What Virgil Abloh’s Life Teaches on Trying New Career Challenges (and Why Mid-Career Internships are OK)

The trailblazing fashion founder, who became Louis Vuitton’s first black creative director, has passed at 41. Here are some life lessons from his journey worth remembering.

The oft-used adage about Asian parents and how we all want our kids to be successful in their careers is, frankly, mostly true. And to be fair, it makes total sense — which parents wouldn’t want the best for their children?

It’s just not usually in the Asian and Singaporean DNA to take the off-beaten path, and till today, while Singapore broadens its education system, we still are fighting the need for “helicopter parenting”— where parents micro-manage all aspects of their kid’s lives — and also to allow our children to find their own passions and develop careers out of them.

Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said at an education conference: “Kids need a mix of high expectations set for them and encouragement to think independently, think originally and develop their own interests.”

In a 30-minute address to about 600 educators, he added that not being able to do so, would cause a “greater sense of anxiety, a loss of a sense of individuality or independence, and greater stress” to our children.

Yet it’s not just kids who face these gamut of emotions, when not being able to pursue their passions. Us adults get hit hard just as much!

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Mid-life workers in their 40s and 50s today are facing tough choices about their careers, with greater job insecurity due to both digitalisation and the economic crunch caused by Covid-19.

Many also share a desire to do more with their lives, or have bigger impacts in the lives of others.

But how does one take the leap, you ask? If you’re looking for a role model on changing career gears…

Meet Virgil

Well, as inspirations go, Virgil Abloh, the fashion founder of Off-White, who became Louis Vuitton’s first black art director, is as good as any.

The Chicago designer, who built his love for streetwear, engineering and architecture into a global brand, died at the early age of 41, after privately battling cancer for the past several years.

His path to success, as you might expect from reading this piece so far, was not of the usual cookie-cutter variety.

He was born in Rockford to Ghanaian immigrant parents, but worked his way to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil Engineering from University at Wisconsin-Madison, and then followed on to get a Masters in Architecture from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Going off the beaten track

So far, so good. Parents must be proud and happy, right?

But even during his time doing his Masters, Virgil had already started being infected by the fashion bug, making shopping trips to New York City, and blogging about the brands that made skate clothing, even when they weren’t for the activity. He also started designing his own T-shirts, according to an interview he did with GQ in 2019.

“At 17, my friend Chris Eaton and I used to be so obsessed with (NBA legend Michael) Jordan, that we were drawing Nike shoes and sending them to Nike.

“And Nike would be like, ‘Oh, we don’t accept designs.”

“When I was studying architecture at Illinois Institute of Technology, I had this professor named Thomas Kearns. I remember him telling me ‘learn these programmes, and don’t use these programmes just to make architecture.’

“So that was how I learned three dimensional (3-D) programmes and Adobe suite, and it was during this class that I started making T-shirts instead of just making architecture.

You’ve got to take risks

Some years later, the famed US rapper Kanye West hired Virgil to help with his ambitions to grow his career beyond music. Kanye had a sneaker collaboration with Louis Vuitton, and he took his team — and Virgil — to Paris, where they gatecrashed several shows at Fashion Week in Paris, dressed in the streetwear style they would later popularize.

It did not go well. In fact, photos of their attempts were parodied and mocked online, and even wound up being ridiculed on a South Park episode!

Virgil recounted to GQ: “When Kanye and I were first going to fashion shows, there was no one outside the shows. Streetwear wasn’t on anyone’s radar, but the sort of chatter at dinners after shows was like ‘Fashion needs something new. It’s stagnant. What’s the new thing going to be?’”

If you want to succeed, you’ve got to do the grind… and the internship

In the end, both Virgil and Kanye realised if they wanted to crack the fashion world, they would need to grind, like everyone else. Young, naïve, and desperate for knowledge and their big break, they signed up to intern for famed fashion house Fendi in 2009. At this stage, Virgil was already 29 — hardly a fresh kid out of school!

Of course, to be fair, they probably had some doors opened for them thanks to Kanye’s fame, but the fact is they went through an internship, and were treated like any others would have been.

Virgil shared: “There was a professor by the name of Louise Wilson, who was the head of the (Masters programme) at Central Saint Martins in London, and she was the teacher for some of the greatest designers of our time.

“Kanye and I sat with her, and we were like, ‘Hey, we want to learn the right way.’ And she basically said, ‘You guys are idiots. You know more than my students. Why on earth would you want to go to fashion school?’

“But that process was sort of how we ended up interning at Fendi. And when we were there, we did all the meetings. We were off the radar in Rome, getting to work at 9am on a Monday. We did all the intern work.”

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For Kanye and Virgil, this meant regular nine-to five work hours, getting supervisors coffee, and yes, photocopying.

In fact, Kanye described his experience as “every day, going to work, walking to work, getting cappuccinos”, according to an article by the Guardian.

For the record, they were both paid $500 dollars a month, which falls in line with what most of us do make during internships as well.

Michael Burke, who was chief executive of Fendi when the two interned there, revealed that tidbit to the New York Times.

“I paid them $500 a month! I was really impressed with how they brought a whole new vibe to the studio and were disruptive in the best way.”

What came next for Virgil is of fashion legend. Over the years later, he built up his own fashion brand, Off-White, collaborating with various names and brands such as Rimowa, Nike, Ikea, and Takashi Murakami.

His unconventional ascent into fashion was capped by becoming Louis Vuitton’s first African-American creative director in 2018, and he debuted his first collection for Louis Vuitton in Paris, heavily featuring black models and other models of colour, who wore his designs in a concept on globalism and diversity.

Read more: Career Change – How and Why This Singaporean Woman Did it After 40

Virgil’s final advice

Towards the end of his days, Virgil was offered an honorary degree by the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), and was also a keynote speaker at the graduating class commencement in 2021.

He said: “How ironic this moment is.”

“Now I myself was a bright-eyed high school graduate that looked at the list of schools I wanted to apply to.

“I wanted to join RISD. I filled out the application, sent it in, and got a big fat ‘no’.

“But, let that story not deter you from achieving and going after your goals, because, ironically, fast forward all these years later, I have over my shoulder, an honorary degree from RISD, through a whole lot of hard work and determination.”

He concluded, saying to the graduates: “There’s nothing more important in my mind than a youthful generation, that wants to take on the world with full force and creativity.

“The world is in need of ideas, and ambitious ones, so be ambitious, and to relish in your achievements.”

You, and your gung-ho spirit of career adventurism and optimism, will be sorely missed, Virgil!

 

(Image Credit: Myles Kalus, Anak Jihem, Creative Commons)

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