A look at the life of Virgil Abloh, the man The New York Times called the ‘Karl Lagerfeld for millennials,’ but who should probably best be known as the first Virgil Abloh

Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
  • New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman posed a question in late February that set high-fashion Twitter aflame: “Is Virgil Abloh the Karl Lagerfeld for Millennials?
  • The question was a surprise to readers who thought the comparison might be a negative thing, including Abloh, who responded on Twitter by saying he would “do an academic lecture about this article one day.”
  • In case you hadn’t heard, Virgil Abloh is one of modern fashion’s most popular designers, known for being Louis Vuitton’s menswear artistic director, for his own brand separate from Louis Vuitton, Off-White, and for his efforts revolutionizing luxury streetwear.
  • As his largely unprecedented career has shown, perhaps he isn’t the next Karl Lagerfeld, but the first Virgil Abloh.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Only shortly before Virgil Abloh was to present Off-White’s fall-winter collection at Paris Fashion Week, New York Times Fashion Director and Chief Fashion Critic Vanessa Friedman posed a question heard around the high-fashion universe: “Is Virgil Abloh the Karl Lagerfeld for Millennials?

On its face, the question was a compliment, since Lagerfeld is one of the most renowned fashion designers in history. He was head of Fendi for 54 years, at Chanel for 26 years, and at his eponymous brand for 25 years. Though he had controversies, he was no doubt a product of his time. Known for his dark glasses, sleek white pony tail, and fingerless gloves, he had reach, impact, controversies, and influence. In fact, Friedman cited Abloh’s current influence in comparing the two figures.

On paper, of course, it’s quite odd to compare Lagerfeld to Abloh – even Friedman said so herself.

Lagerfeld was a white German man who moved to Paris as a teenager, worked at some of the most notable and historic French houses – Balmain, Patou – before he started his career at Chloé. Abloh, on the other hand, is a black American who grew up just outside of Chicago. The child of Ghanaian immigrants, he received a bachelor’s in engineering, a master’s in architecture, and opened his own line in 2013. His only formal fashion training was a 6-month internship at Fendi in 2009.

Although Abloh’s career follows in Lagerfeld’s footsteps in how much it features collaborations between brands, Abloh’s accomplishments are unprecedented in multiple respects. As Business Insider previously reported, Louis Vuitton named Abloh its artistic director for menswear in 2018. This made him one of the few black people to ever lead a top fashion house, and the first black American to lead a French one.

Aside from Louis Vuitton, Abloh’s own line, Off-White, has established a reputable name for itself, and it has launched collaborations with partners such as Nike, Ikea, and even McDonald’s. Perhaps his most famous collaboration is his long-running association with Kanye West.

On the runway, Abloh is regarded as one of the pioneers of high-end street fashion, or what he has called the “post-streetwear movement,” with roots in the classic streetwear that originated in hip-hop and skating culture. When the lines between luxury and streetwear were torn down, Abloh’s influence was everywhere, from Balenciaga selling puffer jackets to Dior collaborating with Nike on limited edition Air Jordans to Louis Vuitton partnering with Supreme to Gucci working with legendary Harlem designer Dapper Dan.

Of course, Lagerfeld is an icon in his own right, the same way Abloh can be one in his. Read on for a look at how he rose to the top.

Virgil Abloh is one of the most popular designers in the modern age. Known for his line, Off-White, he is also the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear.

hoto by Victor Boyko/Getty Images

Virgil Abloh gained prominence in the last decade with the rise of luxury streetwear, with some noting him as being the trend’s pioneer.

He is the founder of Off-White, one of the top luxury streetwear brands in the world. Aside from its own collections, the brand and Abloh are known for collaborations including with furniture store Ikea, water company Evian, luggage brand Rimowa, Jimmy Choo, Sunglass Hut, and even McDonald’s.

Currently, Abloh boasts 5.1 million followers on Instagram, and is good friends with his often-creative partner Kanye West. His designs have been seen on everyone from Rihanna, Beyonce, and model Hailey Baldwin.

