Now It Can Be Told: “Black Fashion Designers” At The Museum at FIT

Without dwelling too deeply on the root cause (for the moment), it’s very rare to find black fashion designers represented in a great many of the recent costume exhibitions at museums great and small across the United States. At this moment, if you want to see a decent and wide-ranging look at black fashion designers, you would have to visit the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., where designs from Tracy Reese,  other black fashion designers and other creative men and women are on permanent display. The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (The Museum at FIT, Seventh Avenue at 27 Street, New York City 10001-5992), since 1975, has continuously work to create exhibitions, programs, and publications that are both entertaining and educational. Black Fashion Designer is eye-opening, entertaining and above all else, quite educational. It’s a good start.

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Mimi Plange, dress, Spring 2013, USA, Gift of Mimi Plange, 2016.49.1

Black Fashion Designers, opening December 6, 2016 (Fashion & Textile History Gallery, December 6 – May 16, 2017) at The Museum at FIT, examines the significant, but often unrecognized, impact that designers of African descent have had on fashion. The exhibition features approximately 75 fashions by more than 60 designers. Although there have been exhibitions (few and far between) on individual black designers, this is the first major exhibition in many years that highlights the global history of black fashion designers from the 1950s to the present. All of the objects on display are part of the permanent collection of The Museum at FIT.

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Patrick Kelly, dress, Fall/Winter 1986, France, Museum purchase, 2016.48.1

Black Fashion Designers opens with a fall 1986 evening dress by Patrick Kelly, embellished with vintage buttons. Buttons were a recurring motif for Kelly, whose grandmother would mend the family’s clothing. Alongside it is a fall 2012 ensemble by Nigerian-born, British designer Duro Olowu, whose knowledge of international textiles and affinity for mixing prints is evident in an intricate lace cape.

The introductory section of the exhibition also includes a beautiful wedding gown by society dressmaker Ann Lowe, who is best known for designing Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress. Lawrence Steele, a Milan-based African-American designer, is represented by a stunning black evening dress accented with Swarovski crystals. Lagos-based designer Amaka Osakwe was inspired by the rich history of Nigerian story-telling when creating her contemporary, cut-fringe dress. Another highlight is Laura Smalls’s red-and-white floral print dress—famously worn by First Lady Michelle Obama when she sang with rapper Missy Elliot on James Corden’s carpool karaoke.

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Ann Lowe, wedding dress, 1968, USA, Gift of Judith A. Tabler, 2009.70.2

Black Fashion Designers is organized into eight themes, beginning with “Breaking Into the Industry,” which examines black designers working in New York. During the 1950s and early 1960s, Arthur McGee and Wesley Tann challenged discrimination in the industry. Other designers followed in their footsteps, playing a major role in building New York as a fashion capital. During the 1970s and 1980s, for example, Willi Smith built a large, international fashion house from his quirky twists on classic sportswear, seen in a multicolored, striped ensemble. Today, Tracy Reese is an indispensable mainstay. Her multicolored striped gown shows her feminine and elegant style.

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Lawrence Steele, dress, Spring 2002, Italy, Gift of Lawrence Steele, 2016.62.1

The next theme, “The Rise of the Black Designer,” focuses on the period from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, when disco music and dance clubs inspired fashion. Stephen Burrows’s gold evening pajamas and Scott Barrie’s black-and-red silk jersey wrap dress, defined the era’s glamorous, body-conscious style. The fashion and mainstream press of the 1970s celebrated black designers such as Burrows and Barrie, in contrast to today, when only one percent of the designers shown on VogueRunway.com are black.

The “Black Models” theme examines the role of black models in the fashion industry. On view is a 1971 Scott Barrie dress worn by Audrey Smaltz at the Ebony Fashion Fair, which was established in 1958, creating opportunities for black models in an era of segregation. A chiffon gown by Stephen Burrows represents “The Battle of Versailles,” a pivotal 1973 fashion show, in which half of the models were black. Another Burrows dress on display was donated by the important black model Naomi Sims, while model Veronica Webb chose to be represented by an ensemble combining garments by Azzedine Alaїa and Comme des Garçons. Liya Kebede, featured on the cover of the famous Black Issue of Vogue Italia (July 2008), is represented by a dress from her brand Lemlem. A short original film produced by the museum features a conversation about diversity in modeling led by journalist Robin Givhan with models Bethann Hardison, Veronica Webb, and Riley Montana.

