MIAMI, United States — Two days after the shocking death of designer Virgil Abloh, the runway show he had planned for months up until the end of his life went on without him. While there were moments of sombre emotion among the guests, which included many of Abloh’s A-list friends and collaborators from across fashion and music, the mood was far from funereal. There was laughter. There were long hugs. And there was no shortage of bold looks, with many in attendance paying tribute in their best Abloh-designed pieces.
According to Abloh’s closest friends, it was the way he wanted it.
“Virgil did not want us to cry, that’s why he battled this privately,” said Don C, a multi-disciplinary designer who knew Abloh for 16 years, after the runway show on Tuesday night. “He wanted everybody to party and have a good time and remember his legacy is his work.”
Don C was standing just outside a VIP area at the after-party with another creative and longtime friend of Abloh’s, Ibn Jasper, who shared the same message. “I talked to his wife a couple of days ago and she gave us instructions specifically: no sombre feelings, no cancelling any events,” he said. “We’ve got to celebrate him here.”
Nearby Givenchy’s creative director, Matthew Williams, also a close friend and collaborator of Abloh’s, agreed. “All I can say is, Virgil was here,” he said, echoing the mantra of the evening, which had been spelled out by drone lights in the sky a few minutes prior.
The setting, the Miami Marine Stadium, was apt for a memorable tribute. Guests arrived by boat to an outdoor platform across from the structure covered in colourful graffiti, with many of Louis Vuitton’s elite clients shuttled in by individual speedboats across the bay from a marina near downtown. A three-story tall statue of Abloh, holding a canvas covered with the Vuitton monogram was placed by the stadium, looking over at a bright-red hot-air balloon with the brand’s logo.
The show went on largely as planned by Abloh himself, before his sudden death recast it as an impromptu memorial.
Originally, the show was timed to coincide with Art Basel and the opening of a new menswear-dedicated store in the city’s design district and intended as a way to drum up business with many of Vuitton’s high paying clients, especially those based in Miami, the rest of the US and Central and South America. No detail was spared, from the monogrammed carpet leading to the shuttle yachts to the paper binoculars placed on each guest’s seat. The brand and its event producers even went so far as to clean the basin floor in front of the stadium.
One longtime Louis Vuitton client, Aaron Smart, wore a silver mirrored trench coat covered in the brand’s monogram, from the Autumn 2021 collection, for the occasion.
“I don’t know when else I’m going to wear it,” he said. “To get the news on Sunday, I thought it was a prank at first — this can’t be real.”
Shoppers like Smart represented the majority of the approximately 1,700 guests. Also there were Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, escorted in by Delphine Arnault, executive vice president of Louis Vuitton.
But after news of Abloh’s death spread on Sunday, and Louis Vuitton said the show would go forward, much more of his wide-ranging community of collaborators, friends and colleagues wanted to join to celebrate him, turning it into the most exclusive event on the Art Basel schedule.
Attendees included Kanye West with Kim Kardashian and their daughter North West; the entire Arnault family; seemingly every buzzy young rapper, including Gunna and 21 Savage; musicians Maluma, Ricky Martin and DJ Khaled; designers Jerry Lorenzo, Jonathan Anderson, Nigo, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Aime Leon Dore’s Teddy Santis and Palm Angels’ Francesco Ragazzi; Pharrell Williams and his family; editors Edward Enninful and Samira Nasr. Other guests included Tom Ford chairman Domenico De Sole, tennis champion Venus Williams, photographer Juergen Teller and Michèle Lamy.
Between the marine stadium cleanup and the iterations needed after the death of Abloh on Sunday, the event ended up being several times more expensive than the original budget Louis Vuitton had anticipated, according to a source with knowledge of the plans. (A representative for the company declined to comment.)
Louis Vuitton chief executive officer Michael Burke opened the show with an emotional speech, remembering how he was first introduced to Abloh by Nigo in Tokyo 15 years ago, shortly before Abloh and West interned at Fendi when Burke was the chief executive there. (Silvia Venturini Fendi was in attendance on Tuesday, too.) He said Abloh was like a son to him, and that they spoke about the show’s details even the day before he died.
“When the time came, Virgil was not looking for the limelight, but the limelight found him,” Burke said, reflecting on Abloh’s career.
The runway show kicked off with a narration from Abloh himself, speaking in his characteristically high-concept and wonderstruck way about the creative process. Models including Kid Cudi and Offset wore 72 looks from Abloh’s Spring/Summer 2022 collection that first debuted in a video format in June, along with 10 additional looks, styled by Ib Kamara. It represented much of the best of Abloh’s recent work, including sumptuous tailoring in neon colours, riffed letterman jackets and mirrored briefcases. Abloh’s Louis Vuitton design team, wearing the white, spray-paint effect T-shirt uniform created for the show, took a group bow together to a standing ovation before fireworks lit the Miami skyline and guests headed to the afterparty where Kid Cudi, Erykah Badu and Kaytranada performed.
It’s unlikely that this will be the last tribute for the influential designer, known for his worth ethic, multi-disciplinary approach and kindness, and who was also honoured on Monday night in London at the British Fashion Awards.
“He’s the greatest cultural communicator since Andy Warhol,” said designer Tremaine Emory, who knew Abloh for a decade and worked with him closely. “Louis Vuitton, Off-White and Kanye West — they were lucky to be in his presence.”