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Inside Seven Decades of Black Fashion Design

Hood By Air, Stephen Burrows, Duro Olowu, and Cross Colours are just a few of the designers featured in 'Black Fashion Designers' at FIT.

Only 1% of black fashion designers' presentations are covered by Vogue Magazine. The industry’s lack of diversity spurred The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way to organize Black Fashion Designers, an exhibition featuring runway looks from Stephen Burrows, Hood By Air, and Olivier Rousteing for Balmain. The exhibition showcases formal evening wear, menswear, streetwear, couture, prints and textiles, and spans more than a half century of black dress, using history to examine black fashion design.

“There have been a few exhibitions that have covered black fashion designers or black fashion style but most of them have been on individual designers such as Stephen Burrows or Patrick Kelly,” says Elia, who is the Assistant Curator of Costume and Textiles at The Museum. “For this exhibition, we wanted to take a wider look at black fashion designers specifically because there have been many talented designers that today are pretty much unrecognized in the fashion industry.”

Tracy Reese, dress, spring 2016, USA, Gift of Tracy Reese. Photograph by George Chinsee. 

Black Fashion Designers features 75 looks by 60 designers. The exhibition explores early forays by black designers in dressing notable Americans. The beige wedding dress Jacqueline Onassis wore to marry John F. Kennedy was designed by Ann Lowe in 1953. The exhibition notes that Lowe learned her craft from her mother and grandmother. Lowe’s dress alludes to the eight years of the Obama administration, in which designers like Duro Olowu and Tracy Reese have dressed the first black First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

Ann Lowe, wedding dress, 1968, USA. Gift of Judith A. Tabler

The exhibition also speaks to the influence black designers have played in the building of American fashion into a global phenomena. In 1973, Stephen Burrows was one of the designers representing America in The Battle of Versaille Fashion Show, showcasing French and American designers in a French palace. Burrows’ presentation is widely considered to have helped elevate American design to the level of Parisian houses. On display in the exhibit are designs by Patrick Kelly, the black designer who found critical acclaim in Paris by subtly using the racism he experienced at home in America to inspire his designs. His button dress is said to be rooted in watching his grandmother create the family’s clothing during the Jim Crow years in the South.

Patrick Kelly, dress, Fall/Winter 1986-1987, France. Museum purchase

“We wanted to organize the exhibition thematically and look at what type of things the designers were designing and look and see how it fit into the larger fashion industry,” Way tells The Creators Project. "Black designers have really been important,” she says. Designers like Stephen Burrows and Scott Barrie were instrumental in building up New York alongside Halston as a fashion capital in the 70s. She adds, “You can’t overlook those contributions. It’s not about one black designer or a group making one change or bringing a perspective, it’s about black designers all over the fashion industry contributing their individual voices and really making the industry stronger.”

Stephen Burrows, two-piece evening dress, 1973-1974, USA. Gift of Mrs. Savanna Clark

Black Fashion Designers devotes space to the influence of black designers, showing the role they played in the advent of street style and sportswear. Mounted in the exhibition are three pioneers in those categories of dress: Cross Colours, the late-80s brand who turned hip-hop into fashion; Dapper Dan, the Harlem designer who created exaggerated knock offs of high fashion to fit his clientele's desires; and Sean Combs’ Sean John, which brought hip-hop-inspired fashion to the global market. The exhibition also features ensembles by Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School (both designers got their start at Combs’ Sean John).

Dapper Dan of Harlem, jacket, 1987, USA. Gift of Dapper Dan of Harlem.

As a nod to the future, the exhibit features a set of emerging talents that dispel the notion that there is a black fashion aesthetic. The British menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner’s cream matador-inspired menswear challenges concepts of masculinity. Kerby Jean Raymond’s conscious sportswear Pyer Moss often includes messages about racism, police brutality, and mental health in their designs. And a Hood By Air runway look comprised of nylon and calfskin leather unravels industry expectations of glamour. The design represents avant garde streetwear, which alludes to Comme Des Garcons' rock glam style of the 80s.

Grace Wales Bonner, ensemble, spring 2017, England. Museum purchase. Photograph by Morgan O'Donovan

Way says, “I really want people to walk into the gallery and learn about these designers they have never heard of before and shatter their preconceptions about what is black design.” She continues, “People have asked, ‘Why do a fashion exhibition on just black fashion designers?’ We did it because it was necessary.”

Duro Olowu, ensemble, fall 2012, England. Gift of Duro Olowu

Breaking Into The Industry, Wesley Tann, coat, late 1950s, USA. Gift of Audrey Smaltz. John Weston, dress, 1955, USA. Gift of Audrey Smaltz. Playboy bunny uniform, produced by Zelda Wynn Valdes, 1987, USA. Gift of Playboy Enterprises, Inc. Arthur McGee, evening dress, circa 1987, Gift of Johnetta Shearer. Austin Zurr, evening ensemble, 1976, USA. Gift of Audrey Smaltz. Karl Davis, evening dress, fall 1986, USA. Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Lembert Davis. Tracy Reese, dress, spring 2016, USA. Gift of Tracy Reese. HARBISON, coat, spring 2015, USA. Gift of Harbison. 

Black Fashion Designers continues through May 6 at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Click here for more information.

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