Virgil Abloh passed away in late November. But his influence on streetwear designers working in Africa lives on.
After Virgil Abloh’s death on November 28, the fashion establishment responded with an endless stream of tributes. The influence of the designer was outsize, extending into the corridors of music and culture with tastemakers like Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Pharrell Williams, Drake and more attending his funeral on December 6th. Still, Abloh was more than that. With western media and its hegemonic appetite to dominate the news, Abloh within the white/European gaze was only convenient.
As a first-generation American-Ghanaian born to immigrant parents, the impulse exists in the Black diaspora to see the designer through different lenses. For those on the continent, he was simply inspiring. Take, for example, his contributions to Ghana’s emerging skateboarding scene, partnering with skate-minded collectives to actualize the country’s first skate park in Accra. Skating and streetwear will always remain inextricably linked. Abloh was the artistic director at Louis Vuitton, a label steeped in French heritage. One of Abloh’s wondrous successes was having streetwear further breach the forcefield of luxury, looping in haute streetwear from his personal brand Off-White.
African streetwear is shaping up at the nexus of music and fashion weeks branding the continent anew. In the wake of Abloh’s demise, many African streetwear designers are coming to terms with what this means. Importantly, valorizing what he represented for them. “I found Virgil at a time in my life when I was going through dark stages,” Emeka Anazodo, co-founder of the fledgling, Lagos-based streetwear brand Pith Africa, said. Anazado had been considering leaving university to pursue his goal of building the brand alongside another creative outlet Headborn Studios. He recalls stumbling on one of Abloh’s lectures where he said, “I’m here to be an inspiration to the kids that were like me, are like me, that didn’t believe that design and fashion was for them.” "And that starts and ends my design mission,” Anazodo said, “Those words and moment instantly went on to become a monumental time of my life because it heralded the inception of a contingent safe space that conceived Pith Africa today and my many other dreams.”
In 2017, Anazado and his friends in Nigeria — namely Cosmas Ojemen and Adedayo Laketu — founded the brand, working it into themes of individuality and youth expression. “Virgil was a true innovator, his ideas of freedom to express without boundaries, to always be your inner child in a way that refreshing, creative, unique and unprecedented has been the founding ethos of my design philosophy and life in general," Anazodo said. "He affected me and a lot of other Africans, hence he’s the greatest representation to a lot of us in the fashion, design and creative scene.”
In Ghana, Abloh’s indigenous roots, the country holds certain tensions around fashion. From developed countries, fast fashion is shipped as unwanted garments through vestigial colonial pipelines, creating an environmental boogeyman like landfills. To that end, Ghana-based streetwear label Rebl has found inspiration from this quagmire by practicing a sustainability approach, new pieces made from waste materials. “Virgil was a disruptor and a history maker. He was involved in so many things that ended up shaking so much of what is culturally relevant now,” Kuuku Husni Sagoe, Rebl founder, said. “He had culture in a chokehold for a number of years. His works were, is and will forever be incredible — a complete spectacle. One thing I’ll forever be fascinated by is how he built his empire from the ground up, from Pyrex to Off-White, and still supported other labels without seeing them as competition and that is a remarkable trait. Such people only come around once in a generation.”
In South Africa, Abloh has greatly inspired Thato Matabane, the founder and creative director of Afrikanswiss. Since 2006, denim has been integral to the brand’s design DNA, offering appealing configurations of the material.
“For the mere fact that Virgil was my age and of Ghanaian descent with absolutely amazing talent, I fell in love with him as a genius,” Matabane said. “I believe he turned LV into a bigger giant and more than ever, most Black folk were drawn to it. He brought a different and fresh edge to the brand. My favorite though is Off-White. What a brand. His artistic spirit will live on for eternity. He has surely inspired me and a lot more Black designers and creatives and planted a seed that will grow eternally.”
Kojo Adesanya is the founder of Mojo Kojo. Launched in 2016, the British-Nigerian has established a signature for his label with African prints, creating a diasporic appeal with bucket hats, dungarees and cargo pants. “What I loved most about Virgil was willingness to uplift and advise several creatives. He mentored many young Africans and I truly thought I was up next. I looked forward to the opportunity to learn from him," Adesanya said. "Funny enough, now is when I’m learning all about him. I remember watching Virgil’s Harvard lecture on YouTube and a recurring theme was not limiting yourself and collaborating with others. One key quote from Virgil that resonates with me is, 'the only failure is to not try.' This mantra epitomizes Virgil’s energy as his work represented this by working across a range of art dimensions. With this mindset, I believe I can do anything I put my mind to, and so I will."
Abloh was many things, profoundly lionized as a designer, DJ, and a late-millenial pop cultural purveyor. To these designers and more, he will remain an avatar of what was possible.
Kulaperry is the founder of Fear No Man, one of Ghana’s most recognizable streetwear brands. The brand has already been endorsed by Ghanaian celebrities like Sarkodie, Stonebwoy, Blakk Cedi, Medikal and even popular private jet broker Kelvin Mensah. Speaking on Abloh's legacy, Kulaperry said: “He came, he conquered the world with his vision and made it clear that every man can accomplish anything they desire and if they stick to the truth. Many have gained strength and power to give and break through the impossible because of his influence. Many followed and wore him not as fashion but as a skin of belongingness. Many wore Virgil Abloh as an everlasting feeling. So I stand here, proud and tall for what this legend has done. He fought his battles in silence and cheered the crowd that there is hope for more.”