Currently on display at the Museum of FIT is the “Black Fashion Designers” exhibition. Just in time for Black history month the exhibition showcases both African and African American designers. Fashion ranging from the 1950’s to the present is on view, along with the history of challenges African American and African designers have faced within the fashion industry. The exhibition focuses on an array of classifications for these designers such as eveningwear, menswear, street style and six more categories.
Breaking into the Industry
As in most of the U.S.A during the 1950’s the fashion industry was a segregated profession. Taught the craft of sewing primarily by a loved one the inclusion of Black designers into the industry only began slowly during the 1960’s. During this time some designers were able to learn the business side of the fashion industry while they worked in Seventh Avenue manufactures. Ann Loewe was taught sewing by her grandmother a former slave. Her designs became well known by the American wealthy in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her specialty were wedding gowns and debutante dresses for the elite.
The Rise of the Black Fashion Designer
The Civil Rights movement, music and African American culture became prevalent in influencing the fashion of the day. Disco music and the African American musicians inspired the designs of the 1970’s. Their designs were beginning to influence not only New York fashion but that of Paris and London.
The 19th century was an important time for Black fashion designers in the eveningwear arena. Their use of different techniques and craftsmanship afforded them the opportunities to dress elite clientele like Princess Diana and Beyoncé. The attention from high end retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman had African and African American designs being sold on Fifth Ave.
During the 1980’s Hip Hop and it’s culture influenced the trends of fashion. The use of oversized jackets and pants were being used by the youth of New York City. What the fashion industry call’s the ” trickle up” movement of street style influencing the runway occurred. This movement shook the fashion industry into recognizing the market of hip hop and its youth. Unfortunately this led to high end designers being influenced by the movement without crediting the originators of the trend. Although this has slowly changed and the trickle up movement is now more appropriately used by design houses such as “Public School”. ” Public School” streetwear and high fashion fusions often stump critics and is hard to define on weather it is streetwear or not. Designer Virgil Abloh of the brand “Off-White” uses streetwear to express issues in society like climbing the corporate ladder. His purpose in making streetwear is to add an intellectual layer to a style of clothing that is often seen as cheap.
Activism in the African American society has given designers a chance to showcase their designs while infusing their culture and message. Activism prompted designers to revive the Afro hairstyle and traditional African textiles. The use of fashion allowed these designers to express their frustrations and hopes during times of oppression. Activism and fashion have collided expressing certain messages important to the designers and the public. As it was used in the past by African American communities as an outlet of social injustice it is also used today. We’ve seen particular clothing and accessories like hats to convey a social injustice message in the Women’s March and on the runway. Most recently in the Missoni closing of their Fall 2017 Ready To Wear collection.
During the late 1970’s black designers were making an imprint in menswear both in the US and in London. Andrew Ramroop was the first black designer to work on the famous Savile Row in London. Meanwhile designer Jeffrey Banks infused American prep style with traditional colorful tweeds in New York. In the early 2000’s elaborate suits fit for royalty were combined with street flare on the Sean John runway. Menswear continues to be pushed by black designers as they change proportions, add new designs and play with the idea of masculinity in suits.
During the 1950’s Ebony magazine began the ” Ebony Fashion Fair”. The fair discovered and launched the career of supermodel Pat Cleveland among others. It was one of the only platforms or magazine’s besides “Jet” magazine showcasing black models. African American designers were also given a spotlight to showcase their designs during the fair. In 1973 the fashion show ” The Battle of Versailles” a fundraiser for the restoration of the Versailles Palace featured five American ready to wear designers and five French couturier’s. It not only gave the American designers recognition but featured ten black models. The freedom of movement given to the models made an impact on what a model was allowed to do on the runway. Black models have been muses for designers like Stephen burrows and Azzadine Alana in the 1990’s. Model Alva Chinn became a favorite of Oscar de la Renta, Halston and Stephen Burrows. Although there are more models of color on the runway now, they are still in the minority. Supermodel Liya Kebede has given back to her native Kenya by working with the World Health Organization. They have given Ethiopian weavers a platform to showcase their work and contribute to the Ethiopian economy.
African culture has inspired many designers, but can be interpreted in an incorrect manner. For an African American designer the ability to interpret African influence in their designs is a chance to explore and portray their heritage with respect and understanding. Nigerian designer Lisa Folawiyo adds modern touches to the Ankara, a traditional West African fabric. The designer has been known to add custom prints and embellishments to the fabric in her collections. Scarification an ancient African tradition is one of the influences for designer Mimi Plange. The influences of scars can be seen in her 2013 leather curved line dress. While designer Christie Brown uses traditional African textiles to design modern clothing.
Designer Jon Watson known for dressing the contestants of beauty pageants experimented with silhouettes. In the late 1950’s he stepped away from his traditional hourglass form to an innovative pleated evening coat. It was innovative because it stood away from the body reflecting Parisian couture. Designer Brenda Waites experimented with 13th century techniques such as macramé knotting in her 1970’s collection. Punk and British tailoring were combined in designer Joe Casely-Hayford’s 2000 collection. He as well as most Black designers fight against the label of “black designer” for the more appropriate “designer” label.
The exhibition is open until May 16, 2017 at the Museum of FIT on 7th Ave and 27th St. Let me know if you got to visit this exhibition.