In February, New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman wrote an article asking if Abloh could be considered the “the Karl Lagerfeld for Millennials.”

New York Times Fashion Director Vanessa Friedman
Sean Zanni / Contributor / Getty Images

High-fashion Twitter quickly broke out into group discussions, and the conversation escalated once Virgil responded to Friedman, saying he would like to give a “lecture” on the article because “riffing online is far too low hanging fruit for such an easy and massive ‘case & point.”

Freidman responded by simply saying, “Come do it at the Times Center.

Abloh then sent Friedman an image from Joseph Beuys’ 1974 art piece “I Like America and America Likes Me,” in which the artist spent 8 hours with a coyote as a commentary on American society in the 1970s. Beuys said the coyote was America’s spirit animal and that the piece commented on a nation divided along multiple lines, including the Vietnam War and relations between the majority and minority populations.

Friedman’s response: “Am I the coyote in this picture? Are you Beuys? Are these relevant questions?” Abloh did not directly respond to those questions of Friedman’s.

Where Friedman might have a point: Both designers defined and redefined the fashion of their eras.

Larry Busacca / Staff / Getty Images

As Friedman noted in her article,”[Lagerfeld] comes from the couture tradition; [Abloh] built his career on street wear. One saw himself as the caretaker of artistic heritage (under Mr. Lagerfeld, Chanel acquired the specialty ateliers of embroiderers, hat makers and cashmere spinners in order to protect them); one has a keen awareness of himself as a harbinger of cultural change and breaker of boundaries.”

Even Michael Burke, CEO of Louis Vuitton, told Freidman that Abloh is “is digital, like Karl. Cross-generational, like Karl. Hard-working, like Karl. Intelligent, like Karl.”

Who is Virgil Abloh?

Bennett Raglin / Stringer / Getty Images

Abloh was born in Rockford, Illinois, on September 30, 1980. His parents were immigrants from Ghana, and his mother was a seamstress, while his father was the manager of a paint company. According to a previous article by Friedman, it was Abloh’s mother who taught him how to sew.

He attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a BS in civil engineering in 2002. He then went on to receive a master’s in architecture from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2006.

Matthew Sperzel / Contributor / Getty Images

According to Vogue’s Steff Yotka, the rumor is that, in 2002, on the day of Abloh’s graduation from UWM, he skipped his final critiques to meet with Kanye’s then-manager John Monopoly.

He told The Cut in 2017 that he didn’t really know he could be a creative full-time. “I felt that a random black kid from the suburbs of Chicago shouldn’t be doing that,” he said.

In his senior year, he took his first art history class, in which he learned about the Renaissance and Italian painter Caravaggio. “It flipped my head backward,” he continued. “I’d spent so much time thinking practical things.”

While finishing his master’s degree at IIT, Abloh said, he saw a building that was under construction by renowned architect Rem Koolhaas. This helped spark his interest in fashion.

Daniel Zuchnik/Getty Images

It was also during this time that he began to design his own clothes, and work on a blog known as The Brilliance.

Source: The Cut

In 2009, Abloh began a 6-month internship at Fendi in Rome alongside Kanye West.

Kanye West (L) and Virgil Abloh (R)
Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Louis Vuitton CEO Michael Burke once told The New York Times that he was “impressed” with Abloh and West and how they “brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way.”

He then went on to say that Abloh brought in a “new vocabulary to describe something as old-school as Fendi.” Burke added that he would be following Abloh’s career.

Source: The New York Times

It was also around this time when Abloh and West began to be seen with the fashion crowds in Paris.

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images

Abloh and West were seen outside of a Comme des Garçons show in Paris, photographed by Tommy Ton for Style.com.

Abloh told W magazine in 2017 that, at the time, they were just “a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there” and that they “saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”

Source: Vogue

In 2009, Abloh married his high school sweetheart, Shannon Sundberg.

Virgil Abloh (L) and his wife, Susan Sundberg (R)
Photo by Pierre Suu/Getty Images)

They currently live in Chicago with their two children.

Source: Inside Weddings

In 2010, West appointed Abloh as creative director of his creative agency, Donda.

