Black style is so prominent that the first word of the couplet is practically unnecessary; very little that’s stylish doesn’t have some black antecedent. On the other hand, black fashion designers? They are some of the other hidden figures on the cultural landscape.
That’s what makes "Black Fashion Designers," the exhibit that runs until May 16 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City, so vital and important.
For decades, black designers have been at the forefront of fashion despite facing all the challenges that daunt any new businessperson, as well as resisting the pigeonholing that comes from not being a member of the dominant demographic.
Yet, as the exhibit shows, there’s an extraordinary range of aesthetic splendor and unique accomplishment. For instance, the wedding gown of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was designed by Ann Lowe, an African-American designer. The iconic Playboy Bunny uniform was designed by Zelda Wynn, also a black designer. Laura Smalls, one of many Afro-Diasporic designers championed by Michelle Obama, designed the red-and-white-print dress the first lady wore in July for her appearance in "Carpool Karaoke."
In all, the exhibit features 75 outfits from 60 designers, plus videos of discussions headed by Washington Post fashion editor Robin Givhan and Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley.
Black designers rose to prominence in the ’40s and have fought for recognition and respect from the industry for more than 70 years. The exhibit details their struggles and those of black models, but the best part is the wide range of style.
Some designers draw on their African heritage, abstracting kente cloth or scarification. Others offer a bold, futuristic outlook. All of the clothing displayed shows that the same extraordinary power found on the streets where we live is also on display on the runway and in the ateliers where high fashion is home.
Here are several designers who stand out in the exhibit.
Lowe (1898-1981), who designed the ivory silk taffeta wedding dress for Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis’ marriage to John F. Kennedy, grew up in Alabama, the daughter and granddaughter of women who worked as seamstresses but also designed clothing.
When Lowe was 16, her mother died while working on a series of ball gowns for Alabama’s first lady, Elizabeth Kirkman. Lowe stepped in and completed the project, then attended a segregated design school. She settled in Tampa, Fla., and opened a boutique called Annie Cohen.
She later moved to New York City, where she did commissions for leading retailers and designed the Oscar gown that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept the award for To Each His Own in 1946. Lowe later opened a boutique in New York City's Manhattan, designing for wealthy clientele. The Saturday Evening Post called her “society’s best-kept secret.”
In a brief amount of time, Kelly (1954-1990) took the fashion world by storm. He grew up in Vicksburg Miss., and fell in love with fashion both via the creativity of his relatives and from the magazines that his grandmother, a domestic, brought home from work.
He moved to Atlanta, where he designed the windows for the Yves Saint Laurent boutique. He then moved to Paris and quickly went from selling dresses on the street to presenting his own line of clothing. His clients included Cicely Tyson, Bette Davis and Grace Jones.
Nigerian-born and London-based, Olowu came to fashion after starting a career as a lawyer. His work is renowned for mixing African and American iconography. Olowu, the husband of Studio Museum Director Thelma Golden, regularly presents during Fashion Week and has done collections for J.C. Penney.
He was one of four designers chosen by Michelle Obama to decorate the White House for Christmas in 2015, and he curates the prestigious London exhibit “Making and Unmaking.” He told the New York Times that he collects fabric the way some people collect Rolexes.
Gaskins was born in Germany and grew up in New York City, where he now lives. He has said that his aim is to make clothing that is essential and without artifice and contrivance. He launched his own line in 1987, and his clothes have appeared on the covers of Harper’s Bazaar, Vanity Fair and Glamour.
His clients include Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Mariah Carey and Jada Pinkett Smith. In the ’00s, he scandalized the fashion world as one of the anonymous writers behind the tell-all blog the Emperor’s Old Clothes.
Walker, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., got his start at an early age. He staged his first runway show at the New York City nightclub Oasis when he was only 15 years old.
He worked in Paris in the ’90s, and his idea of the pant skirt was the inspiration for Jean-Paul Gaultier’s works in a similar vein. Patricia Field described him as “the future of the new designers.” After a few years out of the spotlight when he was consulting for Marc Jacobs, he has returned with a Dover Street Market line of clothes that aim for what W magazine called “retail-friendly yet lofty.”
Obuobi, the designer behind the company Christie Brown, is widely considered one of the leading fashion designers in Africa. Her company is based in Accra, Ghana, and her work is an integral part of Italian fashion week. Her clothes were worn frequently by Beyoncé during the On the Run Tour. Obuobi recently told Elle magazine’s South Africa edition: “I’d like for our clothes to be part of the African woman’s journey to self-discovery. Because I believe that it is from knowing and appreciating where she’s from, that she’ll truly be able to come into her own.”