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Mourning Virgil Abloh's death in the fashion-obsessed Emirates – Business Insider

Doha – In 2017, Vaorin Marwah was scrolling through his Instagram feed when a pair of sneakers caught his eye.
Though designers from Balenciaga to Dior had embraced the high-end sneaker market for years by that point, there was something different about these Nikes. A strategically-placed, bright red zip tie dangled from the laces, and the word “shoelaces” was scrawled across them. 
A menswear designer himself in Dubai whose designs featured in the pages of VOGUE Arabia, Marwah was fascinated by how such ordinary things could transform a pair of deconstructed-looking sneakers, which would eventually fetch well over $1,000 on secondary markets. He had to know more. 
The shoes were a collaboration between Nike and Off-White, a high-end streetwear brand founded by the American designer Virgil Abloh that was becoming ubiquitous in Dubai, a city where Chanel, Moncler, Fendi and Bottega Veneta designs are a common site for people out for a casual day of shopping.
Marwah, who mixes precisely tailored made-to-measure staples of men’s suiting and updated versions of the kurtas and sherwanis of his native India, wasn’t alone. Each iteration of Virgil x Nike  – with 50 pairs slated for 2021 alone – sold out immediately. 
Everyone from Youtubers to influential style blogs like High Snobiety debated whether the zip ties were merely a stylistic flourish — a play on an otherwise overlooked piece of hardware — or if they were meant to be cut off and tossed aside. It wasn’t until 2019, two years after the initial release, that the matter was finally settled. 
Abloh himself eventually took to Twitter to say the “ultimate idea was … to use [the zip ties] with all your other pairs of shoes to DIY make your own versions of Off-White™sneakers.”
That answer was in many ways the essence of Abloh’s belief in the “three-per-cent approach,” the idea that you can make a new design by altering the original by at least 3 percent. In his early days, Abloh had stirred up controversy by screen printing onto discounted Ralph Lauren flannels and then selling the new creations for many times their original price. He wanted to empower the consumer to become their own designer, mixing and matching items as they saw fit. 
It wasn’t just Abloh’s distinct design aesthetic, utilizing the signifiers of construction work, street art and skate culture that gained Marwah’s attention. Marwah, who launched his own eponymous collection in 2012, was also inspired by the designer’s meteoric rise to the highest echelons of the fashion industry. 
In 2018, less than five years after he launched Off-White, Abloh was hand-picked by LVMH as the Artistic Director of menswear for Louis Vuitton. That same year, according to one fashion index, Off-White unseated Gucci as “the hottest brand on the planet.”
Only 38 at the time, Abloh became the first Black designer to head a house at LVMH, an industry titan that owns leading labels like Christian Dior, Kenzo, and Celine. The appointment also made Abloh one of only two Black designers to head a major French fashion house at the time, the other being Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing.
“Middle Eastern designers are always striving to have their work recognized in Paris and New York, and Virgil’s ability to expand his career so quickly has been an inspiration to all of us,” Marwah said.
This is how Abloh, who died of a rare form of cancer on Nov. 28, will be remembered by sneakerheads, fashionistas and influencers around the world. From his native Chicago to London to the Persian Gulf, Abloh has been celebrated as someone who managed to break down and push the boundaries of fashion in only a few years’ time.
That sentiment was on display in Doha – Dubai’s less glitzy Persian Gulf neighbor – where a retrospective exhibition of Abloh’s work, “Virgil Abloh: Figures of Speech” has been on display as part of Qatar’s cultural festival in the city. 
Just weeks before his passing, Abloh appeared at the show’s opening and at a gala reception at the Qatar National Museum alongside Naomi Campbell and others, in what would be among his last public appearances.
On a recent Friday afternoon, dozens of fashionable young people, decked out with Valentino bags, colorful floral-print hijabs and yes, head-to-toe Off-White, posed for pictures at the exhibit at Doha’s old Fire House.
Asa, a Doha resident in her 20s, reflected on what it meant to see a Black man, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, at the helm of a company like Vuitton. “I was so proud. I finally got to see someone like me heading a major brand,” she said.
It was his iconic Off-White measuring tape belt that really caught her eye.Like Marwah and the zip tie, Asa was fascinated by Abloh’s ability to turn something so mundane, black-and-yellow measuring tape, into an object of desire.
“The brand was everywhere, everyone had to have that belt,” she said.
She had also admired his reimagining of the Vuitton Keepall duffle bag, which featured a bright orange chain, as an example of that aesthetic. To Abloh, the chain was meant to conjure up construction and the idea that consumers have become chained to designer labels, but Asa saw it as an example of his penchant for taking things, in this case an iconic bag dating back to the 1930s, and “breaking them down to transform them into something new.”
Abloh’s willingness to challenge the fashion establishment ran through many of the tributes that came after his death.
Edward Enninful, who became the first Black editor of British Vogue only a year before Abloh started at Vuitton, praised the designer for his ability to “open the door to art and fashion for future generations, so that they – unlike himself – would grow up in a creative world with people to mirror themselves in.”
A trained architect and civil engineer, Abloh broke into the highest levels of an industry led by stalwarts who either serve in the same roles for decades or get shuffled from house to house and magazine to magazine. 
In Abloh’s notes for his Fall/Winter 2021 Vuitton Menswear show, which drew inspiration from James Baldwin’s 1953 essay “Stranger in the Village,” Abloh said he wanted the collection to challenge “the unconscious biases instilled in our collective psyche by the archaic norms of society.”
Iman Amy Nassiri, a stylist, model, and fashion blogger in Dubai, said she admired Abloh’s impulse to highlight consumers and street cultures that are often underrepresented in mainstream Western fashion. “Seeing Virgil gave everyone a sense of hope and bravery. It makes you realize that you can make it,” in fashion, she said. 
As an influencer with more than 88,000 followers, Nassiri hopes to challenge the “limited” view of Arab style and fashion to the outside world. Abloh’s ability to call on the hallmarks of construction and the years his father spent as the manager of a paint company for the trademarks of the Off-White brand also inspired Nassiri. 
She saw it as a sign of his willingness to express his individuality using signifiers of his own lived experience in such a demanding and critical industry.
Whereas Abloh’s work further cemented urban streetwear’s place in high-end fashion, Nassiri aims to show the world Dubai fashion, which she affectionately calls “Hollywood, Arab-style.”
And though she is younger than him, Nassiri’s desire to telegraph her own personal style to her followers is not far off from what Abloh was doing when he blogged for The Brilliance, an xxx, from 2006 to 2009. In those posts, he detailed his excitement over a collaboration between Raf Simons and Eastpak or what he learned during a trip through a Gucci store.
For Nassiri, a city like Dubai, with its glass and metal skyscrapers designed by the likes of the late Zaha Hadid and mosques created in the Fatimid Islamic style, offers young people the chance to show the diversity of the Arab world. In doing so, Nassiri says she and other Arab youth hope to “challenge people’s opinions on the Arab people. How we live. How we think and how open-minded and fashionable we are as a people.”
In many ways, this is what Abloh, who partnered with everyone from Kanye West to Kid Cudi to Serena Williams, did to push streetwear, Hip Hop and Pop culture further into the fashion industry’s ivory towers.
“It is up to us to support each other, to empower each other and to inspire each other,”  Nassiri said. 
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