Written by Kathryn Andes
With February kicking off Black History Month, we will be taking a look back at some of the most influential and groundbreaking Black fashion designers throughout the years. In the fashion industry, luxury brands have been called out for lack of diversity and inclusivity. It isn't uncommon in our history that Black designers were discredited for their innovative and creative designs, often never receiving recognition, or fair compensation. These creative designers have made a spot for themselves in the industry that simply didn’t exist prior, they would later pave the way for talented Black designers to follow.
From Ann Lowe to Dapper Dan to Telfar Clemens, DoubleTake pays tribute to Black designers who have changed the fashion history and made a name for themselves in a predominantly white and eurocentric environment. Today, these designers still continue to spread awareness and advocate for BIPOC creatives.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
(Courtesy of shemadehistory.com)
Zelda Wynn Valdes was a fashion designer to the stars who had expertise in dressing curvy and plus size celebrities, one of her regulars was Ella Fitzgerald. According to an article in the New York Times, Valdes only fit Fitzgerald once in 12 years and could easily alter garments for her just by looking at her picture.
During Jim Crow segregation the title “designer” or “couturier” was typically reserved for esteemed white men, even though Valdes was more than qualified for the title “designer”, she continued as a seamstress while working towards bigger goals.
Valdes came to design for socialites such as Edna Mae Robinson wife of Sugar Ray Robinson, and even created all the wedding attire for Nat King Cole and his wife Maria Ellington. In 1949 she was an essential part of forming the National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers to elevate Black female designers and advocate for diversity in the fashion industry. She later opened her own store in Midtown Manhattan, curating a list of exclusive high profile clients.
(Courtesy of thevintagewomanmagazine.com)
Ann Lowe started her career when tasked to create 4 ball gown dresses for the First Lady of Alabama. In 1950 Lowe opened her own dress shop in Harlem, New York where she was the go to dress maker for New York’s high society, including the Rockafellars and the Roosevelts. In 1953 Lowe was asked to create Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress, although this was a great accomplishment by name recognition, Lowe was not compensated fairly and did not receive proper recognition for her work. Despite her struggles, Lowe became the first Black woman to own a store on Madison Ave.
(Courtesy of news.fitnyc.edu)
In the late 60’s and early 70’s Jay Jaxon was a talented young designer who worked in the fashion houses of Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. He created couture and ready to wear for luxury designers in Paris, France. He was brought up in Jamaica, Queens, New York and learned how to create clothing in high school by working with locally sourced fabrics and creating designs at home. After graduating from F.I.T Jaxon sold his designs to stores such as Henri Bendel and Bonwit Teller. After designing for the likes of Pierre Cardin in Paris, Jaxon moved his career to Los Angeles where he dressed celebrities for the Grammys and for popular TV shows and films, such as “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” (2005).
(Courtesy of poba.org)
Patrick Kelly started his career in fashion by working in Atlanta as the window dresser for the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. Shortly after, he moved to Paris and became the first American designer to be sold in the famous French boutique, Victoire. This career defining moment led to a feature in Elle France, and he was soon internationally recognized by socialites and celebrities such as Princess Diana and Madonna. Kelly used his background of African history to his advantage by confronting racism through fashion. He reclaimed symbols of Black oppression such as blackface and used it in his fashion lines. In 1998 Patrick Kelly was the first African American designer to be accepted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in Paris, the prestigious French ready-to-wear association.
(Courtesy of fashionhistory.fitnyc.edu)
Stephen Burrows started his career by opening a “Stephen Burrows'' boutique at the infamous Henri Bendels store. His collections won the attention of celebrities like Diana Ross and Cher. Burrows’s clothing was synonymous with the disco aesthetic, honing in on glimmery fabrics like silk. The lettuce hem would later become his trademark. In a face off between American and French designers, Burrows was chosen along with Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein to represent America in the Battle of Versailles, a competition of high fashion against Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro. Later in life Burrows received “The Board of Directors Special Tribute” by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
(Courtesy of nytimes.com)
Dapper Dan is known for providing rap culture with its signature style in the 1980’s, reworking traditional luxury products such as Louis Vuitton monogrammed cosmetic pouches and Fendi clothing for emerging hip-hop artists and athletes, such as LL Cool J, James Jackson, and Floyd Mayweather. Dapper Dan was quickly recognized by large name luxury fashion houses and legal actions were taken for the unlawful use of their brand logos. In 2017, after Gucci was presumed to have stolen a design for a bomber jacket from Dan, he was invited to design a capsule collection for the Italian fashion house. Now, Dan has an invitation-only luxury atelier in Harlem, New York.
(Courtesy of vogue.com)
Virgil Abloh started his fashion career in 2009 as an intern for Fendi and befriended fellow intern Kanye West. In 2012 Abloh launched his own line printing his logo on deadstock Ralph Lauren T-shirts and flannels. In 2013 Abloh created “Off-White” focusing on luxury streetwear as an art form. After his start up brand became beloved by celebrities and socialites he was named the artistic director of Louis Vuitton menswear collection in 2018.
(Courtesy of time.com)
In 2005, as an undergraduate at Pace University in New York Telfar Clemens started his brand. Inspired by people he saw on the streets of New York, his brand focused on crossing gender lines. In 2017, Clemens won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, and invested that money into production of the Telfar Shopping bag, his most successful piece as seen on celebrities such as Issa Rae, Beyonce, and Gabrielle Union.
(Courtesy of twitter.com)
Rousteing began his career designing for Roberto Cavalli, eventually becoming Creative Director of the womenswear division. A few years later, he moved to Balmain where he ran the womens ready to wear collection, and used his skills on social media to create a following for the brand. Rousteing cultivated what he calls his “Balmain Army” composed of influencers dressed in the brand’s signature military style. After honing in on their digital marketing the brand created themed Snapchat filters, a personalized app, and a digital flagship store. Balmain was one of the first luxury fashion houses to partake in Instagram’s shopping feature in 2019.
(Courtesy of allure.com)
Rihanna made waves in the fashion industry in 2017 by becoming the first Black female designer to head an LVMH owned brand. The fashion and beauty icon is known for her street style, advocacy for the Black community and Black brands, award winning music, and her success in Savage x Fenty, Fenty Beauty, and the newer Fenty Skin.
These Black designers have carved out spaces for themselves in the fashion industry fighting against racism and exclusivity. This month and every month we pay homage to the archetypal Black designers that created so many of our favorite looks. For more information on Black History Month visit history.com.