Virgil Abloh Was a Powerful Bridge Between Rap and Luxury Fashion

Virgil Abloh didn’t just celebrate rap from afar, but amidst its creators. He was the rare high fashion designer who loved hip-hop as much as hip-hop loved him.

Virgil Abloh Was a Powerful Bridge Between Rap and Luxury Fashion
Complex Original

Complex Original

Virgil Abloh Was a Powerful Bridge Between Rap and Luxury Fashion

Famed designer Virgil Abloh, who tragically passed away at the age of 41 on Sunday, said music was “his only peace of mind.” In 2016, he told The Guardian, “When the phone is off, I play my favorite songs really loud for myself,” and he predicted, “I’ll be DJing after I’m done designing or doing anything else.” 

Many of us love music as much as Abloh expressed, but few are blessed to indulge in it between (or in the midst of) the many creative ventures he explored—nor do we get the chance to amplify the artists we love through our own passions. In addition to his pursuits as a designer, Abloh worked hand in hand with a who’s who of rap, even designing album covers and directing music videos for artists like Kanye, ASAP Rocky, and Pop Smoke, among many others. 

Rappers have a long history of dropping the names of luxury brands as status symbols, but Abloh was the rare high-fashion designer who loved hip-hop as much as the game loved him. There have been artists who sold enough records or caused enough cultural commotion for the average Louis Vuitton, Gucci, or Givenchy director to get a whiff of them and send an invitation to sit at a Fashion Week show. But Virgil listened to rap while creating his collections, and he was on the ground enough to participate in the come-ups of artists like Pop Smoke and Octavian. Rap was an integral part of his process, not an afterthought.

Virgil, like the rappers he loved, was using his gifts to infiltrate the establishment.

The Chicago native has said that he started DJing in 1998, and was inspired by turntablists such as “his idol” A-Trak, as well as Roc Raida, Invisibl Skratch Piklz, and Mix Master Mike. He explored his passion for music even while ascending in the fashion world after interning at Fendi in 2009 (alongside his close friend Kanye West). His proximity to Kanye helped lead to other relationships in rap, which he carried on as the founder of Off-White, creative director of Kanye’s creative agency DONDA, and later the artistic director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear.

Abloh told Highsnobiety, “I made my DJ career where I could fit in, and that was usually in a hip-hop club,” boasting about being one of “the first kids playing Travis Scott in a club that was selling bottles.” He did DJ sets all over the world, including opening for Travis during the 2017 Birds Eye View Tour and doing a set for fashion brand The Hundreds’ 10th Anniversary party. He did sets at major festivals, including 2018’s Camp Flog Gnaw and 2019’s Tomorrowland, and even got the honor of debuting the full version of his friend Kanye’s “Fade” during a November 2015 set in London. Drake complimented Virgil’s DJing skills during a 2018 Brooklyn performance, noting, “I thought this shit was like a party in the club, but shit is like a festival.”

Kanye West and Virgil Abloh

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Rappers’ presence at his shows wasn’t just about the jewelry, though. Abloh’s journey in the high-fashion world paralleled artists’ own mission statements. After creating Off-White, he told Business Of Fashion in 2016 that “streetwear is seen as cheap. What my goal has been is to add an intellectual layer to it and make it credible.” In that same manner, many rappers aim to intellectualize their surroundings and vie to be seen as “credible” musicians in the eyes of skeptics. 

He added, “I have to prove that this is design. I have to prove that this is art. I have to prove that this is valid.” Like it or not, the search for validation is at the heart of so many of our actions. That dynamic is reflected in the rap world, where Black artists fight every day against ol’ boys’ clubs, award committees, politicians, pundits, and music snobs to validate their artistry and existence. Virgil, like the rappers he loved, was using his gifts to infiltrate the establishment. They were proving a point—and sometimes they did so together.  

Virgil ideated numerous album covers for rap superstars, including three of Kanye’s solo albums, the Kanye and Jay-Z collab album Watch the Throne, ASAP Rocky’s Long.Live.A$AP, 2 Chainz’s Based on a T.R.U. Story, and Lil Uzi Vert’s Luv Is Rage 2. He also directed the videos for ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa,” Lil Uzi Vert’s, “XO Tour Llif3,” and Pop Smoke’s “Shake the Room.” He did the latter visual early last year while fighting cancer, and after doing two Paris Fashion Week shows, a testament to how much passion he had for his craft. One could quibble about the results of some of his work at another time, but right now, it’s the action that counts. As much as rappers shouted out Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and prestigious members of fashion houses, those designers weren’t acknowledging rap as a whole, much less directing videos or designing album art. Virgil was.

One can parse the annals of rap to know which fashion brands were en vogue during a particular era. A song from ’95 will name-check different brands than a song from ’04, and so on. For most of the 2010s, Off-White was the brand du jour, whether artists were simply name-dropping or using Off-White and yellow tape as clever wordplay. Abloh’s work had become part of the modern rap zeitgeist, and he, in turn, amplified artists’ work through his DJing.

There have been plenty of beloved Black fashion designers, but few in the luxury fashion realm, which has long banked on Black people championing their supremacy without offering much in return. But over the past five years or so, through Virgil, the boasts didn’t feel as aspirational as they did an affirmatory stamp of one of their own. Virgil got the validation he was seeking from the people who counted. And in turn, he offered his access and creative eye to their endeavors. Virgil didn’t just celebrate rap from afar, but amidst its creators. 

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