In the days following Virgil Abloh’s death in late November, an outpouring of grief on social media highlighted the fashion innovator’s global, multi-industry influence. Here in Chicago, locals paid tribute in lengthy posts, photo slideshows and personal memories. Chance the Rapper took to Instagram: “I am so appreciative of his time with us all, and the many many many ways he changed art, fashion, culture and the lives of so many people in this city.” Chicago-based rapper Vic Mensa released a song dedicated to Abloh called “What You Taught Us.”
“Virgil Abloh is synonymous with visionary,” Mensa wrote in a social media post. “To see him go from DJing Superfun parties in Chicago … to revolutionising the way we think about design and its applications is a true inspiration to a generation that was blessed to be raised under his tutelage.”
When Abloh’s family and friends gathered for a memorial service at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art earlier this week, the occasion echoed another celebration of his creative genius two years ago: His groundbreaking 2019 exhibit at the MCA, “Figures of Speech,” which showcased the artist’s evolution from streetwear designer to his coronation as the first Black artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection in 2018.
Michael Darling, who helped organize Abloh’s exhibit as the MCA’s chief curator at the time, said that, at Abloh’s memorial Monday, family and friends talked about his impeccable work ethic, “Midwestern niceness” and his “benevolent presence.”
“There was just so much of Chicago that he held on to,” Darling said. “He never turned his back on Chicago, even when he got to be so internationally well-known.”
Originally from Rockford, Abloh graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2002 and made his way to Chicago for graduate school at the Illinois Institute of Technology, where he earned a master’s degree in architecture in 2006. He gradually edged into fashion and, three years later, interned at Fendi in Rome with Kanye West. Soon after he assumed the role of creative director at DONDA, West’s creative agency named for his mother.
Around the same time, Abloh co-founded RSVP Gallery with Chicago-native Don Crawley, a fellow creative known professionally as “Don C,” because the two wanted to “showcase brands they found in their journeys to fill a void in Chicago by juxtaposing high-end, heavily curated collection pieces with streetwear culture.” Crawley has posted multiple tributes to his business partner and friend on social media in the wake of his death. Under a photo outside the MCA with a banner that says “Abloh,” Crawley wrote on Instagram, “I cherish the memories and will share them with your kids so they know how amazing you really were!”
Darling, of the MCA, said that Abloh designed T-shirts for Chicago streetwear pioneer, Leaders 1354, which has origins in the Hyde Park neighborhood. Abloh later launched his own high-end fashion label, Off-White.
Pairs of his coveted Off-White x Air Jordan 4 “Sail” sneakers were the prize when, in 2020, Abloh sponsored a raffle with proceeds going to benefit Hugs No Slugs, a grassroots nonprofit committed to supporting underserved Chicagoans with dignity and respect. The organization’s founder, Aleta Clark, known to many in the city as “Englewood Barbie,” and Abloh had met each other through mutual friends.
In this way, Abloh reached into Chicago’s communities. “He broke down barrier after barrier, and here in Chicago we are really proud when somebody does well, but especially when they come back and … support young people who they see growing up to be just like them – and maybe even doing more in the future,” said Michael Crowley, the chief of staff for Boys and Girls Clubs of Chicago.
Abloh, who had attended the Boys and Girls Clubs in Rockford, established what Crowley called a “lasting partnership” with the organization’s Chicago branch. In 2020, the artist, with the help of nonprofit organization Chill Foundation, launched a skateboarding program for West Side youth at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys & Girls Club location in East Garfield Park. Twenty-five sets of custom skateboards and protective gear were given to the program by Abloh and the skate brand DGK.
“What [Abloh] said to our kids, and to us at BGCC, was that skateboarding was one of those areas of recreation that can also have potential within the fashion industry,” Crowley said. “He made a point to provide us with the resources to make sure our kids had access to something that they might not otherwise have seen as a possibility to them.”
“Virgil was always looking ahead to see: How can we give kids access and show them what’s possible?” Crowley said.
In partnership with Nike, Abloh also refurbished and completely redesigned the MLK club’s gymnasium earlier that year. In the style of his Off-White brand, the words “YOUTH COURT” are painted on the gymnasium’s floor. There’s also a mural on the wall depicting Black and brown children, wrapped in bright colors. Crowley said that at the gymnasium’s reopening Abloh pointed to the mural, telling the kids, “You need to see yourself on the big screen and for you kids, that’s your big screen up there, think about what you can accomplish every time you’re in this club or this gymnasium.”
It was Abloh’s hugely successful “Figures of Speech” exhibit at the MCA, that helped establish streetwear as a legitimate art form. The Chicago Tribune wrote at the time that the exhibit helped “spread something of the gospel of streetwear around Chicago even more than it already has.”
There were other ventures that bridged fashion and activism, too. Abloh opened a NikeLab pop-up shop on Michigan Avenue in 2019 for architects and designers to host workshops with the community and proceeds from one of his Off-White T-shirt designs that read “Support Young Black Businesses,” benefitted Chicago CRED, a violence prevention program.
But Darling said that as much as Abloh influenced Chicago, the city’s influence could be seen throughout his work and persona.
“I think that’s one of the things that gave his work so much life, is he was just so plugged into his environment,” Darling said of Abloh, who, with his wife, was raising two daughters in Chicago. “He was processing it and acknowledging it, and then finding a way to plug that back into his work.”
Madison Muller is a freelance writer in Chicago. Follow her @g0ingmad.