FIT Museum Spotlights Black Designers

Patrick Kelly 1989 & Duro Olowu 2012
Photos by Laurel Marcus
Click images for full size views

The Museum at FIT Curators Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way bring “Black Fashion Designers” to the forefront in their new exhibition (on view now through May 16, 2017) but not without a caveat. “The curators acknowledge the problem of using race as a lens through which to view fashion design,” states the exhibition program, which mentions Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond’s ennui over being described as a “black designer.”

Edward Wilkerson, Martin Cooper, Patrick Robinson, Olivier Rousteing

Ultimately, Elia and Way decided that because black designers have often gone “unrecognized and underrepresented, there is much to be learned from such an exhibition…” citing the statistic that black designers truly are the one percent — as in only one percent are covered by “the most comprehensive online site for viewing collections from fashion weeks around the world” — Most importantly perhaps is that the designers featured here “work in a diverse range of individual styles; they do not all speak in one voice,” something that should be obvious in any ethnic group or really any group, as people are individuals.

Stephen Burrows, Scott Barrie, Fabrice Simon

The exhibition culls together many of the most popular (and some that are a bit under the radar) African and African-American designers from the 1950’s to the present with 75 looks from the museum’s permanent collection. Interestingly, although they were still segregated within the fashion industry, black designers began to gain recognition in the late 1940’s.

Ann Lowe, B. Michael,CD Greene (worn by Tina Turner),
& Bruce Oldfield (Designed for Princess Diana

A section on blacks breaking into the industry features those who began as dressmakers such as New Yorker Zelda Wynn Valdes and Ann Lowe. Valdes dressed celebs of the day such as Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Dorothy Dandridge, Eartha Kitt, Marian Anderson, Joyce Bryant, the entire bridal party of the 1948 Marie Ellington and Nat King Cole and created the original “bullet shaped” Playboy Bunny” costume. Ann Lowe had a high-society clientele and is best known for designing the wedding gown worn by Jacqueline Kennedy.

Eric Gaskins, Kevan Hall, LaQuan Smith (worn by Kim Kardashian), Lawrence Steele,
Rubin and Chapelle

Many black designers traditionally made their mark on the industry with eveningwear, which is showcased here including onetime Hubert de Givenchy apprentice Eric Gaskin’s 2014 black & white gown of crushed bugle beads inspired by a painting by Franz Kline, along with gowns by Cushnie & Ochs, B. Michael and Lawrence Steele, just to name a few. Others worked for New York manufacturers before establishing their own business such as Arthur McGee (who became the first African-American to run a design room of an established apparel company at Bobby Brooks), Wesley Tann and Jon Weston.

Willi Smith, Tracy Reese, Charles Harbison

In the late ’60s, “black is beautiful” became a familiar phrase ushering in the 1970’s as the era of the black designer who popularized new modes of dress for the disco music era. Stephen Burrows (of the “accidental” discovery — the over stretched fabric which became the lettuce edged dress), Scott Barrie, Fabrice Simon, James Daugherty and Jon Haggins all reveled in creating the unstructured, body-conscious, jersey looks that lent themselves to dancing all night at Studio 54.

Beverly Johnson Vogue cover

Black models increased their visibility thanks to events such as the annual Ebony Fashion Fair (where Pat Cleveland was discovered), as well as the all-important and ever-historic 1973 “Battle of Versailles” with its 10 energetic black fashion models on the runway, capturing the world’s attention and putting American fashion on the map.  Beverly Johnson broke barriers as the first woman of color on the cover of the August 1974 edition of American Vogue. In the background, a video monitor featuring journalist and author of the book “The Battle of Versailles” Robin Givhan, in conversation about model diversity with Riley Montana, Bethann Hardison and model Veronica Webb.

Patrick Kelly, Stella Jean, Lisa Folawiyo, Mimi Plange, Aisha Ayensu

Fashion of the 1980’s would not be complete without stars such as Patrick Kelly whose button dress was inspired by his southern grandma who sewed mismatched buttons on his clothing.  This dress was worn and promoted by Bette Davis on the David Letterman Show in 1987 and is featured at the entrance to the exhibition. Willi Smith of Williwear was another designer at the top when he too succumbed to AIDS. The exhibition contains a section on African influences including kente cloth, patterns and textiles in fashion with looks from Kelly, Stella Jean, Lisa Folawiyo, Mimi Plange and Aisha Ayensu. Gotta love the Stella Jean/Christian Louboutin “evil eye” boots featured here. Duro Olowu’s multi-colored ensemble, featured next to Kelly’s at the exhibition entrance, would also fit in here.

Isaia Rankin, Dapper Dan of Harlem, Cross Colours, Pyer Moss,
Off-White (Virgil Abloh)

Other areas covered are menswear featuring Ozwald Boateng, and the father-son team of Casely-Hayford; Street Style featuring Isaia Rankin, Dapper Dan of Harlem, Cross Colours, Pyer Moss and Virgil Abloh of Off-White (so named because he identifies his customer as neither black nor white); and Activism featuring Public School, Xuly Bet, Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherry and Pyer Moss.Worth mentioning is the last grouping of menswear adapted for women.  The classic tailored Oxford men’s shirt is reinterpreted in a wrap dress Byron Lars (2014) and in a pinstriped skirt suit with playing dice buttons by Patrick Kelly (1989); these are the clothes that stand the test of time while being uniquely playful.

Byron Lars, Patrick Kelly

To enhance your visit (or give a sneak preview of what you’ll find here) check out the Black Fashion Designers cellphone tour (you’ll need headphones) at  It works sans headphones on the computer too.

– Laurel Marcus

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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