The Black Designers Who Shaped Fashion History. These creatives paved the way.
Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898 and learned her dressmaking skills from her mother, who made dresses for society women in the South. When Lowe was 16, her mother died suddenly. Ann was left to finish her mother's last job: The creation of four ballgowns for the First Lady of Alabama. These dresses launched Lowe's career. She moved to New York and enrolled in S.T. Taylor Design School, which hadn't realized they'd admitted a Black woman so were required to segregate. In 1950, Lowe opened Ann Lowe's Gowns in Harlem and became the go-to dress designer for for the highest of high society—the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, the du Ponts. She was called "society's best kept secret." Lowe was highly selective with her clientele: “I love my clothes, and I’m particular about who wears them. I’m not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers,” she said. She made the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Oscar, but her name was not on the label. Unfortunately, this wouldn't be the last time that Lowe failed to receive credit. In 1953, Lowe scored a historical commission when she was hired to create the wedding dress of Jacqueline Bouvier (Jackie O). When asked, Jackie O simply said it was by "a colored designer." Financially, Lowe was taken advantage of by her clientele and by the mid-60s she was in debt, which was paid off by an anonymous friend—some say Jackie O. In 1968 Lowe became the first Black woman to own a store on Madison Avenue.
American designer Willi Smith was the streetwear pioneer. After dropping out of Parsons, Smith began designing for Digits Sportswear, where he met Laurie Mallet. In 1976 he founded his own line with Mallet, WilliWear, which "was a brand that you would see everyone wearing on the street,” Known for his reasonably priced pieces, Smith didn't "design clothes for the Queen, but rather clothes for the people lined up to wave at her". WilliWear was ahead of its time, mixing elements of relaxed fit sportswear with the high-end tailoring. Smith designed WilliWear’s seasonal collections for 11 years, and was the first designer to house womenswear and menswear under the same brand. New York City was his inspiration "Being Black has a lot to do with my being a good designer,” he said. “Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there.” At the time of his death due to complications from AIDS in 1987, Willi Smith was known as one of the most successful young designers in America.
In 1998, Patrick Kelly became the first American designer accepted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in Paris, the prestigious French ready-to-wear association. After college, Kelly moved to Atlanta to work as a window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. Supermodel Pat Cleveland encouraged Kelly to move to Paris in 1980. Initially, Kelly struggled in Paris, freelancing for Paco Rabanne and making clothes for nightclubs to get by. His big break came when he became the first American designer sold in French boutique Victoire. This led to a feature in ELLE France and his first show in 1985. Kelly's pieces were beloved by Grace Jones, Madonna, and Princess Diana. He was known for his bright and bold garments, flashy body-con dresses, big buttons, and loud prints. Above all, Kelly was influenced by Black culture: "In one pew at Sunday church in Vicksburg, there’s more fashion to be seen than on a Paris runway." As a Black man designing couture collections with Black women in mind, he was an anomaly. With a background in African history, Kelly used his brand as a way to confront racism by reclaiming symbols of Black oppression, such as the blackface he used as his logo. U.S. retailers refused to buy anything with this logo and his investors asked him to stop using it altogether. He died of AIDS in 1990.
Daniel Day, who goes by Dapper Dan, is a Harlem couturier known as the king of "knockoffs." He made a name for himself in the late '80s when he opened his renowned Dapper Dan's Boutique in Harlem. A self taught tailor with a unique style, Dapper Dan provided rap culture with its signature style, reworking traditional luxury-house products to outfit a slew of emerging hip-hop stars and athletes, including the likes of LL Cool J, James Jackson, and Floyd Mayweather. Unfortunately with recognition came lawsuits as luxury brands claimed he violated copyright laws by using their logos. In 1992, Fendi conducted a raid on his boutique, forcing Dapper Dan to close his doors. Over a decade later Dan had an unexpected comeback when Gucci's cruise show in 2017 featured a balloon-sleeved mink bomber jacket very similar to Dan’s iconic 1989 Louis Vuitton version. Just as Dan fans were screaming ripoff, Gucci invited Dan to create a capsule collection inspired by his archive. In 2018, along with Gucci, Dan opened an invitation-only atelier in Harlem. This move solidified Dan as the first true luxury brand out of Harlem.
