When I first learned about the untimely death of Virgil Abloh early this afternoon, the feeling I experienced was one of shock. Not the kind of "shock" people describe in a cliché expression of grief, but the very real sense of not knowing what to do myself.
As I write this article right now, a packed suitcase sits on the opposite side of my office waiting to be taken to Miami, where the creative director was set to unveil both his latest Louis Vuitton collection and his second collaboration with Mercedes-Benz.
It’s a reminder that so many things in my career since I became a magazine editor eight years ago have had something, in some big or small way, to do with Virgil Abloh. And now that person is gone.
The role that Virgil had in the world we write about at Highsnobiety was and remains heliocentric. He was the sun that so many things revolved around in the space of contemporary visual culture, luxury branding, and this tricky and ever-expanding thing we call "streetwear."
For a while now, Virgil has been omnipotent in this cultural space, whether that be through his own ever-expanding portfolio of projects, his extensive circle of collaborators — many of whose careers he launched — the numerous multinational corporations he breathed life into with the stroke of his Sharpie, the thousands upon thousands of creative operators who have been inspired by his prodigiousness, or even the many who either envied or discredited him.
Of the myriad of talents Virgil had, the most important was his ability to connect the dots, crisscrossing ideas through the ether of our universe on WhatsApp groups, airplanes, and a ceaseless procession of project after project with collaborator after collaborator. He was the human incarnation of Wi-Fi: less a singular artist and more a frequency that an entire wave of people and ideas operated on.
In early 2019, I worked on an oral history of Virgil Abloh’s career that untangled his orbit through interviews with nearly 60 of his friends and collaborators.
The experience was astonishing on a number of levels, most notably the fact that not a single one of these people had anything but glowing and reverential things to say about him.
Just pause to think about this for a second.
Imagine your own life and then imagine it turned up to 100 times the speed with 100 times the interactions with 100 times the people. And then imagine spending more than a decade in this mode without upsetting nearly anyone you’ve interacted with.
But that was the power of dealing with Virgil: in the brief moments you got with him, he gave you 100% of his mental bandwidth and 100% of his respect, every single time.
Beyond his kindness, the other instantaneous inspiration that people derived from Virgil was the ferociousness of his work ethic.
He worked harder, more passionately, and with more focus on the overall output of his life project than practically any human being is capable of mustering. 90 hour weeks were the norm for him. A constant state of dialogue across countries, projects, businesses, and disciplines was the norm for him.
And it was never done in a way that felt like dark workaholism, but rather like a non-stop process of self-actualization. Virgil’s life was a body of work unto itself, and the experience of interacting with him felt like being a pitstop on some larger Odyssey that only he had the script for.
On my own little journey through Virgil’s world, one of the most powerful things I began to recognize was the way in which his work truly broke barriers — not just for himself but for others. In the conversations we had, a constant theme Virgil discussed was the idea of "open sourcing" the work he did.
When I first asked him what he meant by that, he hold me this:
"It means that what I do has the instructions embedded into it, so that kids can look at the garment and think, 'Hey, I can do that too.' And that’s true of anything, from a screen-printed Ralph Lauren shirt to showing 35 looks in the UNESCO building in Paris with leaves falling. I think the best analogy for this is skateboarding. Some kid can do a trick that no one has ever seen before, but the second he films it and puts it on YouTube, ten other kids around the world can do the exact same thing. That's open source, and I embrace that.”
Virgil did not just want to merely accomplish things but rather he wanted to accomplish things in a way that made the instruction manual for how he got there freely accessible to others. This was what made his successes so powerful, like the moment that he walked down the rainbow runway at his inaugural Louis Vuitton show to tearfully embrace his former boss, Kanye West.
The many who were inspired by Virgil's accomplishments weren’t just inspired by what he did, but by the fact that he made something totally new — and seemingly impossible — possible for everyone.
It's possible to start out designing album covers and eventually teach yourself to design ready-to-wear collections. It's possible for youth culture to redefine luxury. It's possible to become the first Black creative leader at a major company. It's possible to do things your way and have the world fit your mold.
When Virgil reached the height of his power, he got to a point where he didn’t just make things and sell them: he rewrote the Newtonian laws of the culture industry.
In an era where the consumer is king and content in power — Virgil himself once described this to me as a "consumer revolt" — Virgil wrote the book on how to create potent ideas and make them effective in our digital landscape. His massive thumbprint on creative direction, branding, and advertising over the past decade is akin to how we automatically think of Salvador Dali when we hear "Surrealism," or Elvis Presley when we hear "Rock n Roll."
Virgil liked to say that Marcel Duchamp was his lawyer, winking at the idea that the artist's notion of the readymade freed him to make work by putting his signature quotation marks around things that already existed. But I can’t be sure if Virgil ever fully realized the way that, like Duchamp, he created an entirely new mode of possibility for other artists.
Just like how Duchamp allowed Jeff Koons and David Hammons to turn basketballs and basketball hoops into "sculptures," Virgil has given birth to a new generation of creative operators who will (and already are) redefining the world in the mold he started shaping.
But what does this world look like?
The world Virgil created is one where our digital life is not a source of alienation, but a space that creates new possibilities. The world Virgil created is one where art, architecture, music, film, and fashion can freely collide in a way that makes past distinctions and genres feel foolish. It's a world where major corporations aren't the enemy of creativity, but rather the patrons of a new and exciting form of public art.
Virgil created a world that empowers the autodidacts, the remixers, the graffitists, the skaters, and the other rule breakers who were once on the outside looking in on the culture industry. Most of all, Virgil Abloh created a world where anyone with an iPhone can become the next Andy Warhol, the next Arthur Jafa, the next Rem Koolhaas, the next Barbara Kruger, or the next Virgil Abloh.
And now that we’re the ones living in this world, we owe it to ourselves to do him justice.