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Eric Gaskins, dress, 2014, USA, Gift of Eric Gaskins, 2016.53.1

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Scott Barrie, dress, circa 1973, USA, Gift of Naomi Sims, 81.145.3

The “Evening Wear” section highlights designers such as B Michael, CD Greene, and Cushnie et Ochs, who specialize in creating event pieces. These ensembles feature luxurious, couture techniques and extraordinary details. Designer Eric Gaskins looked to the expressive brushstrokes in Franz Kline’s paintings for inspiration, creating a brushstroke effect on his 2014 evening gown by meticulously applying miniature bugle beads. Also on display is Bruce Oldfield’s elegant navy gown and Kevan Hall’s painterly, Serengeti-inspired evening dress. Oldfield is known for dressing the British aristocracy, including the late Princess Diana, and Hall’s styles are frequently seen on the Hollywood red carpet.

For decades, high fashion has turned to African cultures for fresh ideas and embellishments, yet these appropriations are often superficial. The “African Influence” section illustrates significant ways that African and diasporic designers apply their own experiences, referencing traditional textiles and art forms to create contemporary styles. Aisha Ayensu’s dress and coat from spring 2016 combines Ankara fabrics with cut-out embroidery and artful scenes of the savannah. Ayensu created her Accra-based label Christie Brown because she wanted Ghanaian women to liberate traditional wax-print textiles from special-occasion wear and incorporate them into their everyday clothing in modern ways.

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Duro Olowu, ensemble, Fall 2012, England, Gift of Duro Olowu, 2016.65.1

Many fashion designers have taken inspiration from hip-hop culture, from the track suits and sneakers worn by break dancers to the extravagant ensembles flaunted by rappers. Ensembles by trailblazing, black-owned brands Dapper Dan of Harlem and Cross Colours are on display in the “Street Influence” section. Dapper Dan combines his skill as a tailor with the opulent flair of European luxury brands in his one-of-a-kind creations for his hip-hop clientele, such as a 1987 double-breasted bomber jacket adorned with the MCM logo pattern. For their fall 2016 collection, Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow of Public School referenced post-punk New York City street styles by juxtaposing edgy elements, such as beanies, motorcycle boots, and cargo pants, with refined elements, like silk-fringed, knit vests. Lamine Kouyaté of the Paris-based Xuly.Bët label has long used the street as his inspiration, even staging his fashion shows on sidewalks. He is represented by a printed-gold jumpsuit, paired with a red fur vest and glittering red boots.

T-shirts, often used to disseminate political messages, are highlighted in the “Activism” section. Pharrell Williams’s recycled-plastic G-Star Raw T-shirt advocates for environmental awareness, while Kerby Jean-Raymond’s “They Have Names” T-shirt for Pyer Moss makes a powerful statement in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement. An ensemble designed by Nkhensani Nkosi of Stoned Cherrie celebrates the history of the South African anti-apartheid movement with a T-shirt featuring the cover of Drum magazine, paired with a traditional Tsonga skirt.

The diverse styles of the “Menswear” section range from a classic American preppy look by Jeffrey Banks to an unapologetically lavish ensemble from Sean John’s fall 2008 runway collection, a show that featured a full cast of black male models. British Savile Row tailors also express varied styles, from a custom black window pane check suit by Andrew Ramroop, who became the first black tailor on Savile Row, to the luxurious fashion forward suit from Ozwald Boateng, Savile Row’s first black-founded atelier. Young designers Agape Mdumulla and Sam Cotton of Agi and Sam reject strict tailoring, as seen in their deconstructed suit, while Grace Wales Bonner, winner of the 2016 LVMH prize, explores femininity in a fitted white suit with gold embroidery.

