Black design, innovation, and creativity have been consistently and systematically overlooked in the fashion narrative. The world of fashion has always represented exclusivity, and in many ways, the upholding of the status quo – and in recent weeks it has become abundantly clear that there are many brands and fashion houses that are complicit in the stifling of Black voices, representation, and designs. We must be better.
Throughout history Black creatives and innovators have contributed greatly to the fashion narrative. Here are a few names you should know:
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was a 19th century dressmaker. Her life began with a horrific period of enslavement that ended when she bought her freedom at 37. She went on to establish her own clothing business, dressing the power wives of Washington, DC before becoming the personal seamstress to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Despite a system and society stacked against her, Keckley was a businesswoman, creative visionary, and mother.
Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes was a designer and seamstress to the stars, opening her own shop – Chez Zelda – in New York City in 1948. Her designs were worn by such famous entertainers as Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker, Marian Anderson, Ella Fitzgerald, Mae West, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt and Sarah Vaughan, among others. Valdez was featured in Life Magazine, and in 1958 was commissioned by Hugh Hefner to create the iconic Playboy Bunny costume.
Willi Smith was a renowned Black fashion designer, and creator of the brand WilliWear. WilliWear was a wildly successful brand, grossing over $25 million in sales by 1986. The Cooper Hewitt Museum in New York is planning a retrospective installation based on his work this fall.
Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898 into a family of dressmakers, where she honed her craft. Lowe was particularly adept at making flower embroideries which informed the design of her garments. She moved to New York City to pursue her dream of becoming a fashion designer and began working for prestigious labels like A.F Chantilly and Sonia Gowns. In 1953 she designed the wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier in her wedding to John F. Kennedy. Her designs are now showcased in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian.
Jay Jaxon was the first Black American couturier, taking over the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer in 1965 after training under Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior in Paris. His designs were sold in upscale department stores such as Bonwit Teller and Bendel’s and he later worked on popular television shows “Ally McBeal” and “American Dreams.”
Virgil Abloh is the first Black Artistic Director of Louis Vuitton’s menswear collection since 2018, as well as the Chief Executive Officer of the label Off-White – a fashion house Virgil founded in 2013. Virgil has been hailed as a creative visionary and game changer in the fashion narrative – and for good reason. He pushes back against the status quo, teaming up with art legends like Takashi Murakami.
These are just a few of the names of Black creatives who have shaped fashion history, and the reality is that these are simply the instances of Black innovation and artistic brilliance that were documented or recognized. There is no way of knowing now just how many fashion innovations should be credited to Black visionaries but were stifled by a systemically oppressive cultural narrative. We must prioritize creating space for marginalized communities in the fashion sphere to share their experience and design.
The past weeks have been a wake-up call for many individuals, brands, and entire industries. Fashion is not exempt from the need for reform, and rather, has an increased responsibility to elevate and amplify BIPOC voices since it is so rooted in popular culture. Now is the time to hold your favourite brands accountable and ask yourself: are they utilizing their platforms to promote growth and change?
We hope you’ll remember these names, and we encourage you to seek out further resources on black fashion history and the systematic oppression of marginalized communities in the fashion narrative. We embrace our small role in keeping this conversation alive – reach out for additional resources on the topic, or to share your own finds! Send us posts on Instagram, @kclifestyling!