Tatler Asia’s Global Artistic Director looks back on the life and legacy of trailblazing designer Virgil Abloh

The first time I met Virgil Abloh was at a show for the whirlwind known as Kanye West, so I won’t even call that a real meeting because it was quick and it was really a passing in the night. But the second time I met Virgil—this was pre-Vuitton, during his Off-White days—it was a great meeting.

It was in Paris, and I remember seeing him for the first time. I had gone up to him wanting to say that I was a big fan, but before I could, Virgil said to me that he was a big fan, and so it was a mutual affection between the both of us. I thought that was such a sweet, generous and kind way to meet someone that I admired as an artist for so long.

What Virgil has done in the fashion world is really not just to break the rules—we tend to use the monikers “game changers” and “rule breakers” a lot for fashion creatives, and certainly, he was all of those things. But what he’s done is to actually shift the conversation mid-speech, and in an industry that has been so much about what’s new and what’s next—and that Virgil can absolutely rewrite the script on that—that is truly game changing.

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When I look back at his artistry and his legacy, what I remember most will be the fact that he didn’t play by any rules. There was no rulebook. I think that what was interesting was that if you actually spoke to him, as cool as he was, and as street as he was, he also really loved and embraced pop culture. He really loved and embraced mass aesthetics. You saw a lot of that in his collaborations: whether it was with Ikea or Evian. He always loved that idea of being able to appeal to a lot of people.

I know there are so many stories of people saying that when they saw Virgil on the street, they would stop him, and he would always take the time to speak to people, sign sneakers, take pictures, and he embodied that idea of what being cool was. Cool wasn’t about being standoffish for him, cool wasn’t about being fringe, cool wasn’t about being inaccessible.

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I think what was so great about Virgil was that he was so approachable. He was so kind, he was so interesting, and he was so incredibly curious about everything. In all of my conversations with Virgil, he was always as curious about me as I was about him. Not just about the creative process or the work that we were doing, or any of the artistic things that we wanted to do within the industry. What I loved about Virgil was that he was genuinely interested in you. He wanted to know what was happening with you, your life, what was going on in that day. That was such a rarity in the fashion world, when everybody can be so much about what was on the surface—he was so much about what was beneath it.

I think what Virgil has done has changed the industry—making it sit up and take notice for many different things. I know many people have given him kudos for having a seat at a table in a very difficult, and sometimes prejudiced, industry, but he definitely had a seat at the table. I mean, he was named the first Black artistic director at Louis Vuitton, which for a conglomerate like LVMH is a big deal.

What’s more impressive is that he also pulled up a chair for others, as well. He did that by using his platform to champion other Black designers whenever he had the opportunity. Whether he was doing press, or recording a podcast, or giving a press interview, or a television soundbite, he always wanted to name check someone else that was a person of colour. Another Black designer, another Black creative who he felt was as worthy as he was of being recognised, and I think lending his support in that way was so vitally, vitally important.

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And if he didn’t do it through Vuitton—which he did many times by mostly using models of colour—he did through his own label at Off-White. I remember that he had sold T-shirts that said, “I support young black business”. It was as straightforward as that. As much as he stamped, “SNEAKER” on sneakers or “T-SHIRT” on T-shirts, he stamped that message on a T-shirt he sold for charity, so that he could absolutely say, wholeheartedly, “I support young black business”. And that was important to him.

I think the bottom line for me is that Virgil, in his short 41 years, created a world that will be examined, revered, studied and will be inspired by his work. The legacy he leaves behind is more than fashion: he leaves behind a legacy of culture, a legacy of music, a legacy of art, a legacy of design, a legacy of aesthetic and appreciation.

I think there is so much that we will always remember what Virgil Abloh has done, particularly in the world of fashion, but also beyond the world of fashion.

—as told to Pakkee Tan

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