In 2009, then boss of Fendi Michael Burke sat down with Virgil Abloh and Kanye West over lunch at Settimio all’Arancio, a small Mediterranean restaurant nestled behind the fashion brand’s headquarters in Rome.
Burke, an LVMH veteran who is now chief executive of Louis Vuitton and chair of Tiffany, was working alongside Karl Lagerfeld at the time. Abloh was 29, a trained architect and DJ who had rapidly built a profile in the music and design industries as Kanye West’s creative partner.
“What impressed me most were his listening skills and his observation skills,” Burke recalls of his first proper meeting with Abloh — they had been introduced at a concert in Tokyo three years before. Abloh and West wanted to see how a major luxury fashion brand operated first-hand, and both had accepted Burke’s offer to spend time working and observing at Fendi, a label known for its five-figure fur coats and “it” bags such as the Baguette.
But Burke was already thinking further ahead. “Back then I was working with Karl and always thinking ‘what would a fashion company do today to be in the same position as they were after having hired Karl? What do I need to do so that story repeats?’ That’s how I got to know Kanye and Virgil and gave them a chance.”
Nine years later, Burke would offer Abloh one of the most important creative positions at LVMH: artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, luxury’s largest brand by revenue.
This week, LVMH expanded his responsibilities further, announcing that he would begin launching new LVMH brands and partnering with existing ones “beyond the realm of fashion”. LVMH owns about 75 companies in a multitude of categories, including fashion and leather goods, retail, hospitality, and wine and spirits.
As part of the deal, the conglomerate acquired a 60 per cent stake in Abloh’s fashion label, Off-White, which has grown to 58 stores since he founded it in 2014 and is known for its luxury take on streetwear staples such as sweatshirts and denim, and its signature diagonal lines.
The promotion makes Abloh, a first-generation American born of Ghanian parents, the most high-profile black person working in the €281bn luxury goods sector and in LVMH, whose board and executive team are entirely white.
The comparison of Abloh with the prolific Lagerfeld is apt but Abloh’s friends and collaborators liken him to a particular icon of the US art world. “He’s one of the best cultural communicators since Andy Warhol,” said the American radio, music and nightlife producer Tremaine Emory. “The same way Andy would be dealing with everyone from Basquiat when he was broke to a Burger King commercial. Andy was in the street, but he was also moving left culture into popular culture.”
Friends and colleagues say Abloh is an “eternal optimist” and consummate multitasker, a designer who disregards the rules and limits that often dictate design. He has a knack for collaboration and defining what will be cool. He also knows how to find the right person for the job and for delegating, two qualities that will serve him well in his newly expanded role.
“He’s never said a negative thing about a single person in history since I’ve known him,” said the designer Justin Saunders of JJJJound, who worked under Abloh at West’s agency, Donda. “He’s full of positive energy. He makes everything fun.”
Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, in 1980, and still lives in the area with his wife, who he met in high school, and their two children. He gained a degree in civil engineering and began working with West shortly after completing a Masters in architecture, earning a Grammy nomination for art directing on West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne tour in 2011.
Abloh introduced his first clothing label, Pyrex, in 2012 — a small range of screen-printed discontinued stock Ralph Lauren flannel shirts that sold for hundreds of dollars apiece. Although the label closed a year later, it helped him forge the connections that helped the swift rise of Off-White, which was given the industry’s seal of approval when it became a finalist in the LVMH Prize for young designers in 2015.
As his profile grew, so did interest from brands and that decade saw successful collaborations with Nike, Rimowa — another LVMH brand — and Ikea.
Abloh is not a traditionally trained fashion designer, and his 2018 appointment at Louis Vuitton ruffled some feathers within LVMH and across the industry. Critics say he has not introduced anything really new or original to fashion design.
Friends and colleagues instead paint him as an all-rounder who knows not only how to design products but also how to communicate and market them.
“Maybe other designers do a strong[er] job on the product side of it, but he touches all of it, which is certainly one of reasons why we like working with him,” said Fraser Cooke of Nike. “You cannot deny that he has massively changed the look and feel and how people interact with Louis Vuitton — men’s at least.”
Cooke brought Abloh into the Nike fold in late 2016, collaborating with him on a redesign of 10 classic Nike styles released the following year. “It was one of the most successful footwear things of all time, and I’ve worked on a lot,” said Cooke.
“He’s not just somebody who comes in and does a kind of colour-up on a product, he works with the end in mind, he’s very good at coming up with ideas to further propel and position that product,” he added.
“There isn’t anyone who has continued to get people’s attention on a consistent basis with a multitude of different projects and mediums that he works within.”