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20 Things I Learned At The Black Fashion Designers Exhibit At FIT

When most of us think of notable fashion designers, majority of the names that first come to mind usually aren’t designers of color. Although there are numerous talented Black fashion designers, they usually don’t get the recognition deserved. The Museum at FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) decided to celebrate Black designers of the past and present with their Black Fashion Designers exhibit, which was curated by Ariele Elia, the assistant curator of Costume and Textiles, and Elizabeth Way, a curatorial assistant at The Museum at FIT.
Recently I visited the exhibit and learned a wealth of information on Black designers, models and the fashion industry. Read below to get a history lesson on Black fashion and to learn what I discovered at the Black Fashion Designers exhibit. If you live near or have plans to visit New York City, be sure to check out the exhibit at The Museum at FIT before it ends on May 16.
During slavery, enslaved Black men and women made up the early fashion system. Slaves served as the cotton spinners, weavers and seamstresses and even worked in skilled dressmaker and tailor positions.

In the early 1900s, dressmaking and tailoring were very lucrative businesses for African Americans. Many women actually took sewing classes at college, or learned from their mothers and grandmothers how to sew.
Before the 20th century, most Black designers, both enslaved and free, are unaccounted for. The one exception is former slave Elizabeth Keckley who actually ended up becoming First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s (wife of Abraham Lincoln) dressmaker.
Ann Lowe, who learned how to sew from her formerly enslaved grandmother, was the first Black American fashion designer to gain fame. She designed for the elite. She also designed dresses for First Lady Jackie Kennedy including her wedding dress.
Kente cloth, Asante and Ewo strip-woven fabric from Ghana and Togo, was originally worn to indicate religious or royal status. The kente pattern is now used by designers like Haitian designer Stella Jean to pay homage to their ancestry.
Arthur McGee, who became the first African American to head a Seventh Avenue design studio in New York City in 1957, paved the way for other Black designers. He once said, “We are not Black designers, but American designers, the way Bill Blass is an American designer.”
The Playboy Bunny uniform is arguably one of the most famous American costumes of the 20th century, and Black designer Zelda Wynn Valdez created the bullet-shaped bodice, which became consistent throughout her designs.
Donyale Luna is considered the world’s first Black supermodel, and she became the first Black model on the cover of British Vogue in 1966.
After meeting Geraldine Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel, popular ‘70s designer Stephen Burrows opened his own boutique Stephen Burrows World at Henri Bendel just a few years after he graduated from FIT.
Willi Smith actually dropped out of school at Parsons and went on to create a highly successful label Williwear. His clothing label went from $30,000 in sales in 1976 in its year to $5 million in the second year.
Athleisure was originally pioneered by designer Isaia Rankin, who became famous for his sexy, stretchy styles and love of Lycra in the 1980s.
CD Greene, who was featured in Bergdorf Goodman’s windows in 1990, designed Tina Turner’s wardrobe for her Wildest Dreams tour, including an iconic sheer Swarovski gown she wore.
Designer Lawrence Steele was inspired to start his career in fashion design because of Diana Ross’ character in Mahogany. He worked for Moschino and Prada before he started his own label in 1994.
British designer Ozwald Boateng, who’s of Ghanaian descent, was the youngest tailor and first of African descent to open his own Savile Row Shop in London. In his early days, his clients included Mick Jagger and Spike Lee.
As a child, Detroit-bred designer Tracy Reese used to help sew her mom’s dresses! Her mom would sew her own dresses to wear and Tracy would do the finishing touches as her mom did her makeup.
Sean Combs was the first Black designer to win the CFDA Menswear Designer of the Year Award in 2004. Combs said, “Being an African American designer was very heavy on my heart…People tried to put us in a little box…The CFDA award changed the perception.”
LaQuan Smith is a self-taught designer who learned patternmaking from his grandmother. He became famous after Kim Kardashian famously wore a black sheer floor length gown by Smith to the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.
Designer Virgil Abloh uses rope as a metaphor for climbing the corporate ladder in his designs for his streetwear brand Off-White. Also, Abloh doesn’t identify his customer as Black or white which is why he named his label Off-White.
At his spring 2016 fashion show, Kerby Jean Raymond, founder of menswear label Pyer Moss, wore a “They Have Names” t-shirt which memorializes thirteen unarmed Black men killed by police officers to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. He also played an intense video about police brutality against black men and women at the beginning of his runway show.
Creative technologist Madison Maxey uses technology to create fashion designs, and she embraces tech as well as sustainability as the future of fashion. She also worked with Zac Posen to build the electronics for a programmable LED matrix dress.
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