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A Visionary Designer and Artist

Virgil Abloh ’03, a visionary designer who blended street culture and luxury fashion, passed away in November 2021.

John Allen
November 29, 2021

2CM355W Designer Virgil Abloh appears at the end of his Fall/Winter 2019-2020 women’s ready-to-wear collection for his label Off-White during Women’s Fashion Week in Paris, France, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

Virgil Abloh, 1980–2021

An artist whose vision blended street culture with haute couture, Virgil Abloh ’03 was among the most influential young designers of the 21st century. He passed away on November 28 after a battle with cancer. 

“Virgil Abloh was an inspiration to so many for both his visionary design and his generous spirit,” said Sarah Schutt, executive director and chief alumni officer of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. “The entire University of Wisconsin-Madison alumni community mourns his passing and sends deepest condolences to Virgil’s family, friends, and colleagues.”

Born in Rockford, Illinois, to parents who had emigrated from Ghana, Abloh began life on a path that didn’t seem pointed toward a career in art and fashion. His mother was a seamstress; his father sold paint; he came to the UW to study engineering. But in between classes in calculus and chemistry, he and his roommates threw lavish dinner parties. “We were trying to live the most sophisticated young lifestyle possible,” he told Forward under 40 magazine.

After earning his bachelor of science degree at the UW, he went on to study architecture and then interned at the Italian fashion house Fendi, where he met Kanye West. The two became collaborators, and soon Abloh was making a name for himself in art, music, and clothing design. Under the stage name DJ Flat White, he became a popular club DJ; he created a record label called Bromance; and he worked to elevate street fashion into high art with his clothing line Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh. 

Abloh’s work caught the attention of high-fashion houses, such as Louis Vuitton: Off-White was a finalist for the LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessey) Prize in 2015, and it received the British Fashion Award for Urban Luxe Brand in 2016. Off-White had stores in Chicago, New York, and Tokyo, and it had a furniture line in Milan.

In 2018, Abloh became the artistic director of menswear for Louis Vuitton, and Time magazine named him one of its 100 most influential people. But the following year, he was diagnosed with cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare form of cancer. He kept his condition private, and in 2021 it took his life. 

Though Abloh didn’t pursue a career in engineering, his UW degree did help shape his life. The UW’s College of Engineering, he said, is “where I learned to multitask.” He remained connected to his alma mater and was featured in On Wisconsin magazine in 2015, designed a special edition of the Wisconsin Alumni Association’s The Red Shirt™ T-shirt, and spoke at a campus RED Talks seminar. He received a WAA Forward under 40 Award in 2016 and is featured in the university’s Alumni Park.

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