Black Fashion Designers

Fashion & Textile History GalleryDecember 6, 2016 - May 16, 2017
graphic for Black Fashion Designers

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There have been past exhibitions about individual black fashion designers, such as Stephen Burrows and Patrick Kelly, but this exhibition explored the experiences of several generations of fashion designers of African descent from the 1950s to the present. The curators acknowledged the problem of using race as a lens through which to view fashion design. Fashion journalist Robin Givhan addressed the implications of such categorization when she described the Pyer Moss spring 2016 collection by designer Kerby Jean-Raymond: "It was a startling and emotional reflection of Jean-Raymond's fatigue over being described as a 'black' designer. Not because he isn't proud of his heritage and not because he doesn't bring his full self to his work, but because the nomenclature is limiting."

mannequins wearing dresses. from left to right: B. Michael metallic purple silk brocade dress, Stella Jean multipatterned dress, Stephen Burrows color blocked pastel slip style evening dress
Black Fashion Designers | Exhibition Trailer (25 seconds)

Yet because Black designers have too often gone unrecognized and underrepresented, there is much to be learned from such an exhibition, about the challenges faced by Black designers and how their experiences have changed over time. Even today, they make up only about one percent of the designers covered by, the most comprehensive online site for viewing collections from fashion weeks around the world.

pink fitted sleeveless leather dress with trapunto quilting at front
Mimi Plange, dress, spring 2013, USA, gift of Mimi Plange, 2016.49.1
cape in blue and brown hand cut cotton and lace; multicolored polka dot and striped blouse and black pants
Duro Olowu, ensemble, fall 2012, England, gift of Duro Olowu, 2016.65.1

The designers featured in Black Fashion Designers work in a diverse range of individual styles; they do not all speak in one voice. The exhibition drew exclusively from the permanent collection of The Museum at FIT and was organized according to categories and themes, such as eveningwear, menswear, street style, experimental fashion, and African influences.

Black fashion designers began to gain recognition during the late 1940s, even while still segregated within the fashion industry. A section of the exhibition devoted to black designers breaking into the industry featured work by New York-based Zelda Wynn Valdes and Ann Lowe, who created custom-made gowns for society women and celebrities. They represented the transition from nineteenth-century dressmaking traditions that encompassed countless, unnamed black dressmakers, to the modern conception of a fashion designer. Designers such as Arthur McGee, Wesley Tann, and Jon Weston worked for New York manufacturers before establishing their own businesses. For example, Weston, an FIT alumnus, started his ready-to-wear company in the mid-1960s, stating, "I'd gone as far as I could go on Seventh Avenue; it wasn't growing with me."

off-white wedding gown with long train, embroidered flower and appliqued cotton daisies motif
Ann Lowe, wedding dress, 1968, USA, gift of Judith A. Tabler, 2009.70.2
black semi-sheer slip-style dress with nude lining, swarovski crystals, and fishtail back and train
Lawrence Steele, dress, spring 2002, Italy, gift of Lawrence Steele, 2016.62.1

By the 1970s, however, as Willi Smith later recalled, "There was this tremendous exposure given to designers based on their blackness." Indeed, the fashion press made a point of reporting on black designers of that era, such as Stephen Burrows and Scott Barrie, who became well-known for their body-conscious styles. As wary of the label "black designer" then as Kerby Jean-Raymond is today, Smith added, "When the hype was over, people thought there were no more black designers. In a way it's a blessing. Now we can get on with being what we are: designers."

Visibility also increased for black models. Events such as the annual Ebony Fashion Fair gave them a national platform, while energetic performances by African American models at the 1973 "Battle of Versailles" fashion show in France captured international attention.

multi-colored stripe pant suit

Willi Smith, suit, circa 1984, USA, gift of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), 2013.52.4

red and black dress with deep v-neck, short sleeves, and wrap and tie extensions

Scott Barrie, dress, circa 1973, USA, gift of Naomi Sims, 81.145.3

color block one shoulder tiered dress in bright blue, yellow, pink, and black with large orange bow at right side

Stephen Burrows, two-piece evening dress, 1973, USA, gift of Mrs. Savanna Clark, 99.15.1

