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Virgil Abloh dies at age 41

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, HOST:

The fashion designer Virgil Abloh has died. Abloh was the founder of the label Off-White and artistic director for Louis Vuitton Menswear, making him one of the most powerful Black designers in the world and a luminary who helped cement streetwear as high fashion. He was just 41 and had been battling a rare, aggressive form of cancer for the past two years. To tell us more, we have NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates. Thanks so much for joining us, Karen.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: Hi, David.

FOLKENFLIK: So Abloh was friends and creative collaborator with Kanye West before creating the brand Off-White and leading menswear at Louis Vuitton. Where did he sit in that world of streetwear and high fashion?

BATES: David, I talked with Booth Moore. She's the executive editor of the industry bible Women's Wear Daily. And she pointed out Abloh was a trailblazer and says his entry into fashion was unique.

BOOTH MOORE: He, you know, came up through pop culture, not through sort of traditional design channels. And he was very good at sort of bridging the gaps between different disciplines. He himself was a deejay and had a huge social media following before coming to fashion. And so he really kind of changed the image of what a fashion designer should be, which is someone who can bring together a lot of collaborators, who comes with a fan base.

BATES: Moore also said because of his nonlinear entry into fashion, Abloh was a huge inspiration to younger creatives.

FOLKENFLIK: And how would you describe his impact on the world of men's fashion?

BATES: Not just men's fashion, David - with his company Off-White, Virgil Abloh was one of the early adopters of streetwear and the crossover of streetwear into fashion. Here's Booth Moore again.

MOORE: He had this sort of clever way of labeling things in his line where it would be the actual name of the thing, like shoe or hoodie, and that would be sort of part of the labeling. And so, you know, that kind of created this mystique around the items.

FOLKENFLIK: So did he have a defining vision? Was there a through-line you could recognize that was present in his work?

BATES: Oh, yeah. Pop culture was really important to him, and he took a lot of his influences from what young people were wearing and interested in. He was a big collaborator. And because he had celebrity friends, he sometimes collaborated with people like Kanye, as you mentioned earlier, and Jay-Z on things that they were interested in. And it wasn't just individuals, David. Over the years, Abloh has collaborated with Nike, Evian, the fancy outerwear company Moncler. He worked with IKEA on furniture and had a big show at the Gagosian Gallery in London with artist Takashi Murakami, whose own work is saturated with pop culture references. I mean, he was everywhere.

FOLKENFLIK: What do you think Virgil Abloh will be remembered for?

BATES: I asked Booth more about this, and she responded immediately.

MOORE: Virgil was a catalyst for a lot of what is now expected of the industry and that it's slowly coming around to.

BATES: You know, David, The New York Times says Virgil Abloh's role at LVMH, the group that Louis Vuitton was part of, quote, "made him the most powerful Black executive in the most powerful luxury group in the world." And in an industry that is still grappling with race and diversity, his death is going to leave a huge hole that will be hard to fill.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Karen Grigsby Bates. She's senior correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team. Thanks, Karen.

BATES: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.