I wore Virgil Abloh sneakers on my wedding day. After I quit my job in late 2019, I planned a wedding in like two weeks. I booked a venue, found a place for brunch afterward and figured out which dive bar would let us chill in the back all night. Having a relatively low-key wedding meant that I was able to do all this without spending that much money, so I splurged. I paid resale, which at that time was $969, for Abloh’s Nike Blazer from the Serena Williams “Queen” line. It’s a cool pair of sneakers, but this was obviously very stupid even at the time. I had no job lined up. I would only have health insurance once we submitted our wedding license at City Hall. But I wanted to look good on my wedding day. Ralph Lauren suit, Nike/Virgil Abloh/Off-White™ sneakers, tie from the Calvin Klein outlet at Franklin Mills. A nice mix of expensive and cheap. It was exactly what I wanted.
Wearing Virgil Abloh’s clothing always gives me that feeling. His clothes were usually too expensive for me—an Off-White sweatshirt would run you upwards of $600, or whatever—but changing tides in my life (quitting drinking, getting better-paying jobs, sneaker reselling) eventually got me into an income bracket where I could occasionally buy his gear. I can even remember where I got them: Several pieces came from the Century 21 discount store in Lower Manhattan, where I got an oversized sweatshirt and some Champion collaboration sweatpants. I got a crewneck sweatshirt for an unbelievably low price when Barney’s was closing. And I had a bunch of pairs of the sneaker he’d done with Nike; besides the Serenas, I got my other pairs at retail because I’m that type of guy. My wife even has the Off-White Chucks.
Abloh died over the weekend, of cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare cancer. He was a clothing designer and entrepreneur and DJ and a few other things. By most reports he was also a very nice man, and always open to thoughtful collaborations with others. He was relentlessly positive with his feedback. But it was his clothing that did the trick for me.
Abloh went to school for architecture before almost falling into fashion. He met Kanye West while working at a Chicago print shop and joined West’s DONDA content company. I first learned of him when he founded a company called Pyrex Vision that bought deadstock flannels from Ralph Lauren’s soon-to-be-defunct Rugby sub-brand, screenprinted PYREX 23 on them, and sold them for $550—a markup of about 700 percent. (The PYREX 23 t-shirts were printed on Champion blanks.) “Pyrex was a reference to the bakeware used to cook crack cocaine; twenty-three was Michael Jordan’s jersey number when he was on the Chicago Bulls,” The New Yorker later wrote. “These things represented, to Abloh, the two economic paths available to a black man who wanted to get out of Chicago: drug dealing and sports.”
You may find this idea incredibly stupid, and you would be right to do so. It absolutely is. But to me, it also rules. High-end fashion houses have been trading on their name for generations; why not just make a name out of whole cloth and do it instead? “The Pyrex customer might not really care about Rugby blanks,” Chris Gibbs, owner of sneaker store Union, said at the time. “In fact they might like the whole ‘FUCK IT’ kind of ‘by any means necessary’ mentality and the ‘LO’ reference, of course.” I didn’t buy a Pyrex Vision shirt, but I did understand this mentality. I wanted to say FUCK IT, too.
Abloh’s whole line of work espoused that weird and singular dedication to contradiction with a playfulness seldom seen elsewhere. His brand, Off-White—usually styled OFF-WHITE c/o VIRGIL ABLOH—used dumb quotes as a signifier. When he collaborated with Nike on a version of the Air Jordan 1, perhaps the greatest sneaker of all time, he put the word “AIR” in Helvetica on the midsole.
“People forget that there’s an air pocket in the Jordan 1,” Abloh explained in the 2017 book Sneakers. “Maybe they don’t forget, but it’s not a visible air pocket. You don’t always know that it’s there, so that’s where writing ‘air’ in quotes comes from. Everything in quotes represents a lifetime of thinking for me and here, writing the word ‘air’ in quotes is humorous, you know? It’s personality.”
Again, maybe this means nothing to you. To me, it meant a lot. It was exactly what I was looking for in a design. By taking apart the Air Jordan 1, he somehow made it feel new. His work at Off-White—and his endless collaborations, from IKEA to Sunglass Hut to Evian—almost always really hit in my wheelhouse: A mix of high and low culture, something that was maybe just out of reach at its usual price point but could also be attained with some saving or luck or hustle. He took influence from bootlegs and high art. I do not think we had too much in common—for one, he worked 90-hour weeks, and I’m considering taking a nap after I file this story. But I like to think I shared his sensibility. I am still just learning design in order to run a merchandise store; I have taken a lot from his work in trying to figure out how to do mine. I learned from him that my designs should be what I can make them. For now that’s the design sensibility of a 14-year-old kid with his first pirated copy of Adobe Photoshop, but maybe I’ll get better.
Abloh said that his brand was always “staying in between two things, not trying to go left or right. That’s my magic: That’s how I get the balance between is it chic or is it street? Is it Canal Street or is it Madison Avenue?” This, more than anything, is what makes me feel good about being in his clothes. Is it a bootleg or is it high fashion? Is it a sweatshirt or is it actually art? When I put on my new Off-White x Jordan sweatshirt for the first time I will get that feeling again, I’m sure. I will miss his work.
Virgil Abloh is survived by his wife, Shannon Abloh, and two children, Grey and Lowe. He was 41.