The Museum at FIT’s Black Fashion Designers

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.

Museum of FIT
Left:Anne Loews wedding dress 1968. Right Ethiopian designer Amsale wedding dress fall 2016

 

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.

 

Museum of FIT
James Daugherty green jumpsuit 1974 and Jon Higgins dress 1980-85

 

 

Eveningwear

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.

FIT Museum
Ann Lowe 1955 dress and B.Michae 2015 silk brocade dress.

                          

Street Influence

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.

FIT Museum Exhbit
Pyre Moss fall 2015 and Off -White Ensemble 2015
FIT Musem Exhibit
Right: Public School Fall 2016. Left Xuly.Bet Fall 2016.Off White Ensemble Fall 2015 .

 

Activism

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.

The Mueseum of FIT
Left: Patrick Kelly denim dress 1987. Above Patrick Kelly t-shirt. Right: Stoned Cherrie T-shirt and Tsonga skirt 2010.

Menswear

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.

FIT Museun
Patrick Kelly 1989
FIt Museum
Casey- Hayford fall 2015. Agi & Sam fall 215
FIT Museum
Sean John Fall 2008. Maurice Sewell 2003

 

Black Models

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.

Come des Garcons jacket, Azzedine Alaia bustier and pants. Pierre Hardy shoes. Styled by model Veronica Webb. Iemlem by Liya Kebede spring 2014
Ebony Magazine 1974 ” The Big Whirl of Fashion” featuring their fashion fair.
US Vogue and Vogue Italia

 

African Influence

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.

Left :Patrick Kelly 1988. Right Stella Jean 2015
Middle: Mimi Plange
Right: Christie Brown
Left: Lisa Folawiyo

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Experimentation

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.

Left:Jon Weston coat 1957
Middle: Brenda Waites Boiling tunic 1970’s
Right: Bryan Lars Union suit 1987
Left” Epperson dress 2008
Right: Joe Casely-Hayford 2000 Ensemble

 

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.

T.S.

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http://concreteislandista.com/2017/02/27/the-museum-at-fits-black-fashion-designers/

3 thoughts on “The Museum at FIT’s Black Fashion Designers

  1. Very interesting. One doesn’t normally associate race and segregation with fashion, but definitely like black designers have had to break through some barriers. Do you have a favorite black designer?

    1. Yea unfortunately segregation was everywhere, even though it was less in the north it was still hard I guess. I actually don’t even know if I do I do like the pieces from Fabrice its a jumpsuit with jacket. Also Tracey Reese does beautiful work.

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