Black forces of fashion who helped shape the industry

As it’s the first weekend of Black History month here in the UK, I thought it would be a great time to highlight some key figures in the Black Community who were, and still are, a force for fashion and helped shape fashion as we know it today.

If you follow the VIRIDY Instagram, you’ll notice that I’ve been sharing important Black figures daily on our stories. So I thought for today’s blog that I’d do a specific fashion edition.

I’d like to note, that there are so many important Black figures in fashion which may not be included in this list. However, below are a select few that I have chosen to highlight today, both historical and present.

 

Edward Enninful

To begin the list, I have chosen Edward Enninful who was appointed as the first Black editor-in-chief of British Vogue in 2018. Since then he has already used his creative direction to shine a light on social and political issues. From as early as the age of 18, Enninful was the fashion director of i-D magazine, firmly placing him at the forefront of modern fashion editing and communications[1]

Since taking on the position as editor-in-chief at Vogue, he has created progressive campaigns and reached new audiences. Most recently, highlighting the employees on the front line during COVID-19 and introducing the ‘Vogue Reset Challenge’ which sparked enthusiasm worldwide across social media.

 

Ann Lowe

Said to be one of the first noted Black fashion designers, Ann Lowe was a firm favourite amongst celebrities and high society and soon became their go-to designer.  One of her most notable pieces was the wedding dress for Jacqueline Kennedy, however like for many of her other pieces, during her lifetime it is said that she never received public credit for it at the time[2].

Being born in 1898 and in Alabama, it is reasonable to presume that Lowe received large amounts of racial discrimination throughout her life. However, through her talent and perseverance she was able to succeed as one of the first Black designers in the US, even if most of her accolades were publicly recognised posthumously.

 

Stephen Burrows

Hailed as one of the leading designers in 1970’s fashion, Stephen Burrows’ signature designs of colour blocking, contrast stitching and being able to create quality pieces made of jersey, placed him firmly in the forces of fashion that have influenced today[3].

He also was the youngest, and only Black designer chosen to participate in the Battle of Versailles. Which was a prestigious fashion battle between well-known French designers versus American designers, with only a select few chosen take part [4].  

Overall, his career was incredibly successful. From being worn by famous celebrities at the time (including Barbara Streisand and The Supremes), in 1973 he also was the first Black designer to receive the American Fashion Critics Winnie Award [5].

 

Andre Leon Talley

The former Editor-at-large at Vogue, Andre Leon Talley is one of the most renowned fashion journalists and is firmly placed as one of the fashion industry’s influencers. Throughout his career, Talley has worked for Diana Vreeland, become friends with high profile fashion designers and worked his way up in the fashion world, landing a high-profile job at Vogue [6].

In his documentary the Gospel according to Andre, he discusses the racism that he experienced throughout his life, and cites how he recognised that it was rare for a Black man to be such a force in fashion during that time [7].

 

Jay Jaxon

Jay Jaxon made fashion history when he became the first Black American designer to work for a large French couture house, Jean-Louis Scherrer to be specific. His career included working for several pioneering fashion houses such as Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior [8].

He soon became a force within the fashion industry thanks to his classy designs and career resume. As well as also creating designs for the Stars, including Luther Vandross, Thelma Houston and many more. There is no doubt that Jaxon’s works and achievement helped pave the way for Black designers to follow[9].  

 

Zelda Wynn Valdes

Another early favourite designer to the Stars, was Zelda Wynn Valdes. Her clients included Ella Fitzgerald, Maria Cole (Nat King Cole’ wife), Edna Mae Robinson and much more. She is said to have been the dressmaker who manufactured the iconic playboy bunny outfits[10].

In 1949, she also helped form the National Association of Fashion and Accessories Designers to help other black female designers navigate through the fashion industry, at a time where racial discrimination and oppression was still very much prevalent [11].

