When I first started my journey into fashion design I found myself asking, “are there any black designers and if so, where are they and what have they done?” I longed for inspiration from people who looked like me, experienced my struggles and have triumphed through it all. I needed to know exactly what that looked like. To my surprise, there are black designers who’s accolades are no small feat. Discrimination in fashion is all too familiar to those who have had to endure it and let’s face it, even Oprah, one of the most recognizable black women, was snubbed in a Louis Vuitton store. Just like the forgotten Helen Williams (photoed above) had to fight industry standards of beauty and segregation to become the first black model to grace the catwalks of Paris, there are forgotten black designers who’s skill, endurance and ingenuity deserves to be recognized. Here is a look into what I consider Black History in Fashion and some of the amazing African American designers who inspire me…
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (1818 -1907)
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was born into slavery and used her talents in fashion design to eventually purchase freedom for herself and her son in 1855. By 1860, Keckley set up a dressmaking shop in Washington D.C. to take on clients that were the wives of influential politicians and ultimately sewed her way into the White House by becoming the exclusive seamstress and confidant to Mary Todd Lincoln. The end of her career came as she authored a tell all book about her experiences in the Lincoln White house which was met with so much public disapproval that Keckly left D.C. for Wilberforce University to teach domestic skills.
Ann Cole Lowe (1898 -1981)
Ann Cole Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama and became the first African American to be noted as a high-end fashion designer. Creating the exquisite wedding gown of Jacqueline Bouvier, b.k.a Jacqueline Kennedy and her mother Janet Auchincloss, is just one reason why Lowe deserves to be named as one of the best designers in fashion history. Like me, Lowe was taught to sew by both her mother and grandmother and took over their family sewing business following the Civil War at just 16 years old when her mother passed away. Lowe faced many challenges including having to take classes in a room alone while attending St. Taylor Design School. Throughout her carreer Lowe worked for prominent retailers such as Henri Bendel, Chez Sonia, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue to name a few. She also designed for some of the most known families in American history: the DuPonts, Rockefellers, Lodges and Posts.
Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905 – 2001)
Zelda Wynn Valdes should be commended for producing one the most recognizable costumes in American history: the Playboy Bunny Costume, but not many know her as a household name. Born in Chambersburg Pennsylvania and with humble beginnings Valdes started her career in her uncle’s tailoring shop in White Plains, New York. She eventually worked her way up to becoming the first black clerk and tailor of a high-end boutique where she began as a stock girl. Valdes moved on to open the first black owned boutique “Chez Zelda” on Broadway and West 158th Street in Manhattan, New York, gaining the attention of celebrity clients such as Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Marian Anderson, Eartha Kitt, Joyce Bryant and Mae West. Valdes also headed the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers to break barriers in a fashion industry known to discriminate against designers of color.
Willi Donnell Smith (1948 – 1987)
Willi Donnell Smith began his fashion design journey attending Parsons School of Design while at the same time doing freelance work for Bobbie and Brooks sportswear and designer Arnold Scaasi. Smith moved on to create Williwear which peaked at sales of 25 million for it’s highest selling year. His most interesting creation was designing the wedding dress of Mary Jane Watson who married Peter Parker in the 1987 Comic Strip known as Spider Man.
Steven Burrows (1943 – )
Steven Burrows born in Newark, New Jersey stands in a lane of his own as a fashion designer. He began his career working for Weber Originals, a New York based blouse manufacturer. His daring creations captured the culture of disco in the 1970s and was appreciated by all nationalities even as African American designers weren’t always respected. His clientele included known names like Cher, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, the Supremes and Jerry Hall. Burrows’ accolades include being honored by the CFDA with the Board of Directors Special Tribute and an invitation from the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode to showcase his Spring/Summer 2007 Collection in Paris.
There are so many other designers of color: Patrick Kelly who was the first African American designer to be accepted in the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter; Carl Jones who created Cross Colours; and Scott Barrie known for sexy 1960s matte jersey dresses. All of these African Americans designers made their mark on the fashion industry and deserve recognition just as much as the names we can recall off of the tops of our heads or broadcasted by the music industry. Why? Because of new designers like myself who need to know that there are designers who I can relate too, who have gone through what I have and they still were able overcome their circumstances to do what they love. I plan to make my mark in the fashion industry and I don’t intend on being left out or forgotten as I create my legacy. I am black history…