Virgil Abloh Was a Mensch
You don't need to care about fashion to learn something from the way my brilliant friend lived.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Virgil Abloh, or Off -White, Abloh’s streetwear brand. Maybe you only first heard his name this week when the tributes came pouring in for the genius fashion designer, who died from a rare cancer at 41. Maybe you don’t care much about fashion, or think it’s superficial, or assume that most people in the fashion industry are vapid and elitist. Many are.
But the reason you should know Virgil Abloh’s name is that in a world of ego and casual cruelty and competition, where people tend to push others down to elevate themselves, he was something different. He was good.
I first met Virgil in 2005, through a blog he ran with two of his buddies in Chicago, his hometown. The Brilliance focused on what was then a new fashion subculture called streetwear. It was the hub: everyone who cared about streetwear read it and they would often write about my own streetwear brand, Married to the Mob, which I had founded in 2004. They gave me one of my first interviews in June 2005. (I had built the company in a male-dominated industry with a $75,000 settlement I got from the state of New York after some police officers beat me up. But that’s a story for another time.)
Through the early-aughts internet, Virgil and I became friends and we finally met in real life in my old office on Fulton Street around 2013. By this time Virgil had established himself as a very important player in the streetwear world and beyond. He had become Kanye West’s creative consultant. He was one of the world’s most popular DJs and had launched his own popular streetwear brand called Pyrex Vision. We had a lot to catch up on: where the industry was going, a possible MTTM x Pyrex collab, Paris and why we loved it, and how amazing it was to be parents. It was always that way from that day forward.
After that year is when his career really exploded. He had shut down Pyrex to start a new brand, Off-White, and it became one of the most sought after brands in the world. All of a sudden every other pair of sneakers I saw in New York were punctuated by Virgil’s signature quotation marks. A yellow industrial strap bearing his logo became a must-have. Even though Virgil had no formal fashion training, everything he created turned to gold. He designed furniture for Ikea and Vitra. He designed his own line of Nike sneakers. Then in 2018 he became the first Black creative director at Louis Vuitton. He didn’t just shatter the ceiling, he busted it into millions of little pieces.
What you can’t know from his accomplishments—or anyone’s—is who they are in private. Virgil was generous, kind, and supportive. Even while at the helm of Louis Vuitton, and mingling with the biggest celebrities in the world, he stayed humble. He never lost his sense of excitement or his commitment to opening doors for others. He would always respond quickly and never let people forget their greatness and talent. In short: Virgil Abloh was a mensch.
Since his death, many people have been posting their personal texts and DMs with him. (He always took the time to respond, whether you were an up-and-coming designer looking for advice or a tech titan just shooting the shit.) A mutual friend of ours once asked him via text this past summer: How could he handle the number of projects on his plate, and the ones still brewing in the background? (The friend, like many of us, had no idea that Virgil was being treated then for cardiac angiosarcoma, the aggressive form of cancer that would kill him.)
Virgil’s response: “Word is we only live once.”
Like a lot of tall poppies, some people wanted to cut Virgil down.
He was often the target of Diet Prada, a pseudo-vigilante fashion Instagram account with over two million followers that would accuse him of stealing designs. He responded in a New Yorker profile by saying this: “I could go on for a whole hour about the human condition and the magnet that is negativity. That’s why the world is actually like it is. That’s why good doesn’t prevail, because there’s more negative energy. You can create more connective tissue around the idea that this is plagiarized. It’s better just to sit and point your finger. That’s what social media can be. All that space to comment breeds a tendency to fester, versus actually making something.”
He became the target of online hate when he spoke out against his friends’ stores being looted and destroyed during the summer of 2020 after George Floyd was murdered. Under an Instagram picture posted by fellow designer Sean Wotherspoon of his destroyed store in Los Angeles, Virgil left a comment that said “You see the passion, blood, sweat and tears Sean puts in for our culture. This disgusts me.” He added: “We’re a part of a culture together. Is this what you want??”
Shortly after, he got dragged online again after posting a screenshot for donating $50 towards bail funds for activists arrested during the protests. For someone whose brand sells a $280 baseball cap, you can imagine the response. But Virgil hadn’t only donated fifty bucks. He gave more than $20,000 to various organizations. He just hadn’t publicized it.
It is hard to live as a public person while maintaining your true self. It isn’t easy to do while constantly being scrutinized and feeling like the internet is waiting for you to slip, or say the wrong thing, or the right-meaning thing that can be twisted and turned against you. No one gets the benefit of the doubt when you’re playing to a bunch of anonymous strangers. If being on a reality show for the last two years has taught me anything it’s taught me that. And when I think about the online mob attacking Virgil while fighting for his life it angers me. But Virgil never let his detractors distract him from his mission. Which was, as he put it in one interview, “to lead with love and respect.”
On Monday at the Fashion Awards in London the editor in chief of British Vogue, Edward Enninful, read from a manifesto Virgil wrote last summer that went along with an LV collection he was releasing: “As a Black man in a French luxury house, I am well aware of my responsibilities. Rather than preaching about it, I hope to lead by example, and unlock the door for future generations. I believe in making my mark with poise, style, and grace.”
That’s exactly what he did. Not with a hashtag or an Instagram post or by dunking on his haters. I never once heard him say a negative thing. Not even about his critics.