BLACK FEMALE DESIGNERS FACE DOUBLE the trouble of other groups on their journey through the pintucked halls of fashion by virtue of being both black and female.
Historically, the rag trade has been dominated by men, a counterintuitive state of affairs, since women make up fashion’s biggest market by far. This lack of diversity on Seventh Avenue underscores the barriers faced by African-American female designers. Of the more than one hundred shows presented at New York Fashion Week twice a year, you can count on one hand the number produced by black women.
But change is coming, even if it is at a pace that a tortoise would have no problem keeping up with. Black women have made room for themselves as designers in the past three decades, led by such talents as Tracy Reese, Felicia Farrar, Constance Saunders, and April Walker. And joining them is a new generation, most notably Carly Cushnie, Aurora James, Felisha Noel, Terese Sydonna, Marie Jean-Baptiste, and Korto Momolu. Across the Atlantic, Grace Wales Bonner and Stella Jean are blowing up classic notions of European-centered design.
Black women have always been a central part of the world’s fashion story. But they have operated behind the scrim, with little reward or acknowledgment, even as early as the fifteenth century, when the first known Africans arrived in America. Elizabeth Keckley was a seamstress who worked for Mary Todd Lincoln, the wife of President Abraham Lincoln. Keckley was gifted. She is said to have made all the First Lady’s clothes.
Born into slavery, in Virginia, she was also an author, and was successful enough to purchase her freedom in 1855.
It was common, during this period, for black women, both free and enslaved, to assume a large share of the dressmaking for white women and their households, as well as for themselves and their own families.
Few know that it was a black woman who created Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. Her name is Ann Lowe, and her garments sometimes carried her label. Lowe was a go-to fashion resource among socialites of the day, when she was tapped to design the gown for Jacqueline Bouvier’s September 12, 1953, wedding to Senator John F. Kennedy. The creation incorporated Lowe’s signatures, including lush handiwork and a defined waist.
Lowe was an anomaly. The practice of recognizing black women as seamstresses, but not as designers, persisted for decades. The legendary designer Stephen Burrows recalled how his mother worked as a seamstress in the 1940s and 1950s for designers like Hattie Carnegie.
Inclusivity started to increase in the sixties and seventies, but only in the past two decades has there been a noticeable change in numbers and impact. Reese burst onto the scene after stints with the French designer Martine Sitbon and the upscale brand Magaschoni before introducing her own, eponymous successful line for women. Recently, Reese returned to her native Detroit to unveil Hope for Flowers, a new sustainable fashion label, featuring the same feminine flourishes that her fans know and love.
Saunders parlayed her eye for the kinds of power suits favored by eighties women in the C-suite and on the lunch circuit, and Felicia Farrar, after paying her dues in the back rooms of New York garment manufacturers, decamped to Paris, producing sexy, feminine luxury looks. She’s now doing interiors in Durham, North Carolina.
Still, it isn’t easy for the new flock, but they’re doing well, garnering more than succès d’estime. These women have established financial footholds as retailers, and consumers warm to their designs. Carly Cushnie has attracted well-deserved attention for her sleek, contemporary looks with a rakish dash and is expanding her Cushnie brand. Noel, a Brooklynite, designing under her Fe Noel label, has sold in Bloomingdale’s, and she recently landed a coveted spot in the Workshop at Macy’s, a boot camp of sorts for aspiring fashion designers of color and for women-owned businesses.
Not confining themselves to clothing, black women designers have paved a way for themselves in accessories. Aurora James creates the most beautiful and visionary footwear for her New Yorkbased Brother Vellies brand. Observing the need for fashionable stilettos at the luxury level, Marcella Gift introduced Emme Cadeau, designed in New York and made in Portugal.
Two of the most successful people in the jewelry game are Monique Péan and Crystal Streets, who got a boost from an early fan, Jay-Z.
And then there’s Rihanna, her superstar status putting her in her own vibration frequency. Her entry into fashion as a designer along with the arrival of these other black women is significant as it opens the door to so many women of color who were denied entry.
That they have all been able to attract financing and generate sales revenues is notable. Lack of funds is cited as the number one deterrent for African-Americans trying to establish a fashion business.
Rihanna is backed by French luxury behemoth LVMH, Tracy Reese’s father, Claude Reese, seeded her business.
A company man who rose through the ranks in the automobile industry, Reese nevertheless recognized the glorious spirit of entrepreneurship and self-determination in his daughter.
Reese’s runway shows have long been among the most diverse. With an increased number of Black women in design seats, will come a more inclusive view of the world vis-à-vis beauty standards, body diversity, cultural appreciation and ageism.
Fashion sorely needs Black women to help recalibrate an industry that feels off-kilter with its homogeneity in body size, race and age.
There are still horrifyingly few women of color at brands like H & M, Gucci and Ted Baker. Had a black woman designer been on board, H&M would never have shown a photo of a black girl that many found offensive both in America and in Europe. These are painful ways to speak to the value of having a black woman’s voice in deciding what is beautiful, what is acceptable.
Historically, black women have been a force in fashion precisely because they’ve been pushed outside the boundaries of decision-making and power. With more black women taking the reins as designers and self-employed seamstresses, they increasingly determine their own message and change the wider conversation.
CONSTANCE C.R. WHITE is an award-winning journalist and author of the popular Rizzoli coffee table book How to Slay. Constance has helped steer brand and editorial direction for some of the most exciting companies, from magazines like Essence and Elle to the New York Times and eBay.