Imagine having a talent or a passion and not being allowed to pursue it because of systemic racism and societal prejudices. That was the reality for Black designers in nineteenth and twentieth-century America. Black fashion visionaries and creatives were blockaded from full participation in the fashion world. They were up against limited access to education, lack of funding, and Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation. Oftentimes, they received no credit for their work. In 1949, Mary McCleod Bethune-Cookman and Jeanetta Welch Brown founded the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers to combat these barriers and to champion Black Designers. It’s not surprising that many Black designers are not included in fashion archives.
Despite the barriers set against them, they each made an indelible impact on fashion of their time and today. We remember their legacy as we continue to push past the barriers that exist today. In honor of Black History Month and celebrating Black pioneers and creatives past and present, here are eight little-known Black designers.
1. Elizabeth Keckley
Elizabeth Keckley is one of the oldest known Black designers in America. She was born in 1818 and she spent the first 30 years of her life enslaved. Her design skills were inspired by her mother who taught her to sow. She later would use those sewing skills to become a seamstress and buy freedom for herself and her son. After relocating her family to D.C., in 1861, she became the personal dressmaker to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Later in life, she provided training to Black seamstresses and passed on her knowledge of design.
2. Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes was a little known Black designer in mid-century New York City. In 1948, Valdes opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda. The boutique was on Broadway, making her the first Black person to ever own a shop in Manhattan. Valdes is known for designing gowns and costumes for the Black elite. Including the likes of Eartha Kitt, Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge, Josephine Baker and Marian Anderson. She most famously created the original designs for the infamous Playboy bunny suit under commission from Hugh Hefner. After a long career, she closed her business. In her latter years, she served as the head costume designer for the Dance Theater of Harlem.
3. Ruby Bailey
Hailed as a fashion pioneer of her time, Ruby Bailey’s flamboyant and vivacious designs were inspired by the Harlem Renaissance. Bailey’s love for fashion apparel flourished despite living in an era when Black people were not allowed to partake in mainstream clothing and retail.
In addition to fashion design, Bailey was a multi-hyphenate career woman dabbling her toe in acting and painting. She first made a name for herself as a master beader, working with a famous Hollywood costume designer. Bailey was a revolutionary, boldly embracing African heritage with bold designs and prints. She frequented fashion shows, art exhibitions and theatrical productions reserved for New York City’s Black community.
4. Ann Cole Lowe
Nicknamed “society’s best kept secret” of elite fashion in the mid-20th century, Ann Cole Lowe’s love for fashion design started out as a family business. Raised in Alabama in the early 1900s, Lowe picked up her dressmaking skills from her mother, who designed dresses for wealthy women in the South. When Lowe was just 16, her mother died suddenly, leaving her to finish one of her biggest dressmaking jobs, designing four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama. This would catapult Lowe’s fashion forward, and she would go on to design for the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts and the du Ponts.
Her success did not come without obstacles. She was segregated from the rest of her peers in fashion design school. Throughout much of her career highs, (such as designing the wedding dress of Jackie Kennedy or the dress that actress Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Oscar), she did not receive credit for her work.
5. Willi Smith
Willi Smith democratized fashion. His legacy includes making high fashion more accessible and affordable. Including, launching the first clothing company to house menswear and womenswear under the same label. His expertise was mixing sportswear with high end designs tailored for the everyday person. Smith got his start studying fashion design at Parsons The New School for Design while taking liberal arts courses at New York University. A few years later, he dropped out of school to pursue designing on his own. He went on to design for Digits Sportswear, where he met Laurie Mallet. Mallet became a lifelong friend and business partner who helped him launch his fashion line, WilliWear Limited, in 1976. Just 10 years later, it grossed more than $25 million.
6. Ellen Stewart
Considered one of the most influential theater producers of the 20th century, before she ever saw the lights of Broadway, she was a beloved fashion designer. During the post-World War II economic boom of the 1950s, Stewart got her start as a trimmer in the brassiere-and-corset department at Saks Fifth Avenue. Eventually, she moved up to a dress designer for the department store. Stewart stayed with Saks for eight years and became the only American to design two gowns at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. She later designed for other major retailers including Bergdorf Goodman, Lord & Taylor and Henri Bendel. Her fashion career continued into the 1960s and 1970s. She went on to design sport dresses and beach wraps under a manufacturer named Victor Bijou.
7. Alvin Bell
Before becoming a fashion designer, Alvin Bell got his career start as a photojournalist and illustrator. After graduating from Edward Bok Vocational High School in 1964 with a portfolio of ad illustrations, he had no fashion design work under his belt. That all changed when he got a job as an illustrator for Alfred Angelo Bridal. He started attending fashion shows where he took photos of designs for work. He made his own personal sketches of fashion designs. Later, he would sell those sketches to other fashion designers. His fashion career launched from there. He began designing suits for the P.S.I fashion label, as well as designs for Roy Halston and Anne Klein. In 1997, Sears Roebuck & Company brought him on to design a casual and career women’s clothing line for their Black clientele.
8. Patrick Kelly
Patrick Kelly was a part of the wave of young Black designers who made a name for themselves in the 1970s. He became the first American designer accepted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in Paris. Kelly first learned to sew in high school. After dropping out of college in Mississippi, he moved to Atlanta. There, he opened his own store and worked at fashion shows. He would eventually move on to New York in search of more opportunities. However, he would not find great success in fashion until he moved to Paris in 1980. His designs were known for pushing the envelope on racial and cultural boundaries. He dressed big names such as Grace Jones, Madonna and Princess Diana.
Stephanie Taylor is a contributor for 21Ninety.