Remembering Alumnus Virgil Abloh, a Pioneering Designer Inspired by Architecture

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By Andrew Connor

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Virgil Abloh (M.ARCH. ’06), a multi-hyphenate designer and Illinois Institute of Technology architecture alumnus, passed away on November 28, 2021, at the age of 41 after a two-year battle with cardiac angiosarcoma.

Abloh—whose work spanned fashion, furniture, music, and art, among other creative disciplines—was one of the most notable designers of his generation. He founded his design label, Off-White, in 2012, and was named men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton in 2018, becoming the first African American to take on the role. He is often credited with bringing streetwear to high fashion, while simultaneously paving the way for a more diverse and inclusive fashion industry. He collaborated widely with all manner of designers and companies, from Nike to Ikea to Evian.

Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, to Ghanian immigrants and rose to prominence as a designer while living in Chicago. After studying civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, he came to IIT to earn his Master of Architecture degree. Around that time, he became a friend and frequent collaborator of Kanye West, designing merchandise and album artwork for the rapper.

Abloh’s professors and fellow students remember him as shy, kind, and remarkably cool. Architect Mary Ward, who was a teaching assistant in one of his studios, recalls Abloh wearing unique clothing and accessories of his own design. “We were in studio our first year, and he came in wearing a hoodie with fur sewn around the edge. I asked, ‘Wow, Virgil, where did you get that?’ He said he and his mom had made it together,” explains Ward. “And he was lovely—quiet in the way that people who are observant are.”

Frank Flury, his former studio professor, adds, “He was a different kind of architecture student, interested not just in architecture, but in fashion, graphic design and music. And he was just such a kind and generous person.”

Abloh’s master’s thesis envisioned a skyscraper in downtown Chicago that leaned toward Lake Michigan “like a tree bending toward sunlight.” The project was displayed at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for his 2019 solo exhibition “Figures of Speech.”

Abloh regularly cited how influential studying in S. R. Crown Hall was to him. In an interview with Kaleidoscope, he noted, “The moment that I stepped inside Crown I lost my breath. It unlocked my brain about the transcending quality of art.” During his design career, Abloh frequently returned to Crown Hall. He directed multiple photoshoots for Off-White and Louis Vuitton inside the building and installed a Mies-inspired lightbox adjacent to the building’s south stairway in 2019 to promote his collaboration with Nike.

Additionally, IIT introduced Abloh to the work of Rem Koolhaas, who had finished The McCormick Tribune Campus Center shortly before he arrived at the university. Abloh credited Koolhaas with teaching him how to “combine socio-political thinking with design,” and the two went on to collaborate regularly throughout Abloh’s career.

Abloh’s career was tragically short, but he leaves behind a remarkable legacy. Through his personal perspective, his interest in all forms of design, and his dedication to inclusion (including a $1 million scholarship fund for Black American students), he left behind a creative space that includes more voices and celebrates the blending of all artforms.