Fashion Flashback: Fashion Reverie Celebrates Black Fashion Designers

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As we are solidly in Black History Month, it is no consequence that New York Fashion week (NYFW) coincides with Black History Month. And though the two celebrations may seem world’s apart, in fact they are compatible bedfellows.

African Americans have had a very important role in US fashion for over a century, if not longer. Yet, despite their contributions very few black designers have received their just desserts in the American fashion markets. Apart from a few well-known black designers—Stephen Burrows, Willi Smith, Patrick Kelly, Tracey Reese, and more recently John Cristopher Rogers—most black designers remain unsung.

The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) Museum sought to rectify this exclusion by hosting an exhibit in 2016 and 2017 to black fashion designers. Many of whom were not well known to the fashion industry at large. Like most fashion designers, fashion designers of African descent do not speak with one voice, drawing inspiration from myriad cultural influences and points of view. However, the one element that rings loud and clear is their bold uses of color and embellishments, as well as their celebration of the feminine silhouette in all its variations.

This Fashion Flashback only touches on a few of the many black designers that have contributed greatly to the fashion industries.

Ann Lowe (December 14, 1898 – February 25, 1981)

For those who are unaware, black fashion designers have played a significant role in fashion for over 150 years. The breakout fashion designer in the pantheon of black fashion designers is Ann Lowe. Ann Lowe was the first black fashion designers to have a noted fashion career.

Educated at the S. T. Taylor Design School in New York City, where she attended privately because of segregation. After moving to Tampa and opening a successful dress salon, Lowe moved back to New York City and worked on commission for Henri Bendel, Chez Sonia, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Lowe designed Olivia de Haviland’s dress for her Academy Award win in the 1946 film “To Each His Own.” In 1950 Lowe with her son opened her salon, Ann Lowe Gowns, on Lexington Avenue. Her one-of-a-kind gowns made with the finest fabrics made her very successful, attracting society ladies and a wealthy clientele.

In 1953, Janet Lee Auchincloss hired Lowe to design a wedding dress for her daughter, the future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier, and the dresses for her bridal attendants for her September wedding to then-Senator John F. Kennedy. In 1961, Lowe won the Couturier of the Year Award. She retired in 1972.

Zelda Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1905 – September 26, 2001)

Zelda Wynn Valdes has been chronicled mostly for designing eveningwear for many black female celebrities and the celebrity wives of black entertainers. However, it should be noted that “Miss Wynn,” as she liked to be called, should be acknowledged on many fashion fronts.

Reared in Charlotte, North Carolina, Miss Wynn created garments for Josephine Baker, Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Marian Anderson, Jessye Norman, and the wife of Duke Ellington. In the 1950s, she moved her dressmaking business from Washington Heights to West 57th Street.

Miss Wynn later caught attention of Playboy’s Hugh Hefner and was commissioned to create the original Play Bunny costumes. She was one of the founders of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers, an industry group intended to promote black talent in the fashion industry. This group was established with the sponsorship of the National Council of Negro Women.

In 1970, Arthur Mitchell hired Miss Wynn to create costumes for the Dance Theatre of Harlem. Miss Wynn created costumes for over 85 Dance Theatre of Harlem productions. She continued to work with the Dance of Theatre of Harlem until right before her death in 2001 at the age of 97.

Stephen Burrows (September 15, 1943)

Born in Newark, New Jersey, Stephen Burrows has been heralded as one of the greatest American designers of his generation. Burrows studied at the FIT and later sold his designs to small shops in New York City. Eventually, Burrows began working with Andy Warhol and the club crowd that populated Max’s Kansas City. After Burrows experienced modest success selling his garments at the O Boutique, which was across the street from Max’s Kansas City, Burrows’ collection was picked up by Bendel’s with his own shop within the store. And in 1973, his lingerie/sleepwear line was picked up by Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor, and Bloomingdales.

Burrows has won many Coty Awards, which was predecessor of the CFDA Awards. He has dressed Brooke Shields, Farah Fawcett, Diana Ross, Cher, Bette Midler, Barbara Streisand, and First Lady Michelle Obama. It has been said the Burrows’ collections were the embodiment of the frenzied sexuality of the 1970s.

Stephen Burrows was one of the five designers that were invited to showcase their collections at the iconic Battle of Versailles. In May 2006, the Council of Fashion Designers of America honored Burrows with “The Board of Directors Special Tribute. Around the same time, Burrows was invited by the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode to return to Paris to present his spring/summer 2007 Collection in the Carousel de Louvre.

In 2010 Burrows opened his new showroom and workspace in New York City’s Garment District.

Ola Hudson (October 12, 1946 – June 5, 2009)

Though Ola Hudson may not be on the radar of black fashion designers that have had a significant impact on the fashion industry, Fashion Reverie believes that her contributions are worth noting.

Hudson is documented as having a fashion career mostly in London; however, her roots go back to the US where she pursued a career as modern dancer studying with the famed Lester Horton Dance Company in the 1960s. After continuing her dance studies in Paris, Switzerland, and London, Hudson settled in London and began designing stage costumes for David Bowie, Ringo Starr, and John Lennon.

After moving back to the states, Hudson designed stage costumes for the Pointer Sisters, Diana Ross, and Janet Jackson. She established her fashion design company Ola Hudson Enterprises, Incorporated in Los Angeles, making special collections for Neiman Marcus in Beverly Hills, Maxfield Blu in Los Angeles, Henri Bendel, and Right Bank Clothing.

