Remembering the Black Designers That Fashion Forgot

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Willi Smith Black Fashion Designers
Photo: Courtesy of W Magazine

“The new racism is to deny that racism exists.”

The undeniable truth is that racism exists everywhere and fashion, unfortunately, is no exception. Ironically, an industry that thrives on buzzwords like “inclusivity” and “equality” is sitting on a long history of overlooking creative people of color.

Topics of racial injustice and allyship have rightly taken center stage as protests erupted worldwide following the death of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police in America.

As much as his wrongful death was a match that lit the spark, racial discrimination has long existed in society and it’s time to uproot it and eradicate it. For fashion, this begins with awarding recognition to those who have been excluded. While the fashion industry has undoubtedly capitalized on black culture, it has failed, repeatedly, to give credit to and applaud the achievements of black designers throughout history.

There are fashion designers so enduringly and widely famous that they are known simply by their first names: Miuccia, Karl, Christian, Yves. However, the same cannot be said about any black designers, no matter how formidable their talent or how groundbreaking their careers.

Realizing that a change is long overdue, we at Savoir Flair have put together a list of incredibly talented black fashion designers that not only deserve to be recognized but to be remembered and celebrated for their accomplishments, now and forever.

Ann Lowe

More than 66 years ago, Jacqueline Bouvier walked the aisle in an ivory silk-taffeta gown to marry her fiancé, then-senator John F. Kennedy. News publications covered every detail of the lavish wedding, except for one – the black dressmaker behind the bride’s ensemble. While Jackie Kennedy‘s fairytale wedding gown still enjoys a proud position amongst the most talked-about wedding dresses of all time, the dressmaker behind the iconic creation remains somewhat an unsung hero.

Ann Cole Lowe – a black-American couturier – was born in 1898 to a family of dressmakers. Learning to sew at the feet of her mother and grandmother (a freed slave) who were both seamstresses to wealthy Alabama elites, Lowe grew up to be known as “society’s best-kept secret”. Her long list of clients included the crème de la crème of American high society – the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, the du Ponts  – as word of her brilliance spread. Her name, however, did not.

Not only was Lowe denied credit for her skills, but her clientele often took advantage by paying only a fraction of what her designs were worth, thus pushing her into debt.

Black Designers
Photo: Courtesy of Seldon News

Willi Smith

If you were to scan the history of American sportswear, names like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren would inevitably pop up. The sartorial history books, however, conveniently forget to mention WilliWear, a sportswear label by black designer, Willi Smith, that was valued at a whopping $25 million dollars before the designer’s death in 1986.

Smith was not only the pioneer of modern streetwear but he was also ahead of his time in so many other ways. Way before “inclusivity” was granted the status of a buzzword, Smith was dedicated to creating a label that broke down the barriers of gender, size, race, and elitism. “I don’t design clothes for the Queen, but for the people who wave at her as she goes by,” Smith once said. The visionary designer also successfully collaborated with artists, designers, and performers — which was not a common practice back in the day.

Drawing inspiration from the youth, Smith aspired to be a “people’s designer” by creating comfortable and affordable clothing. “I have it through my head now to give women simple, packaged clothes that adapt to a lifestyle, rich or poor. People really only need a few clothes,” Smith told Women’s Wear Daily in 1972. As a result of his efforts, he is largely credited with the creation of streetwear.

Unfortunately, he was overlooked by the industry for decades and never truly given recognition for his pioneering efforts until this year, when the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum curated an exhibition – Willi Smith: Street Couture. The exhibition – which had to be moved online due to the pandemic – is now accessible to everybody, much like the iconic designer’s label.

Willi Smith Black Fashion Designers
Photo: Courtesy of W Magazine

Zelda Wynn Valdes

You might not have heard of Zelda Wynn Valdes, but you’ve almost certainly seen her designs. Valdes was the creative genius behind the original Playboy ‘Bunny’ costume – a strapless bodysuit paired with bunny ears, a bow-tie, collar, and a fluffy tail. It would go down in history as the iconic symbol of feminine allure. Not only is the suit etched forever into pop culture, but it is also the first-ever service uniform to be patented in the US.

There is more to this talented woman than the bunny suit. Way before fashion’s inclusivity movement took off, Valdes was known for her skill of fitting her creations on any body type. Her curve-hugging designs were worn by the likes of Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald,  Dorothy Dandridge, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West. Valdes’ body-hugging designs were also known to play a tremendous role in defining the look of Joyce Bryant – a famous cabaret singer at the time.

In 1948, Valdes inaugurated her boutique Chez Zelda on Broadway in New York, making her the first African-American to own a store on the street. Although her impact on both fashion and pop culture can hardly be denied, Valdes’ contributions have unfortunately been overlooked.

Zelda Wynn Valdes Black Fashion Designers
Photo: Courtesy of Pinterest

Jay Jaxon

Did you know that the first American to head a French couture brand was black?

Born in Queens, New York, in 1941, Jay Jaxon fell in love with fashion and before long his passion for design led him to the cobbled streets of Paris. He then trained under legendary designers, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior before taking over the helms at Jean Louis Scherrer at the age of 24 in 1965. He is also known to have worked on key collections for Pierre Cardin. But, that’s not all.

After returning to the US, Jaxon’s glamorous list of clients included celebrities like Thelma Houston and Diahann Carroll. During his long fashion career, Jaxon also worked for a couple of TV productions like Ally McBeal and he also created the costumes of the film Mr. and Mrs. Smith.

Jay Jaxon Black Fashion Designers
Photo: Courtesy of Fibers

Patrick Kelly

Until recently, the majority of fashion runways lacked diversity. Patrick Kelly, however, cast models of color to showcase his designs back in the 80s. Born in Mississippi, in 1954, Kelly was introduced to the world of fashion and glamor by his female relatives who brought back fashion magazines from the households they worked in.

Kelly’s journey — from an unpaid window-dresser at an Yves Saint Laurent store in Atlanta to becoming the first American member of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter (the governing body of the prestigious French ready-to-wear industry) — is inspiring, to say the least. Kelly charmed Paris with his flamboyant designs, backed by Pierre Bergé, who is said to have funded Kelly’s label.

Not only were his designs stocked at popular department stores like Bloomingdale’s and Bergdorf Goodman, but were also loved and popularized by the likes of Grace Jones, Isabella Rossellini, and Betty Davis. It is safe to say that Kelly’s short but successful career has paved a way for a generation of black designers today.

Patrick Kelly Black Fashion Designers
Photo: Courtesy of The Daily Beast
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