Shannon Abloh Is Ready to Talk
In early November, a few weeks before the first anniversary of the death of her husband, Virgil Abloh — founder of Off-White, men’s wear designer of Louis Vuitton, Nike collaborator, artist, all-around design polymath and master of quotation marks — Shannon Abloh flew from Chicago to New York to accept an award on his behalf.
The award was being bestowed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America during a gala evening, and though Mr. Abloh had been nominated often during his lifetime and had always put on his tux and gone to the ceremony, Ms. Abloh had not. She had stayed at home with their two young children and dogs, just as she had stayed in the background when her husband went to the Met Gala with Kendall Jenner, or was a D.J. at Coachella.
As public as Mr. Abloh had been, jetting around the world, sending WhatsApp messages to his various artistic circles from around the globe, Ms. Abloh had been private. She had never given an interview. There are few photographs of the couple together. When Rihanna and ASAP Rocky and Lauryn Hill and Tyler the Creator went to Chicago for Mr. Abloh’s memorial service at the Museum of Contemporary Art last December, it was the first time many of them had ever been in the Ablohs’ home.
“It was never a thing that we discussed,” Ms. Abloh said as she was getting ready to go to the awards, referring to her decision to remain out of the spotlight. “It was just the way our relationship worked.” She was camped out at the Mercer Hotel, wearing faded boyfriend jeans and a T-shirt with a pair of Off-White x Nike Air Force 1s that Mr. Abloh had dyed purple for her because purple is her favorite color.
“We knew we wanted to build this close family, and we needed someone to be the stable partner,” she said. “I was happy to do that.”
Now, however, the spotlight has found her. After a year of standing by politely as pundits and boldfaced names expounded on Mr. Abloh’s life and work and what he would have wanted, Ms. Abloh, 41, has decided it is time to define her husband’s legacy herself.
“It belongs to me, it belongs to his children,” she said. “After his passing, so many people came up to me and said, ‘Virgil was my best friend.’ His best friend in the fashion industry, his best friend in the music world. A lot of his collaborators, or even people who maybe weren’t that close to him, feel ‘I can do this to help his legacy, or I can do that to help his legacy.’ It’s like this train that’s going 500 miles per hour, and I just thought: I have to stay on this train, because if I don’t, I don’t know where it’s going to go. That’s my place and my position.”
Shannon Abloh, right, in an Off-White dress, with Aurora James of Brother Vellies, at the CFDA awards, at which Ms. Abloh accepted a posthumous award on her husband’s behalf.Credit…Nina Westervelt for The New York Times
Last May, she created Virgil Abloh Securities, to unite his creative ventures, including Alaska Alaska, which is a creative studio in London, and a joint venture with Nike called Architecture; she is chief executive. This week, she will introduce a four-day festival, organized by VA Securities and Nike, during Miami Art Week and designed to celebrate Mr. Abloh’s life and open-source his ideas. She hopes it will become an annual event.
Centered at the Rubell Museum, it will include discussions, workshops, an exhibition and the Nike Air Terra Forma, the first sneaker Mr. Abloh created from scratch for Nike and its next big release. There will also be a music festival, with performers chosen by Ms. Abloh, and a skateboarding competition.
“It’s a stake in the ground,” said Howard Feller, who became Mr. Abloh’s business adviser in 2017 and now works with Ms. Abloh. A notice to the world she is in charge.
Then, next spring, as president of the Virgil Abloh Foundation, she will host an inaugural summit of his closest collaborators, who will brainstorm ways to increase creative opportunities for the next generation of minority students. She is creating an archive. And she is ready to talk about what it all means.
‘I Knew Every Inch of His Brain.’
“Something you have to understand is, there wasn’t a plan,” Ms. Abloh said, sitting on a couch at the Mercer.
On the table were her two phones: one for work and one for family. On one hand was a large, emerald-cut engagement ring Mr. Abloh gave to her when he re-proposed at a joint birthday party in August 2021. On the other was his wedding band and a silver ring he had commissioned from Chrome Hearts that said “Ablohs” and that had arrived after his death. On one wrist was the gold Cartier love bracelet he gave her when she was pregnant with their first child, Lowe, now 9, and a gold Cartier nail bracelet he gave her for Christmas in 2017.
