ROCKFORD — The impact of Virgil Abloh can be heard through music, seen in design and felt in the way Rockford creatives pursue their crafts.
Abloh, a Rockford native who went on to become one of the most influential and creative figures in art, fashion, music, and design, died Nov. 28 at the age of 41. According to his verified Instagram account, he was privately battling a rare form of cancer for the past two years.
Abloh’s story — from being a Boylan Catholic High School graduate to working with Nike on popular Jordan sneakers to being the first Black artistic director of the Louis Vuitton menswear collection — serves as inspiration for Rockford designers, rappers, and entrepreneurs alike.
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“The same way a lot of athletes would look up to Fred VanVleet or James Robinson saying if they made it out of here why can’t I do it? Why can’t I push myself to do more?” John Thomas Johnson III, owner of the streetwear brand Muse Collective said, “The same way that us creatives look at Virgil Abloh.”
Johnson has seen Abloh three times without actually meeting or speaking with him. To his surprise, it was his Rockford connection while working at JMK Nippon that would bring him closer to one of his idols.
Johnson would always wear Off-White sneakers to work and one day while serving at the popular Japanese restaurant Abloh’s wife’s family noticed his sneakers and struck a conversation with him.
Johnson would go on to express his admiration for Alboh’s work and what he thought about him as an artist. The family appreciated the fact that he was no novice to Abloh’s work and could speak from a genuine appreciation for his art.
“They became to understand and realize, you really look up to this man. And I’m like yeah, he is one of the reasons why I push to do what I do with Muse Collective,” Johnson said.
In 2020, Johnson was presented with an opportunity from the family.
He recalls getting a text message from Abloh’s wife’s cousin in November saying that Abloh would sign a pair of shoes for him but couldn’t promise when it would be done.
“It was literally the next day. I got a text like, ‘Hey, I’m actually going to see him tonight. What do you want him to sign on it?” Johnson said.
Abloh signed “Air Muse” on his pair of Nike Air Force 1 Off-White MCA’s, a special edition shoe that was originally released at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.
In July, Johnson got word that Abloh would be willing to sign another pair for him. This time it was the Jordan 1 Off-White Chicago edition, arguably Abloh’s most popular rendition of one of the most popular pairs of Jordans of all time.
Abloh signed this pair, “Air JT.”
“Air Muse, that’s my work. That’s my brand, he signed my likeness. That makes me want to push to go even harder,” Johnson said. “I’m a kid with a dream just like he was. If I ever get to that point or when I get to the point of success that he’s at, that’s something I’ll never forget.”
Onaje Kaufman, co-owner of the high-end streetwear brand Lanor, spends his time with the company filling in the gaps between designing and selling their pieces. Everything from website designs to marketing is spearheaded by Kaufman.
Kaufman describes Lanor as a luxury brand that seeks to bring vintage clothing and streetwear aesthetics into the modern era.
Lanor’s “Dog Tee,” is an example of the blended styles. The piece features an oversized look with cut and sewn custom measurements and features graphics inspired by the rapper DMX.
“That middle ground that kind of makes Lanor, Lanor if you will. Just trying to find that space where all these things can kind of coexist,” Kaufman said.
The blending of these fashion styles is something Kaufman says can be attributed to Abloh’s work and his ability to pioneer a new type of fashion and redefine what high-end fashion is.
For Kaufman, high-end fashion brands like Louis Vuitton, Christian Dior, or Balenciaga have traditionally been whitewashed but Abloh helped minorities feel like their brands could have a seat at the table.
“You can use off-white as an example bringing it to the forefront of people’s mind that as a Black man you can have a high-end fashion brand. … That it can coexist among these brands that have been around for decades,” Kaufman said.
For brands like Lanor, Abloh’s success can now be used as a way to measure what the finish line could possibly look like.
“The same way people were looking at like Jordan and being like, I want to be him when I grow up,” Kaufman said. “It’s the ability to study. He specifically laid the framework.”
Abloh’s influence has touched people across the planet and even Rockford creatives that live in other countries have been inspired by seeing his work.
“Seeing the global impact of a fellow Black creative from Rockford started off as something surreal, and immediately morphed into an enhanced confidence in myself,” said Rockford native and recording artist Byron Emerson, who currently lives in the Netherlands. “I felt that I was on that right path artistically and could try whatever I wanted.
For Emerson, seeing someone from his city reach the heights Abloh did motivates him to succeed as a Rockford native.
“Most people over here link Virgil to Chicago, but when I go down the list of Rockford greats, they have a new understanding and appreciation,” Emerson said. “It makes me proud to be from Rockford and motivated to continue to grow our narrative in this world.
On Dec. 1, the city of Rockford held a news conference in front of the Coronado Performing Arts Center, to honor Abloh’s life, accomplishments and to proclaim Dec. 1 as Virgil Abloh Day.
“As someone who is a hometown person. and someone who reached such great heights in his industry we thought it was important that we recognize him,” said Mayor Tom McNamara.
Shaquil Manigault: [email protected]; @RRstarShaquil