nike x Off-Whites. He was also the person who showed me that you could just take the hang-tag off; I had no idea. Some folks already knew.
When I did I also found an appreciation and respect for creativity and art, one that will continue even with Virgil’s passing. Virgil showed me that a shoe doesn’t just have to be a shoe and that little bit of knowledge changed the game for my own creativity.
To a life lived for the possibility of creativity, rest in power, Virgil Abloh.