Amid the Cartiers was a child’s alphabet bead bracelet that reads: “I love you.” Their son Grey, 6, made it for her in September on what would have been Mr. Abloh’s 42nd birthday, because, she said, he “knew I was sad.”
“I’m going to cry now,” Ms. Abloh said, clasping her hands. Her friend Marcie Haley, whom she has known since her early 20s, and who had come along to keep her company, jumped up and handed her a tissue.
Ms. Abloh got two tattoos after Mr. Abloh’s death, one on the inside of each wrist. Scott Campbell, the celebrity tattoo artist, had attended the memorial and had offered to do whatever she wanted. Mr. Abloh had gone through a major tattoo period, so Ms. Abloh thought it made sense. On their wedding anniversary in 2021, Mr. Abloh had written her a love letter, so on her left wrist is a quote — “Like a ton of bricks,” inked in his handwriting (“He always said ‘I love you like a ton of bricks,’” Ms. Abloh said) — and on her right, the source: “A love letter.”
“It wasn’t like we knew that he was going to pass,” Ms. Abloh said. Mr. Abloh learned he had cardiac angiosarcoma, a rare heart cancer, in July 2019, but they had decided to keep his illness secret from all but his closest friends. He didn’t want people to look at him and think, “Are you OK?”
“Even though we knew the challenge of what he was fighting, it went a lot faster than we thought it was going to,” Ms. Abloh said. “So we never had the ‘this is the legacy that I want you to work toward’ discussion. But because I was with him for so long, I knew every inch of him. I knew every inch of his brain.”
The two met at a high school soccer game when she was 17 and he was 18. They were both living in Rockford, Ill., going to different schools. She was dating someone else, but the next week Mr. Abloh put two dozen red roses on her car — she drove a black Nissan Pathfinder — with a letter explaining why she should dump her boyfriend and start dating him.
After that, even when he went to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to study civil engineering because his father wanted him to and she was finishing her senior year, they stayed together. They were together through her time studying marketing at Edgewood College in Madison and his time studying architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and through her first years in the city. She lived with two girlfriends in a walk-up then, and he, instead of being an architect, started working for Kanye West.
They were together, she said, from when he drove a green Honda and wore JNCO jeans and a Ralph Lauren polo shirt and “thought square boxes were so cool for houses.” (At the time, Ms. Abloh liked “ornate French décor.”) When Mr. Abloh was flying around the world with Mr. West, she was working at Yahoo and would join him when she could.
He proposed by telling her he had to go to Australia and asked her to drop him off at the airport. When she got out of the passenger side at O’Hare to swap seats and drive back home, he was on his knee on the ground. At first, she said, she thought he had fallen out of the car.
She stopped working after the birth of their daughter, but “Virgil and I talked about everything,” she said. “He would show me sketches for his latest collection, play me his D.J. sets.”
Michael Burke, the chief executive of Louis Vuitton, who was one of the few people who knew about Mr. Abloh’s diagnosis, remembered seeing Ms. Abloh backstage at her husband’s first Vuitton show, standing in the shadows as guests fought to air-kiss Virgil or take selfies with Virgil.
“She’d just be watching,” he said. “Very proud and also a little incredulous.”
Friends would wonder how Ms. Abloh managed not to be insecure about her husband being endlessly photographed with Bella Hadid. “She just wasn’t,” Ms. Haley said.
According to Antwaun Sargent, a curator of Mr. Abloh’s “Figures of Speech” show at the Brooklyn Museum, “the notion of home mattered deeply to him. It was at the root of the pathways he established for folks coming in behind him.”
In July 2020, Mr. Abloh sold Off-White to LVMH, mostly to ensure its future and to take on a larger role in that organization, but also because it meant Ms. Abloh and the children “would be taken care of,” Mr. Burke said.
During pandemic lockdowns, the family mostly stayed at their weekend house in Lake Geneva, Wis. “I know that Covid was an incredibly hard thing for so many people,” Ms. Abloh said. “But for us it was an amazing time because Virgil didn’t have to make excuses to get out of shows or D.J.-ing. No one could go anywhere. So we were able to have those last two and a half years.”
The 50-Year Plan
At home in Chicago, Ms. Abloh has a table in her bedroom stacked with books, including multiple copies of Joan Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking,” about the period after her husband’s death. People kept sending it.