Black designers take inspiration from many sources, but may not necessarily address race in their work. Eric Gaskins, who trained under couturier Hubert de Givenchy, creates eveningwear in the tradition of the French haute couture. His white gown was intricately beaded to mimic the brush strokes seen in Franz Kline's paintings. The father-son duo at Casely-Hayford incorporated elements of anarchy into traditional British fine tailoring to create a modern menswear aesthetic.

white strapless floor length dress handbeaded with black micro bugle beads in a design inspired by Franze Kline
Eric Gaskins, dress, 2014, USA, gift of Eric Gaskins, 2016.53.1
black sleeveless dress with heart bustier in multi-colored buttons
Patrick Kelly, dress, Fall/Winter 1986, France, museum purchase, 2016.48.1

The black experience does prominently figure in the work of other designers featured in the exhibition. Paris-based Patrick Kelly, for instance, drew inspiration from his American Southern roots. The colorful buttons on his knit dress reference the mismatched buttons his grandmother used to mend his family's clothing. Duro Olowu, a Nigerian-Jamaican, London-based designer draws on multiple cultural perspectives and emphasizes Africa's historic role in cultural production and international trade.

A section of the exhibition devoted to activism comprised of fashions that send political and social messages. For example, a cover image of the anti-apartheid magazine Drum adorns an ensemble by South African designer Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie, and a Kerby Jean-Raymond ensemble inspired by Ota Benga, a nineteenth-century African who was caged at the Monkey House in the Bronx Zoo, expresses Jean-Raymond's frustration at being labeled and pigeon-holed, as not only a black designer, but also a black person.

Despite progress over the past half century, the fashion industry is not as welcoming as we might expect. However, the value of diversity is increasingly being recognized. Black designers contribute alternative perspectives to fashion that make it more creative, more inclusive, and more varied as both an art form and an industry.

runway image of model wearing green cargo pants with black sweater ensemble
Public School NYC, ensemble, fall 2016, USA, gift of Public School NYC, 2016.64.1. Photograph by Geraldo Somoza
runway image of model wearing off-white suit with bead design going down sleeves and legs
Grace Wales Bonner, ensemble, spring 2017, England, museum purchase, 2016.86.1. Photograph by Morgan O'Donovan

Black Fashion Designers was organized by Ariele Elia, assistant curator of Costume and Textiles, and Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant, The Museum at FIT. The curators were supported by an advisory committee of scholars and fashion professionals, some of whom participated in the exhibition's symposium, cellphone tour, and Fashion Culture program series.

Black fashion designers do not all speak in one voice

The designers featured in Black Fashion Designers work in a diverse range of individual styles. This exhibition explored the experiences of several generations of fashion designers of African descent from the 1950s to the present.
Detail of Patrick Kelly dress with colorful buttons forming a hear on a black knit dress

Exhibition Publication

Related Programs
Past Event

Black Fashion Designers Symposium

The Museum at FIT hosted a one-day symposium on February 6, 2017, featuring talks by designers, models, journalists, and scholars on African diasporic culture and fashion. A provisional list of speakers for the symposium included writer Teri Agins, stylist June Ambrose, journalist and photographer Dario Calmese, Professor Alphonso McClendon, designers Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs of Cushnie et Ochs, Dapper Dan of Harlem, designer Grace Wales Bonner, former model and founder of The Diversity Coalition Bethann Hardison, Professor Monica Miller, designer Mimi Plange, Professor Eric Darnell Pritchard, Professor Elena Romero, Professor Victoria Rovine, costume designer Jeriana San Juan, and model Veronica Webb.
Past Event

Between the Lines: Model Behavior with Pat Cleveland and Coco Mitchell

Past Event

Fashioning the Black Body in Bondage & Freedom

MFIT curatorial assistant Elizabeth Way participated on a panel discussion alongside Noel Corbin, Kim Jenkins, and Katie Knowles for the "Fashion & the Peculiar Institution." This panel discussion explored connections between the institution of slavery and fashion system.

Black Fashion Designers was made possible by the support of the Couture Council and the President's Diversity Council.

Couture Council logo

FIT Diversity Council Logo