Virgil Abloh's legacy – how the first black designer at Louis Vuitton changed the fashion industry

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Virgil Abloh effect - Getty Images
Virgil Abloh effect - Getty Images

There was no mistaking a Virgil Abloh catwalk show. The designer, who has tragically passed away aged 41-years old after a private battle with cancer, knew how to create a spectacle, and how to captivate an audience and tell a story through his clothes.

In his time at Louis Vuitton, where he helmed the house’s menswear since taking over in 2018, he created astonishing, immersive experiences - the word ‘show’ doesn’t quite do them justice. There was a 200 metre long rainbow-hued carpet running the length of the Palais Royal gardens in Paris, a ramshackle array of full scale Brooklyn brownstones to evoke the district in the 80s and, perhaps most memorably, an entire square in Paris turned into a children’s play park. It was a physical manifestation of the joy and optimism he brought to his approach to men’s dressing. And some of the most memorable moments in my career covering fashion shows.

Abloh was a groundbreaker in myriad ways; the first African American man to run a French fashion house, a creative who spearheaded a tidal wave towards streetwear and sport’s attire in men’s fashion and a polymath who also worked as a DJ and sometime furniture designer.

The designer initially trained as an engineer, and it was that left-of-centre approach that informed his unique take on fashion. Born in Illinois, he eventually landed an internship at Fendi in Rome, where Kanye West happened to be doing the coffee runs too. Abloh went on to found the fashion label Off-White, which garnered cult status thanks to its heavily-branded streetwear; sports-inspired hoodies and sell-out trainers.

His debut at Louis Vuitton, in summer 2018, was one of those moments - thanks to its astonishingly long catwalk, star power on the front row and sheer scale - where you can say ‘I Was There When..’ The house, perhaps the most august of all the grande dames in Paris, had always been rarefied and luxurious, but Abloh’s interpretation brought an edge and abundant sense of playfulness.

He wanted to create his own language in the world of men’s style, quite literally - his Louis Vuitton collections came with a glossary of terms for garments and accessories he’d created. Abloh’s approach to fashion played with traditional codes; a suit, but soft and pillowy in its shape and proportions, a classic camel coat, but with cut-out details, the classic Vuitton check, with rendered in acid brights. He brought energy, pulsing dynamism and, just occasionally, a dash of bonkers eclecticism to the house.

virgil abloh lewis hamilton - Getty Images
virgil abloh lewis hamilton - Getty Images

It’s hard to overemphasis the effect that streetwear and sportswear culture has had on how men dress, and Abloh was a vital part of that. Suits and traditionally formal modes of dressing have been replaced by a more casual, sports-centric approach - T-shirts, trainers and less structured approaches to tailoring; you might not have known Abloh’s name, but he was part of a zeitgeist that changed how men approach their wardrobes.

Eyebrows were raised about his appointment at Louis Vuitton - was this most stately and historical of Paris houses about to become a byword for casual cool? - but Abloh knew how to fuse his aesthetic with that of this fashion colossus, most notably in employing its artisanal skill, via intricately beaded and embroidered jackets, suit and shirting.

Abloh's first show for Louis Vuitton - Getty Images
Abloh's first show for Louis Vuitton - Getty Images

His first show for Louis Vuitton, at the Palais Royal, was a testament to his generosity and support of the younger generation; the designer invited 3000 fashion students to watch the spectacle unfold. Their excitement was palpable, their whooping merrily ringing out across the cloisters of the historic space.

The collection was an homage to The Wizard of Oz, with tin men metallics, imagery of Dorothy dozing amongst poppies and Yellow Brick Road motifs, the message being that this black man from the MidWest had taken his own incredible journey to the (Emerald) City of Light. Abloh went Somewhere Over the Rainbow, and then some. The fashion world is significantly less colourful for his passing.

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