Virgil Abloh And His Watches

He ascended to the pinnacle of fashion by remixing streetwear and luxury. Along the way, he shaped an entire generation’s taste in wristwear – and set an example that watchmakers would be wise to follow.

When fashion designer Virgil Abloh died Sunday at the shockingly young age of 41 from a rare form of cancer, he left behind an immense cultural legacy – most obviously as the founder of the luxe streetwear brand Off-White, and as the first Black artistic director at Louis Vuitton. But also as a watch collector. He approached his watches (particularly the Patek Philippe Nautilus) the same way he approached his clothes, as if the raw materials were hip-hop beats to be sampled and improved upon. He clashed high and low until the distinctions became inverted. And in this way, he redefined the very notion of luxury.

He was known for three Pateks: A gold Nautilus and a pair of customized 5726 moonphases. Man, I loved the way he wore the gold. He treated it like workwear. Oh, this old thing? Here he was in the watch everybody wanted and nobody could get, and he paired it with a green short-sleeved shirt and paint-spattered carpenter’s pants. A complete recontextualization.


Context was everything with him. Even his name. While his peers atop other luxury houses stodgily continued to go by “Mr. This” or “Mr. That,” he was just Virgil. He made himself, and thus his clothes, approachable. Which of course is what today’s consumers want and – raised on social media – have come to expect. For hundreds of years, since the dawn of couture, luxury has been about unattainability, about exclusivity, about what the elites may own and the plebes may not. Virgil hated that. He brought that which is precious down from the ivory tower and showed it to the rest of us. Here it is, he said. Touch it.

The reverse was also true. Born in Illinois, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, he grew up to be the definitive millennial cosmopolitan, at home in the global halls of power. Off-White was based in Milan. Vuitton in Paris. Planting roots in these bastions of Euro traditionalism was not just a business decision. It was a way of proving he belonged.

He continued to prove it with every passing year. He proved it with his first LV collection, reimagining the formal tailored business suit into louche loungewear in the proportions of a sweatsuit – and he proved it with his last LV collection, which included a marvelously oversized coat with lapels and epaulets wide enough to land a plane on. He even proved it in the early days, before Off-White, with his breakthrough Pyrex line, which printed a blocky new logo on old Ralph Lauren Rugby shirts. That was it. That was the innovation. But it was enough to transform a faded old prep garment from a thrift-store throwaway to a coveted grail. It was also a test case for his philosophy that an artist needed only to adjust source material by three percent in order to reclaim it as his own.


Virgil applied this same philosophy to watches, customizing them freely – and going way beyond three percent. His personal piece was a blackened 5726, ionically pulverized and ruthlessly murdered out by the wizards at MAD Paris. Rarely does one watch say so much. It said: I paid for this, and I can do what I want with it. It said: Your finished product is my starting place. It said: I can top your masterpiece.

Only an artist raised on hip-hop could see the world this way, for hip-hop is all about the sample. It’s about iteration. It’s about manipulating a drum break by the Apache Bongo Band until “Made You Look” comes out the other side. Virgil’s Patek made the watch industry’s reflexive vitriol for customization look embarrassingly provincial. It asked a number of uncomfortable questions: How is tricking out a watch any different from patching up a jean jacket or swapping the laces on a pair of Nikes? Why must the original watch designer’s intention be kept pure, and what does “pure” even mean? Exactly what is the impurity that’s so important to thwart?

In 2017, Belgian designer Raf Simons sniffed that he wasn’t impressed by Off-White: “I’m inspired by people who bring something that I think has not been seen, that is original.” Anyone honest about Virgil’s work had to admit that on some level, Simons was right. Virgil’s stuff wasn’t always original. But then again, why is original automatically better? And doesn't every “original” build on something that came before?

As if to taunt the purists, Virgil made another 5726 that was even wilder: A fully emerald-encrusted piece (bracelet, dial, and bezel) that he designed for Drake. It was unrepentant horological blasphemy. How many heretics out there would wear such a thing? Well, the Instagram post revealing the watch has been liked 679,000 times. So at least that many.

Virgil wore and designed watches with an unbridled childlike joy. In 2018, he wrote of the tension between “Tourist vs. Purist,” claiming he’d much rather go through life with a beginner’s mind than as a jaded cynic: “It’s my organizing principle for my point of view when I make things. A tourist is someone who’s eager to learn, who wants to see the Eiffel Tower when they come to Paris. The purist is the person who knows everything about everything.” In his view, the world could use fewer purists and more tourists.

I requested an interview with Virgil earlier this year. I wanted him to be a guest on Talking Watches, telling us about the pieces I’ve mentioned above – not to mention the pieces designed by Vuitton, which as my colleague Jack Forster has pointed out, is becoming a formidable watchmaker in its own right. The episode would’ve been legendary. The internet, broken.

A response came back that said, “Unfortunately, Virgil Abloh is unable to participate at this time. We greatly appreciate you keeping him in mind for this wonderful opportunity.” My interpretation in the moment was that this was a polite way of telling me to get lost. Today, knowing that he’d been undergoing cancer treatment, I interpret it more charitably. Maybe he would’ve done it if he could’ve.

He undoubtedly would have done plenty else if he’d lived long enough. He’d only been at Vuitton for three years. He was, again, just 41 – not even half as old as Karl Lagerfeld was when he died. Think of the things he could’ve made. The creatives he could’ve mentored. The barriers he could’ve broken. The ways he could’ve shaped the culture.

Virgil was not without his critics. Some of the criticisms were warranted. His clothes and watches were, to say the least, complicated. But their complexity is what made them interesting. Their significance was indisputable. They mattered – a lot – and even when Virgil was alive it was hard to fathom the world without him. Now it’s even harder.