Andre Walker staged his first fashion show at only 15 years old. In the ‘80s, Walker worked for WilliWear, the industry powerhouse Willi Smith's label. He left New York in the ‘90s and moved to Paris, where he made a name for himself. The New York Times called him a "fashion zelig" because he was truly ahead of his time. Walker was known for his irregularly shaped avant-garde ensembles—coats cut like oven mitts, paper-bag-waist overalls, and pant-skirts. Every magazine wanted to shoot Walker's pieces and top buyers flocked to his presentations. Unfortunately, this was not enough. His close friend, Patricia Field, told the New York Post that few buyers "took a chance on him." In 2000, he won the ANDAM Fashion Fellowship, France's version of the CFDA Award. Five years later he decided to close shop and move back to New York. After shuttering his personal label, Walker served as creative consultant to Kim Jones, as well as for Marc Jacobs for his own line and for Louis Vuitton. In 2014, Walker made a comeback designing under his name with a small collection for Dover Street Market.
Sean "P Diddy" Combs
Before there was Yeezy and Fenty, there was Sean John by Sean "P Diddy" Combs. Combs launched “Sean John” at the height of his career in 1998, using his celebrity status to change the industry. He noted: "We wanted to give them extremely multicultural and diverse fashion...We brought them fashion-tainment." Combs ran a celebrity-driven label before it was the norm—this was the pre-Instagram era. A master marketer who disrupted the industry, Combs would make TV appearances wearing Sean John and use the tabloids to his advantage. In 2001, Sean John held the first nationally televised runway show. The industry rolled their eyes when a rapper wanted to be a designer—but fast forward six years later, and Combs was the recipient of the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award. Over 20 years later, Sean John still racks up over $400 million in annual sales. It is sold at Macy’s across the country, and Sean Combs is the blueprint for the celebrity-driven labels that followed.
Kimora Lee Simmons
Kimora Lee Simmons began modeling at the age of 13, walking for some of the biggest names in fashion, and ultimately became a Chanel muse. She married music mogul Russell Simmons, who had his own menswear line, "Phat Farm." In 1999, under the "Phat Fashions" umbrella, Kimora Lee Simmons created "Baby Phat” to give women a much-needed voice in the booming streetwear industry. Baby Phat is a brand that defined fashion in the aughts. The label offered short mini skirts, low rise jeans, slinky crop tops, and of course the bedazzled curvy cat logo inspired by Kimora's cat Max. She democratized fashion with her belief that "no matter your size or heritage, what united the Baby Phat girl was a desire to look good, feel great, and do it on a dollar.” Simmons became one of the first Black women to run a billion-dollar company. Nearly 10 years after shuttering, Baby Phat is back under the direction of her two teenage daughters.
Tracy Reese is an American designer who is known for "rich, daring colors and unique prints that are crafted into joyful, feminine pieces for the modern woman." Upon graduating Parsons in 1984, Tracy Reese worked for French fashion designer Martine Sitbon at the small contemporary firm, Arlequin. Reese went on to work for many top fashion houses, including Perry Ellis, where she became design director for women's portfolio. In 1997, Reese launched her eponymous line which received high praise. Her line combined bold hues and prints with modern silhouettes and shapes. She launched her second line, Plenty by Tracy Reese, in 1998. In 2014, Reese launched DRESSES by Tracy Reese, a line of contemporary dresses that can take you from work to a special occasion. Reese is a celebrity favorite, having dressed Michelle Obama, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Taylor Swift. She serves on the CFDA Board of Directors, and is involved in many social causes such as the AIDS Fund Committee for the New York Community Trust.