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Virgil Abloh, fashion designer, dies at 41 after a private battle with cancer


The fashion designer Virgil Abloh has died of a rare form of cancer. He was a luminary. He founded the label Off-White. He was the artistic director for Louis Vuitton menswear, and he made streetwear into high fashion. Earlier this morning, I talked to NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates.

Good morning, Karen.


KING: So he was quite different from many fashion designers, wasn't he?

BATES: He was. I talked with Booth Moore. She's the West Coast executive editor of the fashion industry Bible Women's Wear Daily. And she pointed out Abloh was a trailblazer. She says his entry into fashion was unique.

BOOTH MOORE: He, you know, came up through pop culture, not through sort of traditional design channels. And he was very good at sort of bridging the gaps between different disciplines. He himself was a DJ and, you know, had a huge social media following before coming to fashion. And so he really kind of changed the image of what a fashion designer should be.

BATES: He also had degrees in civil engineering and architecture. And Moore said because of this nonlinear entry into fashion, Abloh was a huge inspiration to younger creatives.

KING: And what did that look like?

BATES: Well, with his company Off-White, Virgil Abloh was one of the early adopters of streetwear and the crossover of streetwear into fashion. Others would eventually follow, but he was way ahead of them. Here's Booth Moore again.

MOORE: He had this sort of clever way of labeling things in his line where, you know, it would be the actual name of the thing like shoe or hoodie. And so, you know, that kind of created this mystique around the items.

KING: He also had very close professional relationships with Kanye West and Jay-Z, and those collaborations were incredibly important. Tell us about why.

BATES: Yeah, collaboration really was one of the through lines in his work. He melded pop culture with haute couture, and he took a lot of his influences from what young people were wearing and interested in. Abloh's collaborated not only with celebrities but with companies like Nike, Evian, the fancy outerwear company Moncler. He designed furniture for IKEA and had a big show at the Gagosian gallery in London with artist Takashi Murakami, whose own work is saturated with pop culture references. I mean, he was everywhere.

KING: He was everywhere. IKEA - I had no idea. What do you think, ultimately, Mr. Abloh will be remembered for?

BATES: I asked Booth Moore about this, and she responded immediately.

MOORE: Virgil was a catalyst for a lot of what is now expected of the industry and that it's slowly coming around to.

BATES: And, you know, Noel, The New York Times says Virgil Abloh's role at LVMH, quote, "made him the most powerful Black executive in the most powerful luxury group in the world." In an industry that's still grappling with race and diversity, his death is going to leave a huge hole that will be really hard to fill.

KING: Karen Grigsby Bates, senior correspondent with NPR's Code Switch podcast. Thank you, Karen.

BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF LIAM THOMAS' "NEEDED LOVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
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