Black History of Fashion

Since it is black history month, I want to discuss 10 black designers that I learned about while doing research.

  1. Zelda Wynn Valdes

She was the first Black fashion designer. Zelda began her career as a tailor in White Plains, NY. She designed the original playboy bunny outfits in the 1950s, she also worked with entertainers like Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald, and more. She was the first black woman to own a shop on broadway in New York in 1948.

2. Arthur McGee

Arthur McGee was the first black designer to run the design room of a seventh avenue line. He dressed celebrities and created functional clothing for outlets like Saks Fifth Avenue. He mentored other working designers and working students of color. He also broke the racial barrier in the fashion industry by bringing more diversity to the business.

A photo of some of his work below.

3. Jon Haggins

Jon Haggins started getting into fashion when he was 15 (like myself). He began at Manhattan fashion show where he showed off his creative designs. After he finished school, he switched up his dress material from “stiff little dress,” to “drippy jersey.” The soft draped matte jersey design caught the attention of big fashion magazines, and everyone wanted in! He is known for his use of provocative necklines and bathing suit skimpiness, which earned him national recognition as one of the youngest nominees for the prestigious Coty Award.

A photo of one of his dresses below.

4. Jay Jaxson

Jay started his career in Paris in 1968. He made a name for himself working for big couture maisons like; Jean-Louis Scherrer, Yves Saint Laurent, and Marc Bohan. Jay created his own collections when he returned to NY, he still worked for other designers as well. He later moved to Cali, he created costumes for celebrities such as, Thelma Houston, Sammy Davis Jr., Luther Vandross and more. He also designed for television shows, which made him more known. His work will forever be appreciated.

Pictured below is Jay working on sketches.

5. Stephen Burrows

Stephen graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City in 1966. Strphen’s grandmother, Beatrice Simmons taught him how to sew and make clothes at an early age. He learned to create lettuce edging and visible stitch lines, which made his work iconic in the fashion world. After graduation, he worked as a fashion designer for Weber Originals. In 1969 he and a colleague named Roz Rubenstein launched a ready-to-west collection from the clothing store Bonwit Teller. After his shop O Boutique closed down due to his lack of business knowledge, he was presented with the opportunity to have his own work space, in which he opened up Stephen Burrows Workd. He worked with big figures like Diana Ross, Barbara Streisand and more. His work is still being worn today.

6. Willi Smith

Willi created inquisitive, tailored sportswear for women, he later designed menswear. His clothes were innovative and affordable, they also earned the title “Street Couture,” which is now called street wear, street style, or urban wear. He was inspired by the art around him, for he lived in a SoHo artist community. In 1965 he gained two scholarships to attended Parsons, he later dropped out to freelance in the fashion industry. He went on to design for Digits sportswear where he met Louis Mallet, and together they founded a woman’s wear line in 1976, called Williwear. Williwear has 11 collections, and was the first brand to house women’s wear and men’s wear under the same brand. Williwear was sold in over 500 stores, and was grossing over $25 million a year by 1986. Don’t let anything get in the way of your success!

7. Jeffrey Banks

Jeffrey studied at Pratt Institute from 1972-1974. He was a part- time assistant to Ralph Lauren, and Calvin Klein from 1972-1976. He worked for Nik Nik from 1976-77, and designed for many other brands after that. He created many garments and styles, he couldn’t get enough of fashion. He was known for his impeccable style, fashion and business sense, which is why he worked for so many brands.

8. Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly was a very interesting person, for he reclaimed blackface, and used the character on some of his clothing. It all began in 1985 when he sent a model down the runway in an all white dress with a cartoon image of blackface. Black face is the golliwog, a black character that we’re in English children’s books in 1885. She was described as “ugly yet friendly,” and “a horrid sight, the blackest gnome.” Its a symbol of racism. He used blackface to confront questions of race. He studied black history in school, that made him feel confident that he knew what he was doing. He was known for his bright, joyful, covering dresses in colorful colors and buttons, and designing funny tall hats. His blackface dresses never was seen as racially historical by white people, instead they referred to it as watermelons and “exotic” jungle prints. He died at 35, so he was not able to push his message and bring further awareness to his blackface clothing. I wonder is that is where brands like Prada, and Moncler, and other brands that use racist symbols on their clothes get the idea from. I’m sure their message has no meaning behind it when they do it.

9. Patrick Robinson

Patrick is the founder of the travel clothing line, Paskho. At age 10 he taught himself to make garment patterns from newspaper. He has worked with many big name designers; Armani Exchange and Paco Rabanne to name a few. He began making and selling garments to his friends in high school. He graduated from Parsons and soon flourished in the fashion world. He worked for Armani for 4 years where he learned many things that he took along with him when starting his own line. In 1997. He gained partners and more director positions with big names. His work speaks volumes!

10. Ed Austin

Ed learned how to sew from his mother, but he got his style from his grandma and grandpa. At 37 years old, he headed his own custom salon for five year, called Austin-Zurr. He worked as a Vice President for Halston Ltd., and a manager of retail operations in Halston’s first Madison Avenue boutique. He later went into business for himself because he liked to work one on one with his clients, who were mainly international. He was the only black designer to have a couture business on Madison Ave. Austin received the Fashion Institute award twice for design, and he had many people building their wardrobes there. He later went to Paris working for big fashion houses like Givenchy and Yves St. Laurent. He ended his career serving on the board of directors for Santa Barbara Jazz society in California, and was a sales consultant in the design salon at Saks Fifth Avenue.

This is by far my favorite blog. It took me two days to collect and write this information and the work made me feel good because I love doing research. I’ve known of a few designers here, but I took my time to take away the most important parts of their careers and share it with my fellow blogger and blog readers. I hope you appreciate this post as much a I appreciate writing it.

Happy Black History month!!!!

Asè ✊🏾

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