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Willi Smith, suit, circa 1984, USA, Gift of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), 2013.52.4

Avant-garde styles are highlighted in the “Experimentation” section. Andre Walker presents radical ideas in clothing construction, seen in his open-back cape-jacket and double-layered skirt. Epperson works with the tools of patternmaking and draping, using muslin fabric to create an organic, free-form dress, while Shayne Oliver of Hood By Air plays with proportions and concepts of gender in an elongated shirt dress and overcoat ensemble.

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Andre Walker, ensemble, Spring 2016, USA, Museum purchase, 2016.68.1

The exhibition is accompanied by a cell phone tour with multimedia content for smartphones, which provides an overview of the exhibition and additional content about selected objects. Commentary is provided by the curators, as well as from fashion designers Joe and Charlie Casely-Hayford, Eric Gaskins, Carl Jones and TJ Walker of Cross Colours, Andre Walker, model Veronica Webb, and André Leon Talley.

Also on display is a short film, produced exclusively for the exhibition, addressing the ongoing topic of diversity within fashion. André Leon Talley leads a discussion with designers Tracy Reese and Mimi Plange on their personal experiences as black fashion professionals and on the role of diversity in fashion. This film, like another on black fashion models featured later in the exhibition, was funded by the FIT Diversity Council.

Black Fashion Designers is organized by Ariele Elia, assistant curator of Costume and Textiles, and Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant, at The Museum at FIT. The curators were supported by an advisory committee of scholars and fashion professionals, some of whom are participating in the exhibition’s symposium, audio tour, and Fashion Culture program series.

Black Fashion Designers Symposium and Educational Initiatives

The Museum at FIT will host a one-day symposium on February 6, 2017, featuring talks by designers, models, journalists, and scholars on African diasporic culture and fashion. A provisional list of speakers for the symposium and Spring 2017 Fashion Culture program series includes writer Teri Agins, stylist June Ambrose, journalist and photographer Dario Calmese, Professor Alphonso McClendon, designers Carly Cushnie and Michelle Ochs of Cushnie et Ochs, Dapper Dan of Harlem, designer Grace Wales Bonner, Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Robin Givhan, former model and founder of The Diversity Coalition Bethann Hardison, Professor Monica Miller, designer Mimi Plange, Professor Eric Darnell Pritchard, Professor Elena Romero, Professor Victoria Rovine, costume designer Jeriana San Juan, and model Veronica Webb.

Black Fashion Designers is made possible by the support of the Couture Council and the President’s Diversity Council.

Accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, The Museum at FIT is one of a select group of specialized fashion museums, including the Muse de la Mode, the Mode Museum, and the Museo de la Moda. The Museum at FIT (MFIT) is best known for its innovative and award winning special exhibitions, including London Fashion, which received the first Richard Martin Award for Excellence in the Exhibition of Costume from the Costume Society of America; The Corset: Fashioning the Body, which explored the most controversial garment in the history of fashion; and Madame Grès: The Sphinx of Fashion, a monographic retrospective that examined the working methodologies and unique aesthetic contributions of a great couturier. Recently, the Museum has been mounting even more ambitious exhibitions, such as Gothic: Dark Glamour and A Queer History of Fashion: From the Closet to the Catwalk.

The museums permanent collection encompasses some 50,000 garments and accessories from the 18th century to the present. Important designers such as Adrian, Balenciaga, Chanel, and Dior are represented. The collecting policy of the museum focuses on aesthetically and historically significant directional clothing, accessories, textiles and visual materials, with emphasis on contemporary avant-garde fashion.

There are three galleries in the museum. The lower level gallery is devoted to special exhibitions, such as the recent Elegance in an Age of Crisis: Fashions of the 1930s and Dance and Fashion. The Fashion and Textile History Gallery, on the main floor, which provides on-going historical context, presents a rotating selection of approximately 200 historically and artistically significant objects from the museums permanent collection. Every six months, the exhibition in the gallery is completely changed, although it always covers 250 years of fashion history.

Gallery FIT, also located on the main floor, is dedicated to student and faculty exhibitions, such as the Art and Design Graduating Student Exhibition every May, which also fills the lower level gallery and lobbies across campus. Students from FIT’s School of Graduate Studies also collaborate with the Museum‘s staff to mount a professional museum exhibition once a year.

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