“I think I’ll get to it one day for sure,” Ms. Abloh said. “But grief does this crazy thing to your brain where some days it’s kind of hard to just sit and focus. For probably the first six months of the year my short-term memory was gone. I kept thinking: ‘Is this normal?’ It’s starting to feel a little clearer, and I’m able to, you know, get sentences out that make sense.”
Also at home are her sneakers, “the sneaker collection that sneakerheads would dream of,” she said: all 70 models Mr. Abloh made for Nike and some prototypes that were never produced. And all of his shoes. Their son keeps asking if they will fit him one day.
She is still close to most of his friends and his family. “There’s a big group of guys that will do a big group chat, and they’ll FaceTime with Grey and Lowe and just make them laugh. We all went to Disneyland for Lowe’s birthday in March.”
Ms. Abloh is beginning to sort through the various storage units he had around the world — about 20, she thinks — to collate his work. “I call it my grief work,” she said. “It helps me feel closer to him.”
The basement of the house at Lake Geneva alone is crammed with turntables and art and Birkin bags and awards and records, Ms. Haley said. Ms. Abloh said she used to call Mr. Abloh “squirrel” because he was forever tucking away pieces of paper with his ideas on them. John Hoke, the chief creative officer of Nike who worked with Mr. Abloh on their collaborations, said there is at least a year’s worth of Off-White x Nike products already in the pipeline, and Nike is planning with Architecture for what comes next. At Alaska Alaska, Ms. Abloh said there are “hundreds of projects that he worked on that he never put out,” that she wants to bring to fruition.
“We are on the 50-year plan,” said Mr. Feller, the business adviser.
The word most of Mr. Abloh’s former partners use when talking about Ms. Abloh is “gracious,” but when it comes to her husband’s designs, another word that comes up a lot is “uncompromising.”
“It’s going to happen the way he wanted it to happen, or it’s not going to happen at all,” said Anne Pasternak, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, who planned Mr. Abloh’s exhibition with him and then worked with Ms. Abloh after his death. But, Mr. Burke said, she’s “not Yoko Ono.” Ms. Haley just calls her very “loyal.”
Ms. Abloh has mostly stepped away from Off-White, which is being led by Ibrahim Kamara. Though Mr. Abloh was perhaps most famous because of his work in fashion, he didn’t really think of himself as a designer. (He famously called himself a “maker.”) Design was just a means to an end, which had to do with visibility and representation — the idea that nothing was off limits to a creative mind, no matter where that mind came from, not commercial icons like Coke or Ikea or artists like Takashi Murakami or even the Chicago skyline. That was the crux of his art, and that is what Ms. Abloh sees as the essence of the Virgil Abloh Foundation.
“He didn’t want to be the only Black man in the room sitting at the table,” she said. He wanted not just to model a future for “kids that didn’t know they could be an architect, or the designer of Vuitton instead of a basketball player or a football player,” she said, but also to help make that happen. So while he may have been the first, he won’t ever be the last. “That’s what the foundation will focus on: 12- to 17-year-olds, to give them the portfolios they need. I know what he would want, and I feel just as strongly as he did about it — even though I’m a white female.”
She talks regularly to a therapist who was also Mr. Abloh’s therapist and who, she said, “knows how he thought,” and she is building a house. The house her family lives in now “has beautiful memories,” she said, “but it has a lot of sad memories, too.”
In the Mercer, Ms. Abloh was changing into a black Off-White dress for the CFDA gala. Later she would be hugged by Kim Kardashian, who was also getting an award, and the designer Jerry Lorenzo, who had worked with Mr. Abloh when they were starting out with Mr. West. She would get on a plane the next morning at 9 so she would be home when her children got back from school. She was looking forward to Miami.
“I think that it’s important that my kids are able to see in 20 years what their dad was able to do and that Mom really stepped up,” she said. That “through everything, through all the grief, she was able to pull it together and move forward.”
Mr. Abloh used to laugh about her reluctance to go to big events, she said, and would say, “‘I’m going to get you there eventually, Shannon.’” She looked as if she couldn’t decide if she should laugh or cry. “Now here I am,” she said, “thinking, ‘Darn it, you got me.’”