Hudson’s design aesthetic focused on minimalism with a retrospective look back to the 1940s. Hudson designed clothing for “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and for “Station to Station.” She also created the black pants and waistcoat for David Bowie’s Thin White Duke look in 1976. Some of the items she designed for Bowie are part of the permanent collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Ola Hudson is also the mother of Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.

Patrick Kelly (September 24, 1954 – January 1, 1990) 

Fashion Reverie has a special connection to the late Patrick Kelly. Former Fashion Reverie advisor and friend to the site Supermodel Coco Mitchell was one of Kelly’s model muses.

Though Patrick Kelly’s fame was centered mostly in Paris, his collections embody a strong American sportswear aesthetic. Kelly was the first American to be admitted to the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, the prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry.

Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Patrick Kelly started his career working in a thrift shop in Atlanta. Kelly would take garments from thrift stores and repurpose the garments, selling them alongside his original designs in a beauty salon.

A chance meeting with Supermodel Pat Cleveland in 1979 convinced Kelly that he should move to New York City to advance his career. After an uneventful year in New York City, at the suggestion of Pat Cleveland, Kelly moved to Paris.

In Paris, Patrick Kelly experienced immediate success with his buttons and pins that were parodies of African American culture adorning slinky bright-colored jersey dresses. After his designs were picked up by the trendsetting Paris boutique, Victoire, Kelly began attracting a celebrity clientele that included Bette Davis, Paloma Picasso, Cicely Tyson, Goldie Hawn, and Grace Jones. Around the same time, Kelly was feature in a six-page spread in French edition of Elle Magazine.

Bette Davis helped introduce Kelly to executives at Warnaco, the American textile company. In 1987, Warnaco offered to manufacture Kelly’s garments and with their support Kelly’s collections could be found in major department stores around the world. Patrick Kelly told People Magazine in 1987, “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is, you’re beautiful just the way you are.”

Just as Kelly was about to launch into fragrances, cosmetics, and menswear, he was crippled by opportunistic infections due to his HIV infection. Patrick Kelly died in 1990. An exhibit of his work “Patrick Kelly, Runway of Love” was seen at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2014.

Byron Lars (January 19, 1965)

Byron Lars is another unsung African American fashion designer. After studying at FIT, Lars briefly worked as a freelance designer for Kevan Hall, Gary Gatyas, Nancy Crystal Blouse Co., and others.

In 1990, Lars sold some of his designs to Henri Bendel and in 1991 he received orders from Bloomingdale’s, Neiman Marcus, and other high-end retailers. His collections won widespread acclaim, and Lars was named Women’s Wear Daily’s Rookie of the Year.

Lars’ 15 minutes of fame lasted more than an actual 15 minutes. However, staying power has been a challenge for Lars. After staging themed fashion shows during NYFW that got him good press and having pop-ups stores in Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales, Lars’ rising star started to fade, hitting the proverbial fashion wall.

“Byron had the support of the stores,” Ms. Wheaton said who ran Byron Lars at one time, as reported in The New York Times. “They all respected him because his clothes sold, even before he had a financial backer. But we couldn’t get Vogue to come up to the showroom. He got mentions from time to time but no steady coverage like the others.”

Lars explains further, “It’s evident that the playing field isn’t level. It’s not that there was a lack of Black talent. It’s just that few of us have ever been seen. Something is amiss. By the law of averages, there should have been more Black designers up there than there have been. That’s all I will say.”

In the 2000s, Lars continued his brand by selling to Anthropologie. His dress, Carissima, sold 60,000 units. Lars has dressed former First Lady Michelle Obama and in 2011 forged a relationship with Xiaochong who sells his new brand Byron Lars Beauty Mark online and in China. In 2018, 5,500 pieces—seven styles of dresses, skirts, blouses, and jackets—sold out, Xiaochong confirmed. Eight minutes later, another 4,000 garments had been spoken for, prepaid to be delivered in June.

Christopher John Rogers (1994)

If you watched President Joseph Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ inauguration, you would have noticed VP Kamala Harris wearing Rogers’ purple coat. Never one to shy away from bold color, Rogers told NPR, “I don’t think that wearing hot pink and ruffles or bright yellow, or a really intense blue in shapes that take up space make you any less intelligent.” He continued, “I don’t think that the way that you dress should make you sacrifice your personality, or your point of view, or necessarily say anything about your intelligence.”

A native of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Christopher John Rogers studied at the Savannah College of Art and Design. In 2016 Christopher John Rogers sold his  made-to-order garments from his studio in Brooklyn.

 Rogers has come a long way from selling from his studio in Brooklyn. He has dressed former First Lady Michelle Obama, Lizzo, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Cardi B., Tracee Ellis Ross, Priyanka Chopra, Gabrielle Union, Karlie Kloss, Zendaya, and Rihanna. And in 2019 Rogers won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, and his runway shows are some of the coveted fashion shows during NYFW.

What makes Christopher John Rogers so special? Rogers is special because he is not afraid to use bold color and fabrics that reflect the light. His garments flow effortlessly, giving the illusion of floating around the body.

In a September 2020, Vanity Fair interview, Rogers explained, “I love fabrics that play with light—anything iridescent or metallic or shiny; sequined—but anything that plays with light is associated with having money.  Some of my white professors in art school saw my work and thought it was tacky. They wrote it off as out of touch and too tailored.” Hmm, they probably are eating their words now!!

—William S. Gooch

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