Historically, the fashion industry — much like popular culture at large — has found inspiration in Black culture. Whether it’s hairstyles commonly worn by the African American community, jewelry that are mainstays for a particular culture, and even the language used to describe pieces created by designers of color as “urban” or “streetwear,” Black people are often erased from the conversation, making it hard to write off these instances as “just clothes.”
Often designers receive praise for the very things people of color have been looked down on for wearing. It’s just not clothes when you factor in it’s the livelihood of marginalized communities providing the inspiration, but unfortunately, inspiration has not turned into representation, with a lack of diversity in the models that walk the runways, and the designers that are heralded and revered by the industry. How many people know that the woman who created the dress Jackie Kennedy wore when she married John F. Kennedy was a black woman named Ann Lowe? Or that the first American couturier in Paris was a black man named Jay Jaxon?
Just because mainstream culture has chosen to ignore these men and women, doesn’t mean that they have not made strides. Click ahead to see ten designers you need to know, from the woman who created the Playboy Bunny costume, to the man tasked with making customers want to fall into The Gap again.
Zelda Wynn Valdes Zelda Wynn Valdes is considered the first African American fashion designer. Born in 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, she began her career in upstate New York, at her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York.
Not only did she credited with designing the
Playboy Bunny costume in the 1950s, but worked with notable actresses like Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Joyce Bryant, and Mae West. For the 1948 wedding of Marie Ellington and Nat “King” Cole, she dressed the entire bridal party.
In 1948, she became the first Black woman to own a shop on Broadway in New York City. She named it Chez Zelda. Valdes was also named the New York chapter president of the
National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. She died in 2001 at the age of 96. Photo: Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images.
Ann Lowe Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898, the great-granddaughter of a seamstress slave and a white plantation owner. Lowe learned to sew from her grandmother and mother. When she was 16, she created four gowns for the First Lady of Alabama.
At 19, she attended S.T. Taylor School of Design in New York City, and at 21, opened her own dress shop in Tampa, Florida. She moved back to New York at 1929, to open her shop in Harlem. Her gowns were sold in Neiman Marcus, Henri Bendel, and Saks Fifth Avenue. Lowe made the dress Jacqueline Bouvier wore to marry John F. Kennedy in 1953. Bouvier’s mother commissioned Lowe after the designer created the gown she wore to wed Hugh D. Auchincloss. Lowe charged only $ 500 and had to remake wedding gown, bridal dresses, and the mother-of-the-bride’s gown (which had taken two months to make) after a flooding accident in her Madison Avenue store. She died in 1981.
12 of Lowe’s gowns were on display upon the opening of the
National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2016. Meanwhile, Jackie Kennedy Onassis’s wedding gown is on view at the Kennedy Library in Boston, Massachusetts.
Arthur McGee Arthur McGee was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1933. In 1951, he won a local contest to attend the Traphagen School of Design in New York. He went on to complete his degree at the Fashion Institute of Technology, where he studied under Charles James.
In 1957, McGee became the first Black designer to run a Seventh Avenue design room, for the Bobbie Brooks label, which by 1964 had become one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the United States. He opened his own store on St. Marks Place in New York City shortly thereafter, where he dressed such luminaries as Lena Horne, Cicely Tyson, and Stevie Wonder.
Photo: CLINT SPAULDING/Patrick McMullan/Getty Images.
Jay Jaxon Jay Jaxon was born in Queens, New York in 1941 and was introduced to the fashion industry by his girlfriend at the time who was a seamstress.
Eventually he made his way to Paris, spending time at Yves Saint Laurent (where he trained under the designer), and Christian Dior. In 1965, at the age of 24, he took over the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer, making him not only the first black couturier, but the first American couturier. Later in his career, he would work on TV shows like
Ally McBeal and American Dreams. He died in 2006 at the age of 65, of complication from prostate cancer. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo.
Jon Haggins Born in Florida in 1943, Jon Haggins debuted his namesake collection in 1966, not long after graduating from the Fashion Institute of Technology.
