We have centuries of contributions to the fashion industry!
It’s no secret that mainstream culture is Black culture and, more importantly, Black style is the foundation on which all things cool exist. Still, many would like to conveniently leave that part out, opting to rename our innate styles under newfangled terminology, but we will never forget. Fashion rockstars like Kanye West and the late, great, Virgil Abloh may seem like supernova stars, but the truth is that they exist because of a long line of fashion forefathers and matriarchs. Black fashion magic isn’t a new concept, and fashion mavens like Kahlana Barfield and Samantha Black are able to run primarily because legends like André Leon Talley walked.
While some of our fashion patriarchs like Dapper Dan were forced into obscurity for decades by gatekeepers, torch bearers like Sean “Diddy” Combs held space in their absence. This intentionality, with the added help of social media’s long memory, made way for an eventual resurgence of the OGs. And now that brands like Dap’s and Karl Kani are back in the game, a new generation is able to properly give them their flowers.
It’s impossible to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, and it’s our sworn duty to make sure our readers are up to date on Black excellence — past, present and future. In honor of that commitment, here’s a list of 8 Black designers who changed fashion history forever, courtesy of L’Officiel.
A Virginia native, Keckley was born enslaved. She eventually found work as a seamstress, traveling all over the country making dresses and history as the dress designer and close confidante of former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Keckley used the money she made as a seamstress and donations from supporters to buy her freedom, White House History reports. In 1868, she published her memoirs Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Her reflection on her life and success as a dressmaker made her one of the most influential women in Washington, D.C. and provided later insight into the life of free and enslaved Black women during those times.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Born in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania in 1905, Zelda Wynn Valdes got her start learning from her grandmother who worked as a seamstress and her uncle who had a tailor shop, Black Past reports. She worked her way up the ranks as a storeroom worker for various boutiques, eventually opening her own shop in 1948 at the age of 47. “Chez Zelda” became the first Black-owned boutique in Manhattan on Broadway. Valdes served as a fashion and costume designer for a number of high-profile clientele, including Ella Fitzgerald, Maria Cole, wife of Nat King Cole, Josephine Baker, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, and Marian Anderson. In 1949, Valdes was elected president of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers. The NAFAD was an association of Black designers founded by educational activist Mary McLeod Bethune.
Ruby Bailey was on the scene at the same time as Valdes, both women integral in the growth of NAFAD. The Bermuda-born designer was a socialite in Harlem, known for her array of creative pursuits from theatrical productions to visual arts, Harlem World reports. However, it was Bailey’s design aesthetic that would set her apart, known widely for her bold prints and daring designs. It was Bailey’s embellished prints, like the famed “Bugs” cocktail dress she wore to the Savoy Ballroom in 1953-1954, that would change the trajectory of avant-garde fashion for ages.
Ann Lowe came from a long line of seamstresses, her mother an expert in embroidery and her grandmother a former enslaved seamstress. Both women taught Lowe how to sew by the age of five, the NMAAHC reports. The Alabama native would eventually move to Florida, serving as a live-in dressmaker for Tampa socialite Josephine Edwards Lee. She would eventually travel to New York to take classes, returning to Florida where she set up shop, meeting the demand for formal attire like ball gowns and cotillion wear. Lowe eventually hired and trained 18 other seamstresses to keep up with business, opening her own shop, the Annie Cone boutique. She became the first Black woman to become a renowned fashion designer and maintained her connections to high society. When Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy in 1953, Lowe designed the bridal gown, never getting the press she was due as a result of her race. Lowe would go on to open another store, Ann Lowe Originals. Today, her work lives on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Born Eugene Jackson on August 30, 1941, Jay Jaxon was the son of a Long Island Railroad worker and housekeeper, NY Times reports. Like many, he got his start in New York, gathering fabric on Jamaica Ave and making clothes at home. He graduated from F.I.T. in 1966, selling his designs at stores like Henri Bendel and Bonwit Teller. Eventually, he moved to Paris where he became a pioneer of French couture. Jaxon worked in Parisian fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, making both couture and ready-to-wear ensembles. In the mid-70s, he returned to New York to launch his own luxe sportswear collection. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, creating clothes for performers including Annie Lennox’s 1984 Grammy Awards suit.
Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, gaining his love of fashion from his mom and grandmother, FIT NYC reports. He studied art and African-American history at Jackson State for two years, moving to Atlanta in 1974. There he voluntarily designed window displays for an Yves Saint Laurent boutique, eventually moving to New York to enroll at Parsons School of Design. Annoyed with the lack of support at Parsons, Kelly moved to Paris in 1979. There he became known for his celebratory pop culture references and his ability to bring awareness to racist tropes and iconography during his shows. Kelly made history as the first American to be accepted into the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Today, his work continues as a framework for using fashion as a medium to address racial issues.
Born in Philadelphia in 1948, Willi Smith got his start as an intern with couturier Arnold Scaasi, The Guardian reports. Smith’s grandmother was a housekeeper for one of Scaasi’s clients and it’s assumed she had something to do with him getting the job. He went on to attend Parsons, looking to forge a design aesthetic that merged everyday clothing with high end tailoring. A contemporary of Kelly and Jaxon, Smith is part of a larger cadre of Black designers who made a name for themselves in the 70s and 80s. Widely credited as the inventor of streetwear, Smith is easily considered one of the most successful Black designers of his time. In 1976, he launched WilliWear Limited, grossing $25 million in sales by 1986. His style gained popularity during the 80s with the rise of hip-hop culture. In 1963, his fall collection, Street Couture, was one of the first to feature both music and dance performances. That same year, Smith made history as the youngest recipient ever of the American Fashion Critics’ Award for Women’s Fashion. Smith’s ability to make his clothing not only accessible, but also affordable helped to push for more inclusivity.
Stephen Burrows is a Newark, New Jersey native whose grandparents both worked in the garment district, FIT NYC reports. He graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966, going on to establish his own aesthetic. Inspired by movement and disco, Burrows took to light jersey fabrics, using his expert sewing techniques to finish the hems with zig-zag edging. The result was a “lettuce effect” that became Burrows signature. The curled hem gave an added flair, and Burrows unstructured flowy pieces helped set American fashion apart from Parisian fashion. In 1973, he was one of just 5 American designers to participate in the “Battle of Versailles” fashion show, a competition between American and French designers that would change the course of fashion. One of the first Black supermodels, Pat Cleveland, walked in the show for Burrows and his skill gained him international notoriety. Burrows would go on to become the first Black designer to win a Coty award. He also earned a star on the Fashion Walk of Fame, became the 2014 recipient of the André Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award and earned the Pratt Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. Burrows contributions to American fashion was the subject of a 2013 retrospective at The Museum of the City of New York titled Stephen Burrows: When Fashion Danced.
While this is just a snapshot of our design history, there are many more Black designers making history every day. There are absolutely no limitations when you know what’s possible. We can’t wait to support the next generation of fashion’s best and brightest!
Black designers who changed fashion history forever. Photos Courtesy of Ebony/L’Officiel/ZUMA Press/Alamy/Museum of the City of New York/Estate of Ruby Bailey