For many in the fashion world Virgil Abhol, 41, was a maverick, a fashion outsider who shot to fame for his headlining-making catwalks. Dubbed the “Karl Lagerfeld for millennials” he climbed from relative obscurity to the top of his game. He was down with the coolest kids, hanging out with best friend Kanye West, “crashing” fashion weeks, disrupting the industry and founding one of the world’s hippest streetwear brands, Off-White — a label which became as famous for its designer hoodies and t-shirts as its huge social media following. In 2018 he became the first African-American artistic director for French fashion house Louis Vuitton menswear.
The shock news of the 41-year-old’s death from cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare, aggressive form of cancer, sent reverberations around the fashion world last night. “We are devastated to announce the passing of our beloved Virgil Abloh,” his wife of 12 years, Shannon Abloh, said in a statement on the designer’s Instagram page. “He chose to endure his battle privately since his diagnosis in 2019, undergoing numerous challenging treatments.” He is also survived by his children Lowe Abloh and Grey Abloh, his sister Edwina Abloh and his parents Nee and Eunice Abloh.
As news spread around the world, tributes came from far and wide, with A-lister friends including Pharrell Williams, Victoria Beckham and Kanye paying their respects. But if his fashion career was star-packed, his home life was the complete opposite. Born in Rockport near Chicago, Abloh was the son of Ghanaian immigrant parents. His father worked at a paint company and mother, Eunice, as a seamstress. She taught Abloh how to use a sewing machine, and at a young age he began designing T-shirts.
He met his childhood sweetheart Shannon (née Sundberg) when they were both still at school. Later the pair moved to Wisconsin where Shannon studied management and marketing at Edgewood College and Abhol began a civil engineering degree at the University of Wisconsin at Madison before studying for a Master’s of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology.
Virgil rarely spoke about his wife in interviews, but there was never a doubt how strong their bond was. According to reports, after a 10-year courtship, Abloh decided to pop the question but realized he would have to be creative in taking her by surprise. He asked if she could drive with him to the airport for a work trip like she normally did and while they were swapping over driver’s seats, he caught her completely off guard and got down on one knee. “I was completely surprised – I couldn’t believe it!” Shannon said at the time.
The pair married in 2009 at the Chicago Four Seasons, the same year as Abloh decided architecture wasn’t for him after all and found a job interning at fashion label, Fendi. It was a big family wedding, with Abloh reportedly leaving most of the arrangements to the bride, while still playing a “supportive role.” The bride wore ivory-hued Amsale and violet-blue shoes, the bridegroom, a tux and white tie, and the pair sat at different guest tables for each course to make sure they chatted to all their family and friends. During the ceremony the pair read out emotional special promises to each other. “The funny part is that we wrote them separately — and didn’t share them with each other — but they were very similar!” Shannon told bridal magazine, Inside Weddings, at the time.
Recalling her husband’s wedding speech, she said: “His words were so heartfelt and sincere. He had everyone laughing, crying, and then smiling… it’s the one moment I was dying to see on our wedding video.” Virgil humbly added that one of the best parts of the wedding was the people who helped make it happen: “The stress and strain never outweighed their good-natured hearts. More than anything, this was what created the most special evening of our lives, and we are so thankful.”
Throughout Virgil’s meteoric rise, Shannon, 41, largely kept out of the limelight. She was, however, a staunch supporter of her husband’s career, attending shows and red carpet events, later with their two young children, son, Grey and daughter, Lowe in tow. While her career went down a different, more conventional, path — she first worked as a media planner for Yahoo and then later as a program manager for Monster — she continued to be a regular front row fixture at all his shows.
The family based themselves mainly in Chicago, with Abloh shuttling back and forth, clocking up formidable air miles. If fitting family life in with manning the helm at Vuitton menswear was a balancing act, he never showed it. His private life was by and large a closed book. “I don’t want to be a celebrity designer,” he once said. “I want to keep my personal life out of it.” He was famous for his formidable work ethic — it is said he never sat still, refused to have an office and did all his work on the go by iPhone. But despite this, his million-mile-an-hour lifestyle seemed to take a toll. Under doctor’s orders, the designer announced in 2019 he was taking three months off from traveling and public appearances. “I’m shifting gears,” he said at the time.
Shannon’s post on her husband’s Instagram page describes him as a “fiercely devoted father, husband, son, brother, and friend.”
The unwaveringly loyal support of his wife and family was no doubt key to his success. “Through it all, his work ethic, infinite curiosity, and optimism never wavered,” the tribute said. “Virgil was driven by his dedication to his craft and to his mission to open doors for others and create pathways for greater equality in art and design. He often said, ‘Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself,’ believing deeply in the power of art to inspire future generations.”
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