In honor of Black History Month, The Badger Herald is highlighting distinguished Black University of Wisconsin alumni. More than 300 individuals are recognized by the Wisconsin Alumni Association, 30 of which are Black. These alumni are lauded today for their contributions.
Virgil Abloh was never the “typical” college kid.
Instead of keg parties, Abloh hosted “sophisticated dinner parties.” He purportedly skipped his final critique on the day of his graduation to meet with Kanye West’s manager. He read fashion magazines, DJed on the weekends and dressed distinctively.
“He had the boldest, strongest fashion sense of anyone in Wisconsin,” Abloh’s college roommate Gabriel Stulman told The New York Times.“He looked like he was out of a magazine.”
His ascendancy in the worlds of fashion, music and art are practically unparalleled. It took only 20 years for Abloh to go from his “bunk-ass tower” at University of Wisconsin (otherwise known as Ogg Residence Hall) to the top menswear designer at Paris-based fashion brand Louis Vuitton. At age 37, he was the first African-American to lead the brand, and just one of two people of color leading major fashion labels.
While UW is just a blip in Abloh’s long and multi-faceted career, his time here was transformative.
To appease his parents, who weren’t thrilled at the job prospects available to skateboarding DJs, Abloh studied civil engineering. He approached it “irreverently” but left the university in 2003 with the knowledge that would form the base of his burgeoning career.
“[My degree] taught me how to multitask,” Abloh said in an interview with The Badger Herald when he returned to the university in 2015 to deliver a Red Talk and sell limited-edition Wisconsin t-shirts for charity. “Nothing that you learn is actually useless. I use my engineering degree all the time.”
Multi-tasking would soon be an invaluable skill for Abloh. After graduating from UW in 2003, he enrolled at the Illinois Institute of Technology to get his master’s in architecture. While absorbed in the architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas — both of whom would go on to influence his fashion — he printed graphics on t-shirts, started a website and cleverly engineered the aforementioned meeting with Kanye West’s manager.
As an intern at Fendi in 2009, Abloh met Kanye West. Soon, he would become West’s creative director and design the cover for West and Jay-Z’s album “Watch the Throne,” for which Abloh won a Grammy.
Both outsiders in the fashion industry, the two were kindred spirits.
“We were a generation that was interested in fashion and weren’t supposed to be there,” Abloh said. “We saw this as our chance to participate and make current culture. In a lot of ways, it felt like we were bringing more excitement than the industry was.”
Madtown runway: UW’s growing fashion scene gives students opportunities to advance design skillsAt just 38, University of Wisconsin graduate and long-term creative director for Kanye West, Virgil Abloh, broke through to become Read…
His first business, Pyrex Vision, was an experiment. He would buy Ralph Lauren shirts for $40 a piece, screen print them with his brand name and the number 23 (Michael Jordan’s jersey number), and flip them for $550 a pop. Within a year he shuttered the brand and launched in its wake Off-White, a now-famous Milan-based fashion brand that blends high and low fashion with strong lines, bold graphics and myriad influences, from Baja style to Martha Stewart.
Since then, Abloh has done so much work across so many disciplines that a professional biographer would have trouble keeping track. He has collaborated on 29-pairs-and-counting of deconstructed sneakers for Nike, apartment furniture for IKEA, a flurry of art installations with artist Takashi Murakami, a water bottle, an original outfit designed for Serena Williams and a t-shirt to raise money for Planned Parenthood Los Angeles. He has performed at Lollapalooza, made appearances in New York, and DJed in clubs across Europe as “DJ Flat White.” And just last year, In 2018, he was one of two designers named in Time’s “100 Most Influential People in the World.”
Abloh — a kid from Chicago who liked skateboarding and hip-hop, a civil engineering graduate of UW, a self-trained fashion designer — told W Magazine he is of a generation that has to blaze new trails to reach the top.
“I don’t come from where I’m supposed to come from,” Abloh said. “So I have to prove that this is design, that this is art, that this is valid.”