Calyann Barnett still remembers one of her last interactions with Virgil Abloh.
The conversation spanned a few minutes over text. Barnett wanted Abloh’s help deciding the font for her new apparel store, The Shop Miami. He responded almost immediately, choosing the very logo that hung above the entryway when Barnett’s brainchild opened its doors Tuesday.
“A lot of people wouldn’t take the time to answer,” said Barnett, who doubles as Dwyane Wade’s creative director. “But once again— you can see how much he’s touched. He wanted to contribute regardless of what it was on if it was something you cared about it.”
Abloh, who died Sunday from a rare form of cancer at the age of 41, had his fingerprints on so many different areas of art — fashion, architecture, music – that his spirit could be seen throughout Miami Art Week. In Wynwood, graffiti artist Alec Monopoly painted an angelic Abloh mural within 24 hours of his passing. In Allapatah, the Rubell Museum exhibited a Maybach designed by Abloh’s Off-White fashion label and Mercedes-Benz.
And in Virginia Key, the site of Abloh’s final Vuitton show, the French fashion house paid tribute to a man who, in July, became the most powerful Black executive in the luxury goods market when LVMH announced it was buying a 60 percent stake in Off-White, the luxury fashion line he founded in 2013.
“Virgil’s career and his approach and his ethos perfectly embodied what Art Basel Miami Beach, as an event is, which is this moment where all the different creative worlds collide, collaborate, catalyze new things,” said Marc Spiegler, the global director of Art Basel.
It is in the Miami Design District, however, that Abloh’s imagination ran wild.
From his “Dollar A Gallon III” sculpture to his 25-foot multi-colored effigies both inside and outside the recently opened Louis Vuitton men store, the neighborhood acted as a canvas for a creator often led by his inner child. Just a few blocks away, the first floor inventory of the Off-White store had been replaced with bouquets of flowers and heartfelt messages scribbled on post-it notes, a clear indication that the Design District and Abloh had a mutual love.
“For him to be Black and from Chicago and to see the way he mixed all those elements together and looked comfortable everywhere in the world and in any kind of setting, is another form of genius,” said Franklin Sirmans, the director of Pérez Art Museum Miami. “The mix between art and fashion is something that has been talked about for a long time but I don’t know of anyone from our community who has elevated it in that way.”
Virgil, the mentor
Although Abloh had an eye for all things cool, the journey from child of Ghanaian immigrants to artistic director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear didn’t happen singularly. It came with help, particularly from that of Kanye West, a fellow Chicago son who mentored Abloh. What West and others poured into Abloh, he poured right back.
This generosity stood out to Craig Robins, the CEO of Dacra Development, the Miami real estate firm behind the Design District, from their first meeting in the mid-2010s. One of Robins’ fondest memories of Abloh’s work in the Design District was his 2018 Basel activation that included a T-shirt print shop, providing the next generation of designers access to Miami’s Mecca of high fashion.
“There was just so much generosity in spirit and creative power with Virgil,” said Robins.
As the first Black man to lead the famed French fashion house, Abloh forced the world of high fashion to accept hip-hop culture. That could be seen Tuesday night at the Louis Vuitton fashion show, pegged to Miami Art Week, with a grinning West affectionately shaking Pharrell’s shoulders as Clipse’s “Momma I’m So Sorry” blared over the speakers on a barge off Miami Marine Stadium.
To see Black and brown bodies not only parade down the runway but mingle comfortably in the crowd is a change that Barnett, who opened her Wynwood store earlier that day, hopes remains permanent.
“He opened up every single avenue and arena for every single little Black boy or girls,” said Barnett, who attended the show.
One such Black designer is Udo Ihem, the founder of apparel brand Fifty Karats. A first-generation Nigerian-American, Ihem was inspired by Abloh. Similar to Abloh, Ihem’s parents didn’t want their son to pursue a career in fashion yet watching a Ghanaian from Chicago flourish gave him hope.
“Virgil showed us that it’s OK to do what you want to do,” said Ihem. The Miramar native went back to college out of respect for his parents’ sacrifices after learning that Abloh had a master’s degree. “He still went and followed his dreams.”
Ihem has already learned about the power of collaboration — he and two of his friends, the musician Twelve’Len and visual artist Alejandro “Carela” Diaz, own the gallery-studio hybrid Velvet Velour in Wynwood.
Paying homage to Abloh’s Off-White wrapped Lamborghini Aventador that debuted in 2018, Ihem outfitted a Porsche 718 with his Fifty Karats branding during Miami Art Week.
“If Virgil was around, it was all about the statement pieces for the brand,” Ihem said. “He was a marketing genius. So this time around, it was how can we market to that level of genius.”