8 Black Designers Who Changed Fashion History Forever


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by BOTTWC staff

Black designers
8 Black Designers Who Changed Fashion History Forever

It’s no secret that mainstream culture is black culture, and more importantly, black style is the foundation of all cool things. Still, many conveniently want to leave that room, choosing to relabel our natural patterns under a newly named term, 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 long fashion ancestors and spouses. The magic of black fashion is not a new concept, and fashion engines like Kahlana Barfield and Samantha Black have been able to run mainly because legends like Andre Leon Talley have gone.

While some of our fashion forebears, like Dapper Dan, were relegated to decades of obscurity by gatekeepers, torchbearers like Sean “Diddy” Combs took hold where none existed. This will be done with the help of social media’s long memory for OGS. And now that brands like Dap and Karl Kanye are back in the game, the new generation is able to give them their due.

It’s impossible to know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve been, and it’s our oral duty to keep our readers up-to-date on Black Emissions – 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’Official.

Elizabeth Keckley

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley
In the year Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley circa 1861 Photo courtesy of Moorland-Spingarn Research Center/Howard University

Keckley, a native of Virginia, was born into slavery. She eventually found a job as a seamstress, traveling across the country making costumes and history as a costume designer and close confidant of Abraham Lincoln’s wife, former First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Keckle used money she earned as a seamstress and gifts from supporters to buy her freedom, according to a White House story. In 1868, she published her memoirs Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, And Four years in the White House. Her reflections on her life and clothing success made her one of the most influential women in Washington, D.C., and later provided insight into the lives of free and enslaved black women during those times.

Zelda Wynn Valdes

Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes. Photo courtesy of Ebony/L’Officiel

Born in 1905 in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, Zelda Wynne Valdes began learning from her grandfather, who worked as a seamstress, and her uncle, who owned a tailor shop, according to Black Past. She also worked as a warehouse clerk for various boutiques, eventually opening her own store in 1948 at the age of 47. “Chez Zelda” became the first black-owned boutique on Broadway in Manhattan. Valdes has served as a fashion and costume designer for many famous clients, including Ella Fitzgerald, Mariah Cole, Nat King Cole’s wife, Josephine Baker, Ruby Dee, Erza Keith, and Marian Anderson. In the year In 1949, Valdes was elected president of the National Society of Fashion and Accessory Designers of New York. NAFAD was an association of black designers founded by education activist Mary McLeod Bethune.

Ruby Bailey

Ruby Bailey
Ruby Bailey. Photo courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York/Ruby Bailey State

Ruby Bailey said both women were on the scene at the same time as Valdes in the development of NAFAD. The Bermuda-born designer was a socialite in Harlem, known for her creative work in everything from theater productions to visual arts, the Harlem World reported. However, what set them apart was Bailey’s design aesthetic, widely known for her bold prints and daring designs. In the year Bailey’s embellished prints, like the famous “Bugs” cocktail dress she wore at the Savoy Ballroom in 1953-1954, changed the direction of avant-garde fashion.

Anne Lowe

Anne Lowe
Anne Lowe. Photo courtesy of the Tallahassee Democrat

Anne Lowe is descended from a long line of seamstresses, her mother an embroiderer and her grandmother a former slave seamstress. Both women taught Lowe how to sew when he was five, according to the NMAAHC. The Alabama native eventually moved to Florida, where he worked as a live-in dressmaker for Tampa socialite Josephine Edwards Lee. She eventually travels to New York to attend school before returning to Florida where she sets up shop that caters to formal wear such as ball gowns and cotillion costumes. Lowe eventually hired and trained 18 other seamstresses and opened her own shop, Annie Cone Boutique. She became the first black woman to become a famous fashion designer and maintained her connection to high society. When Jacqueline Bouvier married John F. Kennedy in 1953, Lowe designed the bride’s dress and never got the press she deserved because of her race. Lowe’s would go on to open another store, Ann Lowe’s Original. Today, her work resides in the Metropolitan Museum.

Jay Jackson

Jay Jackson
Jay Jackson in Paris, 2010 Around 1972. Photo courtesy of Zuma Press/Alami

In the year Born Eugene Jackson on August 30, 1941, Jay Jackson was the son of a Long Island Railroad worker and a housekeeper, according to the NY Times. Like the others, he started out in New York, picking cloth and making clothes on Jamaica Ave. He graduated from FIT in 1966, selling his designs to stores such as Henri Bendel and Bonwit Teller. Eventually he moved to Paris and became a pioneer of French couture. Jackson designed both couture and ready-to-wear collections for Parisian fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. In the mid-70s, he returned to New York to start his own luxury sportswear collection. He eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he created costumes for performers, including Annie Lennox’s 1984 Grammy Awards dress.

Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly. Photo by Frederick Regline/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images/Philadelphia Museum of Art

Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and is getting his love of fashion from his mother and grandmother, according to FIT NYC. He studied art and African-American history at Jackson State for two years before moving to Atlanta in 1974. There he volunteered to design window displays for the Yves Saint Laurent boutique and eventually moved to New York to enroll at the Parsons School of Design. Frustrated by Parsons’ lack of support, Kelly Kelly made history as the first American to be accepted by 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.

Willie Smith

Will Smith
Willie Smith Around 1981. Photo by Kim Steele/Aperture

In the year Willie Smith, born in Philadelphia in 1948, started out as an apprentice with courier Arnold Scaci, The Guardian reports. Smith’s grandmother was a housekeeper for Scaci’s clients and is believed to have had something to do with getting the job. He moved to Parsons to establish a design aesthetic that fuses casual wear with haute couture. A contemporary of Kelly and Jackson, Smith is part of a large 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 the year In 1976, he founded Wiley Ware Ltd., which by 1986 had sales of $25 million. His style became popular with the rise of hip-hop culture in the 80s. In the year In 1963 his fall collection, Street Couture, was one of the first to feature both musical and dance performances. That same year, Smith made history by winning the American Fashion Critics Women’s Fashion Award. Smith’s ability to make clothing not only accessible, but also affordable, has helped further.

Stephen Burroughs

Stephen Burroughs
Photo by Stephen Burroughs/Custom Collaborative/FIT NYC

Stephen Burrows is a native of Newark, New Jersey, whose grandparents both worked in the garment district, FIT NYC reports. In the year After graduating from the Institute of Fashion Technology in 1966, he began to establish his own beauty salon. Inspired by movement and disco, Burroughs took jersey fabrics to light using expert sewing techniques to finish the edges with a zig-zag edge. The result was Burroughs’ signature “salad effect.” The curved hem gave added flair, and Burroughs’ unstructured flowing pieces helped distinguish American fashion from Parisian fashion. In the year In 1973, he was one of 5 American designers to participate in a competition between American and French designers that changed the course of fashion. Pat Cleveland, one of the first black supermodels, walked the runway for Burrows and his skills gained him international fame. Burroughs would go on to become the first black designer to win a Coty Award. He also starred on the Fashion Walk, was awarded the 2014 Andre Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award, and received the Pratt Institute Lifetime Achievement Award. Burroughs’ contribution to American fashion It was a subject that returned in 2013 under the title Museum of the City of New York. Stephen Burroughs: When Fashion Dances.

While this is a snapshot of our design history, there are many black designers making history every day. There are no limits when you know what is 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



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