Peter White / Contributor / Getty Images

Source: Vogue

The following year, Abloh earned a Grammy nomination for his art direction of Kanye and Jay-Z’s album, “Watch the Throne.”

Jay Z (L) and Kanye West (R)

Source: Vogue

In 2012, Abloh opened his first brand, Pyrex Vision.

Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images

As reported by Yotka at Vogue, Abloh had simply taken deadstock Ralph Lauren shirts, screen printed his company’s name on it along with the number 23, and sold them for $550 each.

Source: Vogue

In 2013, Abloh closed Pyrex and opened Off-White. The company is based in Milan, and focuses primarily on streetwear. Abloh defined the brand as “the gray area between black and white as the color Off-White.”

Jeremy Moeller / Contributor / Getty Images

Off-White is known for its quotation marks around words, as pictured above. In an interview with W magazine, Abloh said he “loved” the idea that Off-White “can be questioned” and said he knew that one day, someone would “critique that Off-White is un-inspirational.”

The brand is sold at Selfridges and Bergdorf Goodman, and has been sold at Barneys and Colette. He also has boutiques in Tokyo, Beijing, New York City, and Hong Kong.

In 2014, Abloh launched a women’s wear line for Off-White, and began to show its collections during Paris Fashion Week.

Christian Vierig / Contributor / Getty Images

“The end goal is to modernize fashion and steer a [fashion] house, because I believe in the modernization of these storied brands,” he said in a 2017 interview with The Cut. He went on to say at a lecture at Columbia that “[Off-White is] not a brand … it’s a faux-luxury product.”

In 2015, Off-White was named a finalist for the prestigious LVMH Prize, although it lost to fellow designers Marques’Almeida and Jacquemus, respectively.

Bertrand Rindoff Petroff / Contributor / Getty Images

“Fashion is kinda a joke,” he said in a 2017 interview with The Cut. “I don’t get too bogged down in the clothes. For me, it’s one big art project, just a canvas to show that fashion should have a brand which has someone behind it who cares about different contexts. Social things.”

That same year, Beyoncé wore one of his sweatshirts in a music video with Nicki Minaj.

The year 2017 was monumental for Abloh: he announced a collaborative exhibition with artist Takashi Murakami at the Gagosian, opened his first New York store, collaborated with Warby Parker and Jimmy Choo, and released a shoe with Nike.

Victor Boyko/Getty Images

He has also collaborated with artist Jenny Holzer for a political collection inspired by refugees, immigration, and Planned Parenthood. The exhibition with Murakami opened October 2018.

“Young architects can change the world by not building buildings,” he said at a lecture at Columbia in 2017. “You don’t have to be a designer to be a designer,” is his contradictory credo.

Source: Vogue, Vogue

In 2017, Abloh won the British Fashion Award for Urban Luxe Brand.

Stephane Cardinale/Getty Images

Source: New York Times

In 2018, Virgil was appointed artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear. He was also listed as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.

TPN / Contributor / Getty Images

“It is an honor for me to accept this position,” he said in a statement announcing his appointment. “I find the heritage and creative integrity of the house are key inspirations and will look to reference them both while drawing parallels to modern times.”

Abloh also designed the outfit Serena Williams wore to the 2018 U.S. Open. This outfit, along with the look he designed for Beyoncé as a choice to wear on the cover of Vogue, was chosen to be on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Source: GQ, Chicago Tribune, New York Times

Last year, Abloh was chosen to be on the board of the CFDA. He was also nominated for a CFDA Award for Menswear Designer of the Year, for his work with Off-White.

Kristy Sparow / Contributor / Getty Images

Source: CFDA, Footwear News

That same year, he gave an interview with Dazed magazine where he said that streetwear was “probably going to die soon.”

Matthew Sperzel/GC Images / Getty Images

As Business Insider previously reported, Abloh gave an interview with Dazed where he predicted that streetwear was going to die “soon.”

“In my mind, how many more T-shirts can we own,” he told Dazed. “How many more hoodies, how many sneakers?”

