Virgil Abloh's legacy is about to get louder

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Virgil Abloh's legacy is about to get louder
Shannon Abloh, right, the widow of Virgil Abloh, the American fashion designer and entrepreneur, with the designer Aurora James at the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards ceremony, in New York, Nov. 7, 2022. Peter Arnold, the executive director of the Fashion Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit dedicated to expanding access to the industry for underprivileged students, and Abloh will unveil a new strategic plan for the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund. (Nina Westervelt/The New York Times)

by Vanessa Friedman

NEW YORK, NY.- Many companies, including fashion companies, may be going silent about their diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in the face of political change. The last round of major designer appointments may not have included a single creative director of color. But at least one group is doubling down on its commitment to broadening the style-talent pipeline.

At its annual gala on April 8, Peter Arnold, the executive director of the Fashion Scholarship Fund, the nonprofit that is dedicated to expanding access to the industry for underprivileged students, and Shannon Abloh, the widow of Virgil Abloh, will unveil a new strategic plan for the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund. The new initiative will double the number of recipients and expand the way the fund defines support.

As such, it marks the next step in Shannon Abloh’s efforts to consolidate her husband’s legacy.

Virgil Abloh, the pioneering Black designer who founded the brand Off-White, collaborated with Nike and became the first Black creative director of Louis Vuitton men’s wear, died in late 2021 of a rare form of cancer.

“When he became successful, Virgil was the first Black face that many kids saw in a room they didn’t know they could enter,” Shannon Abloh said via Zoom from Chicago just before getting on a plane to fly to New York for the Fashion Scholarship Fund event. “He and I talked about, How can we turn this into something that really means something over time?” The Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund was part of the answer.

Now, she said of the DEI reversals, “it’s really nerve-racking, seeing the changes that are happening. But for me, all it means is that the work needs to continue to be louder. It just makes me double down and say, ‘OK, then we need to fight harder.’ ”

Founded in 2020 by Virgil Abloh with $1 million of seed capital, the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund (Abloh had a thing about quotation marks) is administered by the Fashion Scholarship Fund. In February 2022, just after Abloh’s death, it received a major injection of funds thanks to a posthumous auction of 200 pairs of Abloh’s Nike designs that raised $18 million, which has allowed Shannon Abloh and the FSF to rethink the scholarship fund and what it can do.

“Redressing inequity is a long, long game that requires a consistent investment over time,” Arnold said. “This amount of money that — thank you, Virgil — came to us allows us to weather some of this moment when other people are not as committed as you would expect they would be.”

Shannon Abloh, who remained in the background when her husband was alive and has only begun to speak out recently, will be making one of her rare public appearances at the gala to announce the new plan. With her will be her children, Lowe, 11, and Grey, 8, who will be seeing their mother step into the spotlight for the first time.

“They’re starting to really ask a lot more questions about what I am doing,” she said, and she wants them to experience the results of their father’s work for themselves. (They are also going to do “touristy things,” such as seeing “Wicked” on Broadway.)

Beyond simply expanding the number of grant recipients to 60 in the next year, the re-imagined scholarship fund will involve a new bridge fund that will look at costs beyond tuition. The FSF had discovered that some students who received the scholarship could not afford to accept it.

“Some have to work,” Shannon Abloh said. “They can’t quit their job and go to school. There was a student whose laptop broke, and she couldn’t afford to replace it, so she was going to drop out of school.” There was someone who got a great internship in Milan but could not afford the flights.

“That’s not OK,” Abloh said.

In addition, the FSF is engineering ways to reach students who are not on the traditional art school track, including connecting with community colleges. Virgil Abloh himself studied architecture and had no formal fashion education. Finally, the fund is leaning on an extended network of Virgil Abloh’s friends to mentor grant recipients beyond the initial one-year period of the scholarship.

“When students are going into their first job, I think it’s really important that they have an advocate or mentor they can lean on to give them ideas and support,” Shannon Abloh said. “I had dinner with a handful of Virgil’s friends last week — probably 20, which is a fraction of his friends who are artists, musicians, DJs, people that run their own clothing brands — and they were all like, ‘Say the word and we’re ready to help.’ ”

Arnold said that group included designer Tremaine Emory and stylist Gabriella Karefa-Johnson, who was herself a FSF recipient.

“Virgil was impatient,” Abloh said. “He liked to move fast, so he would have been ready for this to happen. It was always like, How can we affect the most students in the biggest way possible?”

Beyond the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” Scholarship Fund, Abloh is finalizing plans for the Virgil Abloh Foundation, which she expects to introduce later this year. “The goal will be providing access and opportunities to young kids, just as the VAPM does, but in a slightly different way,” she said. “In 20 years I want the young kid who’s interested in creative arts to find Virgil. The foundation will provide a way for them to see his work and have access to what he created.”

It is also for her own children, who, she said, “were so young when their father passed. I look at it as something that they’ll be able to dive into to really learn who their dad was outside of the house.”

“I know he would be super-proud,” she added, and then corrected herself: “Is proud,” she said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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