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African designers say fashion icon Abloh helped 'open door'

By Camille MALPLAT
Africa Virgil Abloh was artistic director for Louis Vuitton men's collections.  By FRANCOIS GUILLOT (AFP/File)
NOV 29, 2021 LISTEN
Virgil Abloh was artistic director for Louis Vuitton men's collections. By FRANCOIS GUILLOT (AFP/File)

African fashion designers on Monday paid tribute to American star designer Virgil Abloh for helping "open the door" and allowing them to be seen and heard in the global industry.

Artistic director for Louis Vuitton men's collections, Abloh, whose family was from Ghana, died on Sunday of cancer aged 41, after becoming the first major black designer to be recognised in an industry often criticised for its lack of diversity.

"Thank you Virgil for your bravery and talent, which disrupted and allowed so many people to be seen and heard. You held open the door, we'll never forget you," South African designer Thebe Magugu, the first African winner of the LVMH prize in 2019, wrote on Instagram.

Abloh's partnership with Kanye West took him from Chicago's skate and DJ culture to the heights of the fashion world, first with his own red-hot label Off-White, and then into the luxury industry in Paris.

His cancer diagnosis came just a year after he was appointed as head of menswear for Louis Vuitton, becoming the first black person to take an artistic director role at a top French fashion house.

Though born in the United States, Abloh has never forgotten his Ghanaian roots: in January 2021, the designer brought Kente, a traditional fabric worn in Ghana during major ceremonies, to the catwalks of Louis Vuitton.

"It is a huge loss for world fashion, all the more shocking because it was unexpected," said Cameroonian designer Imane Ayissi, who in 2020 joined the closed circle of fashion houses during haute couture week in Paris.

"He remains a model for part of the population by proving that it is possible to creatively and successfully manage one of the very top luxury houses, whatever one's origin and one's skin colour."

African streetwear

Nigerian designer Bubu Ogisi told AFP that as many Africans in the diaspora are taken away from their culture while growing up, fashion was one of the ways Abloh used to pay tribute.

Abloh also had a strong influence on streetwear brands in Africa, said Ogisi, director of the Iamisigo brand, whose creations showcase fabrics and techniques from the continent.

"A lot of friends who have street brands in Nigeria and in Ghana have taken references from Off-White," he said, referring to Abloh's luxury streetwear brand.

"Gone too soon, thanks for supporting African skaters," trendy Nigerian skate clothing brand Wafflesncream posted on Instagram on Monday.

A fan of hip-hop and urban culture, Abloh helped finance a skatepark in Ghana's capital Accra.

He had also worked with UNICEF to promote education and entrepreneurship in the West African country.

Throughout his career, the designer strove for more inclusiveness in the fashion industry.

In 2017, he confided during a conference at Harvard University that he found it difficult to see himself as a designer as designers did not look like him.

His career give hope to many black creators, in the West and on the African continent.

"A few black people in the world have risen above and really pioneered a shapeshifting idea that anyone can be anything and Virgil has been that guy from day one," said Adedayo Laketu, a young Nigerian designer who founded the couture brand Pith Africa.

"I want to do a billion more and go harder cause he has shown and told me it's possible."

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