Photo credits (from left to right): Ann Lowe, dress, circa 1955, USA. Gift of Eleanor Cates. B. Michael, dress, fall 2015, USA. Gift of b. michael AMERICA. CD Greene, dress, 1996, USA. Gift of CD Greene. Bruce Oldfield, dress, spring 2013, England. Gift of Bruce Oldfield. Eric Gaskins, dress, 2014, USA. Gift of Eric Gaskins. Kevan Hall, dress, spring 2008, USA. Gift of Kevan Hall.
When the British menswear designer Grace Wales Bonner won the LVMH Prize earlier this year, not all the media outlets that reported the news commented on her racial heritage. Instead, her incorporation of African motifs into elegantly cut suits (and the fact that she was the first solo woman to win the prize, which is a topic for another story) was emphasized. This is significant because Wales Bonner’s race—her father is black, her mother is white—would once have automatically been considered the most newsworthy thing about her.
“Designers would be described by journalists as black, but then their clothes wouldn’t be described,” says Ariele Elia, the co-curator, along with Elizabeth Way, of “Black Fashion Designers,” a new exhibition at the Museum at FIT that is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about diversity, or lack thereof, in fashion. From a classic wedding gown by the society designer Ann Lowe—best known for creating the dress Jacqueline Bouvier wore to marry John F. Kennedy—to an elegant caped ensemble by Duro Olowu, each of the designs on display speaks of its creator’s individuality. The earliest of them dates to the 1950s; the most recent, to the Spring 2017 collections. Included are working designers such as Wales Bonner, Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, Andre Walker, and Tracy Reese; still evocative names from the past, such as Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows; and others who are now obscure, such as Arthur McGee, who worked for Charles James and was the first African-American to head a Seventh Avenue design studio.
As the curators worked on the exhibition, says Way, “It became clear that the term ‘black designer’ is just a tiny facet of describing any designer. ‘Black’ doesn’t tell you anything about a designer. The exhibition is really about a diversity of perspective.” Also included in the exhibition, which encompasses both menswear and womenswear, are sections devoted to street style, the influence of African cultures, and black models. Visitors can download an audio tour of the exhibition, with additional information on topics such as the Ebony Fashion Fair and the 1973 “Battle of Versailles” fashion show, in which African-American models played a starring role.
Photo credits (from left to right): Isaïa, ensemble, 1980, USA. Gift of Ms. Terry Melville. Dapper Dan of Harlem, jacket, 1987, USA. Gift of Dapper Dan of Harlem. Photographs by Jamel Shabazz, late-1980s. Cross Colours, ensemble, 1990-1993, USA. Gift of Michael Harrell. Photographs by Dario Calmese 2012-2014. Off-White, ensemble, fall 2015, USA. Gift of Off-White c/o Virgil Abloh. Pyer Moss, ensemble and shoes (in case), fall 2015, USA. Gift of Pyer Moss.
Photo credits (from left to right): Patrick Kelly, trousers and hat, spring 1988, France. Gift of Bjorn G. Amelan and Bill T. Jones. Kente cloth, 1940s, Ghana. Museum purchase. Stella Jean, ensemble and shoes (in case), fall 2015, Italy. Gift of Stella Jean. Lisa Folawiyo, dress, spring 2015, Nigeria. Gift of Lisa Folawiyo. Mimi Plange, dress, spring 2013, USA. Gift of Mimi Plange. Christie Brown, dress, spring 2016, Ghana. Gift of Christie Brown.
Photo credits (from left to right): Patrick Kelly, pins (in case), 1987-1990, France. Gift of Gloria Steinem. Patrick Kelly, dress, fall 1987, France. Gift of Bjorn G. Amelan and Bill T. Jones. Patrick Kelly, T-shirt, spring 1989, France. Gift of Bjorn G. Amelan and Bill T. Jones. Willi Smith, T-shirt, 1990, USA. Gift of Matthew Olszak. Stoned Cherrie, ensemble, 2010, South Africa. Gift of Stoned Cherrie. Pyer Moss, T-shirt, spring 2016, USA. Gift of Pyer Moss. G-Star RAW, T-shirt, spring 2016, Netherlands. Museum purchase. Pyer Moss, ensemble, spring 2016, USA. Gift of Pyer Moss.
Photo credits (from left to right): Willi Smith, ensemble, spring 1985, USA. Gift of WilliWear, Ltd. Jeffrey Banks, ensemble, circa 1981, USA. Gift of Jeffrey Banks. Sean John, ensemble, fall 2008, USA. Gift of Sean John. Maurice Sedwell, ensemble, 2003, England. Gift of Maurice Sedwell (Savile Row) Designed and hand made by Andrew M. Ramroop OBE. Wales Bonner, ensemble, spring 2017, England. Museum purchase. Joe Casely-Hayford, ensemble, fall 2015, England. Gift of Joe Casely-Hayford. Agi & Sam, fall 2015, England. Gift of Agi & Sam. Byron Lars, dress, 1991, USA. Gift of Byron Lars. Patrick Kelly, ensemble, spring 1989, France. Museum purchase.