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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Continue reading