When I saw eclectic designer/artist/DJ Virgil Abloh’s name trending on Twitter yesterday, I expected that he was sharing more big plans for next week’s Art Basel Miami Beach, for which he had already announced a Louis Vuitton menswear show and the debut of an electric Maybach that he collaborated on with Mercedes-Benz. But instead of another one of the intriguing partnerships he was famous for, there was shocking and tragic news: Abloh had died at 41 of a rare heart-related cancer — cardiac angiosarcoma — for which he had privately undergone treatment since 2019.
That year, he took a two-month medical leave, and it was easy to believe his doctor had simply told him to slow down and travel less, because Abloh’s creative work was nonstop. While he continued to run Off-White, the luxury streetwear company he founded in 2012, Abloh had in March 2018 been named men’s artistic director for Louis Vuitton — making him the first African-American artistic director at the world’s largest luxury company. (He was not the first Black artistic director of a brand that fell under the umbrella of Vuitton’s parent company LVMH: British designer Ozwald Boateng designed for its Givenchy line from 2003 to 2007.) As a trailblazer, Abloh felt a profound responsibility to open doors for others. Before his debut show in June 2018, in which the first 17 looks were worn by Black models, musicians, and artists, Abloh told GQ:
“I now have a platform to change the industry with this show. So I should do that. It’s no secret: we’re designers, so we can start a trend, we can highlight issues, we can make a lot of people focus on something or we can cause a lot of people to focus on ourselves. I’m not interested in [the latter].”
You want to know how bold that was? Just five years earlier, the billionaire designer Miuccia Prada, who was born into the world of Italian luxury-goods via a family business, had said, “I cannot change the rules,” when asked about using older models in her runway shows. “Let’s say I’m not brave enough. I don’t have the courage,” she said. In contrast, Abloh — whose parents immigrated from Ghana to Rockford, Ill., where hIs father worked at a paint company and his mother was a seamstress who taught her son to sew — saw himself as a “beacon of hope.” In the 2018 GQ article, Abloh said:
“I take pride in the fact that there’s a kid who’s living in, you know, Alabama, who never thought something like this was possible for him, almost to the point that he made life and career decisions to find some other thing he was passionate about. But all of a sudden, because I’m here, he knows [he can do it too].”
The fact that Abloh kept his cancer secret for two years while “undergoing numerous challenging treatments, all while helming several significant institutions that span fashion, art, and culture” (per his family’s statement on Instagram) made Black Panther actor Chadwick Boseman’s name trend on Twitter too. Boseman died last year of colon cancer at age 43, having kept his diagnosis private since 2016. He worked through surgeries and chemo and, like Abloh, was highly aware of his influence as a role model. As Addison Henderson, Boseman’s trainer and one of the small group of people who knew about the cancer, said, “He [Boseman] was just living his artistic life to the fullest and using his time and his moment to really affect people.”
Of course, it’s impossible to affect people positively if you’re denied opportunities because of your health. As Boseman’s agent, Michael Greene, noted, “He [Boseman] also felt in this business that people trip out about things.” Boseman filmed Black Panther after his diagnosis. That was the movie that made him a superstar, and who knows if he would have held onto that part if anyone knew about the cancer. Similarly, this July, Abloh sold a 60% stake in his Off-White brand to LVMH, giving him what he called “a seat at the table”; a larger role within the luxury conglomerate including its wine/spirits and hotel division; and even more opportunity to make change. In a press release, Abloh said:
“I’m … honored to use this partnership to deepen my longstanding commitment to expand opportunities for diverse individuals and foster greater equity and inclusion in the industries we serve. This is an incredible new platform to take the disruption we’ve achieved together to a whole new level.”
Racism made Boseman’s and Abloh’s careers particularly precarious, so I understand their need for secrecy — even though, as longtime readers may recall, I started my jewelry business with a partner who kept her cancer secret until her unexpected death in 2006. I know better than most that being one of the people kept in the dark carries its own kind of emotional trauma, plus I experienced long-lasting financial consequences because my partner kept essential information about the business secret from me alongside her illness. So I’ve had to take a moment to process my feelings about Virgil Abloh’s 2021 deal with LVMH. Does Off-White have any value without Abloh’s creative genius? That remains to be seen. But does LVMH’s billionaire owner Bernard Arnault — one of the richest men in the world and a Trump ass-kisser — get any sympathy from me if, in fact, Abloh knowingly sold him a business that was about to lose its guiding light? No. Arnault has accumulated wealth of nearly $200 billion. He can buy his way out of any problem in the world. That’s why, despite my personal experience, I’m glad Abloh did what was best for him, his family, and all the talented Black people who have or will take inspiration from him.
Speaking of Abloh’s death reminds me that there are some other recent losses in the fashion and jewelry industries that I’ve meant to pay tribute to. Gone far too soon are these three:
- Beloved former Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz died at 59 from Covid-19 in April.
- Jewelry designer Alex Woo died of breast cancer at age 47 in March.
- Yupadee Kobkulboonsiri was 51 when she died from Covid-19 last year. The New York Times described her work as “otherworldly” and I agree.
In addition, Elsa Peretti — one of the most influential people in jewelry — died at age 80 this March. If you think about non-engagement-ring jewelry at Tiffany, you’re probably thinking about Peretti’s work. At one point, her designs accounted for 10% of Tiffany’s sales. (Not that you have to be familiar with Tiffany’s offerings to understand her influence: The open-heart pendant that’s been copied far and wide, in every material and at every price? That’s hers.) When Peretti contemplated walking away from Tiffany in 2013, the retailer came through with a $47.5 million deal to keep her.
- Learn more about Peretti, and see the famous photo taken by Helmut Newton, here.
- Peretti was a part of the glamorous Studio 54 scene. Check out Vanity Fair’s 2014 story about that.
Last, but certainly not least, the advertising world lost a creative giant when my personal friend Carl Spielvogel died at 92 this April. Carl went from writing the advertising column at the New York Times to becoming one of the partners in Backer Spielvogel Bates, the agency responsible for the famous slogan for Miller Lite beer: “Tastes Great, Less Filling.” Later, Carl and his wife, Barbaralee Diamondstein-Spielvogel, were major donors to liberal causes, Democratic candidates, and innumerable cultural, architectural and arts-related organizations. I probably saw them at events where they were being honored for their contributions more than I sat down to regular dinners with them! The last time I saw them, pre-pandemic, was at just such an event at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in November 2019. during which Carl stepped up with the money to allow La MaMa to complete an important building project. Always generous and good-humored, Carl will be greatly missed.