Eric Gaskins in his studio with some of his fall/winter 2000 collection.
To say that black designers are at the heart of fashion would be an understatement. Their pieces are embedded into the fibers of culture worldwide—think about the relevance of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis' wedding gown or the Playboy Bunny costume, which unbeknownst to many were both made by black designers. It's no wonder, then, that the Museum at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology's latest exhibition, Black Fashion Designers, is seeking to not only educate those who aren't aware of the pervasiveness of designers from the African diaspora, but to also gently shake those who forgot those monumental contributions into remembering.
While FIT has done a great job of chronicling the work of black designers for decades now, the fashion industry has often excluded those key players from the narrative. Iconic designers like Ann Lowe, Eric Gaskins, and Patrick Kelly should be as well-known as their contemporaries, but they and many others have been left out of the discussion. It was this issue that led assistant curator of costume and textiles Ariele Elia and curatorial assistant Elizabeth Way to assemble works from 60 designers. We talked with Elia and Way about their journey to bring the exhibition to fruition, their favorite looks in the collection, why the black perspective in fashion matters, and more.
Let's start at the beginning. How did this come about? What was the journey to get this exhibit up and running?
Ariele Elia: There have been a number of exhibits that have focused on individual black designers: Patrick Kelly, Stephen Burrows, and one at Pratt that highlighted 10 African-American fashion designers. But we wanted to expand on all of those and really show how many black designers there have been in the style landscape, from the entire African diaspora. So we started looking in our collection and began figuring out what we had to acquire in order to fill in the gaps when it came to fashion history.
Have black designers and their influence on the global fashion industry been a subject you've been passionate about for some time?
Elizabeth Way: We worked on this exhibition for about two years. It's very timely given the state of diversity in fashion today, but highlighting the perspectives of these designers is something that matters in fashion, no matter what the time period. Black designers have made an incredible impact, but have really been left out of the industry's narrative and history. This exhibition would be well-timed at any point. My personal research focus is on African-American culture and how that plays out through fashion: that intersection's influence can be felt all over the globe. Ann Lowe is one of the oldest designers we have in the exhibition, and I wrote my master's thesis on her. FIT has been collecting the pieces and works of black designers since we began the museum. We have designs in our collection from Stephen Burrows, James Daugherty, and Patrick Kelly. We're really focused on simply showcasing amazing designs, thus of course these iconic designers would be in our assortment.
What was the thought process behind who would be included?
Elia: We really wanted to fill in the part of fashion history that we felt had truly been left out, so we organized the exhibition by theme. There were nine in total: activism, evening wear, and menswear were among the vignettes. We then looked at which designers fit into those themes and we built the stories from there. We couldn't include every black designer, but we were able to stick to FIT's ethos, which is culturally significant and fashion-forward designs.
What was it like to work with the designers and get their input?
Elia: Most of our reaching out was to the newer designers, to fill in the gaps in recent fashion history. We worked directly with Olivier Rousteing, for instance—we sent along a request for a piece that represented his design aesthetic and philosophy. So many of these looks were inserted into our permanent collection, so we had to examine how these designers impacted the fashion industry as a whole and how they performed from a business standpoint.
Way: The exhibition also includes an app, so we were able to speak to some designers who lent their voices and told their stories: Eric Gaskins, Andre Walker, and TJ Walker and Carl Jones of Cross Colours were among my favorites. We also had Dapper Dan, who Ariele worked with during a previous exhibition.
What are you hoping this exhibition does for people's knowledge of black designers?
Elia: We wanted people to walk away with the knowledge that there is a richer history of diversity in fashion than what is being showcased in the media today. Most people know Halston was big in the '70s, but we also wanted to educate them on Scott Barrie, who was huge during that era as well. Diversity in fashion creates a more interesting industry. We need a slew of voices to be heard.
Do either of you have a particular favorite look or piece from what you curated?
Way: We have a beautiful design from Duro Olowu that is a lace and leaf motif cape. You can see the exquisite work and craftsmanship that went into that piece. It's right at the front of our exhibition.
Elia: One of the other exciting pieces is by CD Greene. He originally created the design for Tina Turner's "Wildest Dreams" tour so that she would stand out onstage. The cut and construction of it is great.
There's also a lot of focus right now in fashion and across several industries to make sure that stories about black culture are actually being told by black voices. When you were putting this together, is that something that came up or something you considered?
Way: A lot of our research for this exhibition came from Women's Wear Daily and contemporary press, going back to the '50s, '60s, and '70s even. Interviews with designers were things we listened to, as well as talking to them ourselves. We absolutely not only read about but also discussed discrimination in the industry with the designers, and we found that it mirrored the larger discriminatory attitudes of the country at various times in history. But most designers weren't really looking to dwell on that. So many were simply looking to be identified as designers and to be given credit where they hadn't been in the past. So many of these stories have been left out of the fashion narrative, so we wanted to highlight them.
Elia: We also commissioned two videos for the exhibition: one with designers and one with models. In them, they talked about their struggles and the importance of diversity in fashion. And on February 6, we'll be having a fashion symposium—based on the themes and designers featured.
That sounds amazing. What will that day entail?
Way: We'll have a number of different speakers and scholars to talk about the intersection between African and African-American culture and fashion. Teri Agins, June Ambrose, Grace Wales Bonner, Dapper Dan, Carly Cushnie, and Michelle Ochs will be in attendance. Jeriana San Juan will also be there.
Black Fashion Designers will run at FIT until May 16, 2017.
A collection of looks from the exhibition. (Courtesy FIT)
A collection of looks from the exhibition. (Courtesy FIT)