 

Dapper Dan

Now hailed as one of the first Black designers to re-imagine classic logos of high fashion in streetwear, Dapper Dan had a wide fanbase from famous musicians, such as Jay Z, and ordinary people alike. It is said that his use of designer logos and re-designs were created to address the issue of racism within the fashion industry and raise awareness through his designs [12].

His links to the rap world and ability to create a brand which had long lasting ties to an entire culture, have helped coin him to be one of the most influential designers of urban (hip hop) fashion in the 80’s – 90’s. [13]

 

Willi Smith

Also known as the designer who introduced streetwear to the catwalk, Willi Smith left a lasting legacy on fashion as we know it today.  After attending the renowned Parsons School of Design, he then went on to intern for well-known Arnold Scaasi. At the height of career, and by 1985, his brand ‘WilliWear’ was grossing more than $25 million in sales.[14]

His design style was progressive, in that he would take his inspiration from real people. For his collections, he collaborated with many celebrities in film and art, which at that time was a completely new approach on fashion.[15]

 

Patrick Kelly

Patrick Kelly was known for his signature use of bright colours and politically motivated pieces, helping to use his fashion as a force for good. One instance of this specifically was where he incorporated his visual representation of the ‘golliwog’ down the runway – a racist symbol which was widely used throughout that era – in a bid to make a statement on addressing racism in fashion which was not previously done[16].

He also was the first black person to be voted into the Chambre Syndicale, which is a prestigious French organisation that decides which major fashion houses can become “haute couture”.[17]

 

Elizabeth Keckley

For the final person, I want to go back a few centuries to discuss Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley. A former slave who had to purchase her own freedom in 1855, Elizabeth Keckley then became a favourite dressmaker for politicians’ wives, and most notably for Mary Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln’s wife. Whilst not much is known about Keckley’s other clients, for a period of time she is said to have had a successful dressmaking business in Washington, which at that time would have been extremely unusual for a Black woman [18].

During her time at the White House she helped aid newly freed slaves upon their arrival to the capital through the Contraband Relief Association[19].

 

As you can see there are several Black forces of fashion who have helped shape our fashion industry, past and present. Whilst many of the past individuals who are no longer with us didn’t receive the recognition they deserved whilst alive, it’s important to share their legacy today and realise what an impact they made in the fashion world.

 

[1] https://www.vogue.co.uk/article/edward-enninful-career

[2] https://www.elle.com/fashion/a29019843/jackie-kennedy-wedding-dress-designer-ann-lowe/

[3] https://gem.app/stories/stephen-burrows

[4] https://hypebeast.com/2020/7/stephen-burrows-designer-black-history

[5] https://gem.app/stories/stephen-burrows

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/may/23/andre-leon-talley-my-story-is-a-fairytale-and-in-every-fairytale-there-is-evil-and-darkness

[7] The Gospel According to Andre

[8] https://theblackdetour.com/history-you-probably-dont-know-jay-jaxon-was-the-first-american-to-lead-a-french-couture-house/

[9] https://theblackdetour.com/history-you-probably-dont-know-jay-jaxon-was-the-first-american-to-lead-a-french-couture-house/

[10] http://blackeconomics.co.uk/wp/zelda-wynn-valdes-remarkable-black-women/

[11] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/obituaries/zelda-wynn-valdes-overlooked.html

[12] https://hypebeast.com/2020/7/stephen-burrows-designer-black-history

[13] https://hypebeast.com/2020/7/stephen-burrows-designer-black-history

[14] https://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2020/jun/08/willi-smith-williwear-african-american-streetwear-catwalk

[15] https://www.vogue.co.uk/fashion/article/willi-smith

[16] https://www.fastcompany.com/90305316/rediscovering-patrick-kelly-the-designer-who-made-blackface-his-brand

[17] https://www.dazeddigital.com/fashion/article/19678/1/the-secret-history-of-patrick-kelly

[18] https://www.whitehousehistory.org/elizabeth-keckley

[19] https://www.whitehousehistory.org/elizabeth-keckley