He then went on to say: “We’re gonna hit this like, really awesome state of expressing your knowledge and personal style with vintage,” he said. “There are so many clothes that are cool that are in vintage shops and it’s just about wearing them.”

Still, his influence on the industry cannot be denied. The idea that Abloh may become a legend or modern icon is not far-fetched.

(L) Model Karlie Kloss, (C) Virgil Abloh, (R) Model Gigi Hadid
Julien M. Hekimian / Stringer / Getty Images

As Business Insider previously reported, many luxury houses followed in the streetwear foundation that Virgil helped build. Balenciaga was selling puffer jackets and chunky sneakers, while hoodies and oversized logos were everywhere.

The “post-streetwear movement” saw Dior collaborating with Nike to make limited edition Air Jordans, Louis Vuitton launching a collaboration with Supreme, and Gucci working with legendary Harlem designer Dapper Dan.

The lines betweens streetwear and luxury were torn down; suddenly, they were one and the same.

Aside from designing, Abloh is also a DJ, a creative and artistic director, and a social media influencer. He also has a collective of famous friends, and many people who aspire to dress, look, and be like him.

In February, The Times’ Vanessa Friedman asked if Virgil was the Karl of his generation. The question prompted a discussion, and even a response from Virgil himself.

Victor VIRGILE/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Friedman made a pretty compelling case as to why Abloh could at least, in some ways, be regarded as the “millennial” Karl Lagerfeld. Both, she wrote, made their marks “in part by embracing irony.”

“Like Mr. Lagerfeld he has made a community that can seem like a cult of personality around himself,” she wrote. “Like Mr. Lagerfeld, he speaks in rolling sentences and is a pleasure to listen to, especially in a world where the most celebrated names often seem to be tying themselves up in knots at the prospect of answering a question.”

“Mr. Lagerfeld was criticized for doing too much, a lot of it not well enough, as is Mr. Abloh. So far, Mr. Abloh has proved himself best as a designer when building atop a foundation established by someone else,” she continued. “His Vuitton is more interesting than his Off-White, which often seems like a pallid copy of other people’s ideas, just as Mr. Lagerfeld’s Chanel was more effective than his namesake label.”

Source: New York Times

Many online onlookers were interested in the discussion between Abloh and Friedman.

Tristan Fewings/BFC / Contributor / Getty Images

“This is one of the most subtle & apt analyses from @VVFriedman on what is wrong in fashion today: how modern designers care less about construction & quality, instead focusing on the superficial – like logos or splash to make it Instagrammable,” said twitter user Senza Tempo.

“This is actually a good article,” said fashion journalist Pam Boy. “I might not agree with it but Ms Friedman made me cogitate.”

Meanwhile, others felt that Abloh and Lagerfeld cannot necessarily be compared.

“Y’all need to stop trying to trying to push this agenda because he isn’t. Even with him being mass produced and overly accessible it does not compare to the craftsmanship. It’s rather insulting,” said one.

“There’s no comparison! Karl’s incredible legacy at Chanel and Fendi, his ability to constantly reinvent while staying true to the DNA of the brands he headed is unmatched by anyone living or dead!” commented another.

It doesn’t seem as if Abloh agreed with Friedman’s assessment. Instead, he said he would like to give a lecture about her article one day.

Edward Berthelot/Getty Images

We don’t know exactly what Abloh’s lecture on Friedman’s piece would discuss, but it may seek to dissect the notion that he is the heir to a legacy he never claimed to want, that he can lay claim to a title he has never sought to have.

As controversial as he might be in terms of his fashion and design decisions, perhaps Abloh wants a claim to his own name, his own title, his own throne, in a fashion empire that he built.

Abloh didn’t respond to Friedman’s last question, leaving her main point floating, unanswered, in the air: “Mr. Abloh may not be the Lagerfeld heir we want. But he may be the Lagerfeld heir we have made.”

Jamie McCarthy/FilmMagic / Getty Images

All greats are similar in the fact that they are great. Perhaps Virgil Abloh is just the Virgil Abloh of his time.

Source: New York Times