He created quirky statement tee shirts in the ’70s (way before they were a thing), and later ventured into making eveningwear for the likes of Diana Ross, Joan Collins, Helen Gurley Brown and Farrah Fawcett. (Fun fact: Do you recognize the phrase “It’s 10pm, do you know where your children are?” before the evening news? That’s Haggins’ voice!)
Photo: Photo: Courtesy of @GlobeTrotterTV.
Stephen Burrows Stephen Burrows was born in New Jersey in 1943. He studied at Fashion Institute of Design.
Burrows clothes were steeped in the wild and carefree culture of the ’60s and ’70s. He ran with the Andy Warhol crowd at the factory, and women could often be seen out in the discos in his creations. He was the only black designer to participate in the Battle of Versailles, a historic fashion show held at Versailles in 1973, that pitted five French designers (Yves Saint Laurent, Pierre Cardin, Emanuel Ungaro, Christian Dior, and Hubert de Givenchy) against five American designers (Anne Klein, Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Halston, alongside Burrows). That same year, he debuted a line of lingerie that was sold at all the biggest boutiques of the time.
In 1978 Farrah Fawcett wore his gold chainmail dress to the Academy Awards, and First Lady Michelle Obama wore a yellow, matte jersey suit for multiple official events in 2010.
Photo: Arun Nevader/Getty Images.
Willi Smith Willi Smith was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1948 and studied commercial art and illustration before making his way to New York to study fashion at Parsons The New School for Design.
He set the precedent for street wear as we know it. “I don’t design clothes for the queen but the people who wave at her as she goes by,”
he once said. Throughout his career he collaborated with Spike Lee, the artist Christo, and even designed the wedding dress Mary Kane wore when she married Peter Parker in the Spider-Man comic book in 1987. In 1988, a year after his death, Smith was honored by the New York City mayor David Dinkins, who proclaimed February 23 “Willi Smith Day.” He also has a plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame on Seventh Avenue. Photo: Mike Pont/WireImage
Jeffrey Banks Jeffrey Banks was born in 1955 and started out as an assistant at Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein while pursuing his fashion studies at Pratt Institute and Parsons School of Design.
He launched his namesake menswear label in 1977. Most recently, he co-authored
Perry Ellis: An American Original, a book about the famed American designer. Photo: Bowers/Getty Images.
Patrick Kelly Patrick Kelly was born in 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi and studied art at Parson School of Design.
Kelly was working as an unpaid window dresser at an Yves Saint Laurent store in Atlanta, when in 1988 Pierre Bergé personally paid for him to launch his own label, Patrick Kelly Paris. He went on to become the first person of color to be admitted to the famed Chambre Syndicale du Pret-a-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. He died at 35 in 1990 after complications from AIDS. In the years that followed, retrospectives of his work were shown at both the Brooklyn Museum, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Photo: PL Gould/IMAGES/Getty Images.
Dapper Dan Dapper Dan was born Daniel Day in Harlem and created flashy clothing, leather items, and car interiors, usually with unauthorized designer logos in the ’80s and ’90s until he was eventually forced to closed his atelier because of copyright infringement lawsuits.
His work was featured in the movie “Paid In Full,” and famous faces like Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr and LL Cool J. He is currently working with Gucci to
reopen his atelier in Harlem and is starring in the brand’s men’s tailoring campaign. Photo: Mike Pont/WireImage
Patrick Robinson Patrick Robinson was born in 1966 in Tennessee and attended Parsons New School of Design.
Robinson worked for Patrick Kelly, Armani, and Anne Klein, before launching his namesake collection in 1996. In 2004 he was nominated for a CFDA Award for Emerging Talent in Ready-to-Wear, and three years later he designed a collection for Target’s GO International line. Since then he has been Executive Vice President of Design at The Gap, and Global Creative Director of Armani Exchange.
Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images/ACE Awards.
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