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Great Black Fashion Designers of the 20th Century

June 08 2020 – Gergana Damyanova

Great Black Fashion Designers of the 20th Century
Great Black Fashion Designers of the 20th Century

The fashion industry is guilty of committing probably every crime an industry can commit. It is so very sad that an industry that is supposed to celebrate beauty, character and confidence is actually so ugly, impersonal and suppressing. The fashion world is actually difficult, mean and not inclusive. Not inclusive at all. Today we focus on the great African American fashion designers of the 20th century that against all odds persevered to make a name for themselves and express their creative talent. Their vision and their hard effort resulted in some of the iconic fashion pieces of the last century and left a mark on the fashion industry forever.


Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley - the black desginer who made Mary Todd Lincoln's dress to Lincoln's second inauguration

Elizabath Hobbs Keckley (1818-1907)

Keckley was a former slave who went on to become America's first black fashion designer. She established her atelier in Washington D.C. and became a trusted confidante of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln - Abraham Lincoln's wife. Keckley made her gown for Lincoln's second inauguration. The black designer was widely popular for her talent of using draping and fitting while still maintaining a modest style.

ann lowe the black designer who designed jackie kennedy's wedding gown

Ann Lowe (1898-1981)

So skilled and talented, the legend goes that even Dior was stunned by Lowe's craftsmanship - he once examined one of Lower's gowns and immediately asked "Who made this gown?". Lowe was famously commissioned the designer of the wedding dress of Jackie Kennedy - which would come to be one of the most famous gowns in history. Unfortunately, Jackie never rightfully named Lower, instead saying that "a coloured woman" made her dress. Lowe encountered a lot of obstacles - from blatant racism, illness, a husband who left her because of her dedication to her work to the Great Depression destroying her business. However, she never let any of these things get in the way of her passion, so she always found a way to bounce back. She was one of the most in-demand New York designers of her time - making gowns for generations of the Du Ponts and the Rockefellers among others.

Zelda Wynn Valdes

Zelda Wynn Valdes (1905-2001)

Valdes was the first black designer to open a shop on Broadway in New York in 1948. You probably have seen her dresses worn by the movie stars from the last century - she was adored by Hollywood, with starts like Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Mae West loving her designs. Her sexy silhouette that cinched the waist and accentuated curves were made for black stars such as Joyce Bryant who would often be described as the Black Marilyn Monroe. However, you are probably most familiar with one of her a bit unusual designs. In 1958 her role in glamourising women caught the attention of Hugh Hefner - the founder of Playboy. He commissioned Valdes and she created the iconic original Playboy bunny costume - one of the most recognisable cultural symbols of the 20th century. 

rosemary reed miller toast and strawberries

Rosemary Reed Miller (1939-2017)

Miller was the owner of Toast and Strawberries - a landmark boutique in Washington, D.C she opened in 1967. The store featured emerging and established designers from all over the world. As Miller put it, "we felt it was important to show that talent had no limits - male, female, white and black." She was profoundly interested in the black talent in fashion. Miller published a book on African-American dressmakers from the 19th to the 21st centuries - "Threads of Time, The Fabric of History: Profiles of African American Dressmakers and Designers, 1850-2003". Next to this, she developed a program to educate others about the history of African-American women in dressmaking and designing. She wanted to demonstrate how the craft was a tool for economic support and independence.

willi smith black designer

Willi Smith (1948-1987)

Smith was an American fashion designer who at the time of his death was seen as one of the most successful black designers in the fashion industry. He started his own label - WilliWear Limited, and by keeping his designs accessible and affordable, Smith helped democratise fashion. His label was as well the first label ever to sell womenswear and menswear under the same brand name.

Amsale Aberra black fashion designer of wedding gowns

Amsale Aberra (1954-2018)

Aberra was an Ethiopian-American designer who is best known for her wedding dresses. In 1985, planning her own wedding, Aberra discovered an untapped niche in the bridal market - there were few to none simple, refined wedding dresses. With focus on bridal, her line - Amsale, also covered more luxurious gowns, bridesmaid and cocktail dresses as well as ball gowns. Aberra had a platform on the Huffington Post for brides to ask her any questions they had about their weddings. Next to this, popular culture featured a number of her designs - in Grey's Anatomy, When in Rome, 27 Dresses, American Wedding and The Hangover. Aberra dressed notable women as Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Salma Hayer and Heidi Klum.

stephen burrows black fashion designer

Stephen Burrows (1943-)

Burrows is known as the first African-American fashion designer to sell internationally and develop a mainstream, high-fashion clientele. He is best known for his bright colours and "lettuce hem" curly details that became an integral part of the disco scene in New York in the 70s. He was one of only five American fashion designers to showcase their work at the historical Battle of Versailles Fashion Show in Paris. Not only was he selected but he was as well over a decade younger than all the other American participants. In 1978, Farrah Fawcett wore Burrow's gold chainmail dress to the Academy Awards where she was a presenter and in 1981, the 15-year old Brooke Shields appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan wearing his design.

dapper dan epic black designer

Dapper Dan (1944-)

Daniel Day, also known as Dapper Dan, is one of the most famous black designers. He started his fashion business in New York in the 80s. First he aspired to be a clothing wholesaler, however, he struggled to get the fabrics and furs he needed as most companies refused to do business with him - because of his race or location. This pushed him to teach himself textile printing and resulted in him inventing a new process for screen printing onto leather. His clientele was inspired by the fashion flamboyance of icons like Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davies Jr. and later converged towards his streetwear designs. Dapper Dan is well-known for his work in hip hop fashion dressing LL Cool J, The Fat Boys, Eric B. & Rakim, Bobby Brown, Big Daddy Kane and famous boxers like Mike Tyson.

Dapper Dan's signature textile designs included logo from big fashion houses like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Fendi. This resulted in numerous counterfeiting raids and litigation leading to his eventual closure in 1992. His designs, however, remained an influential part of streetwear fashion. In 2017, Gucci released a jacket based on Dapper Dan's 1989 custom-made design for Diane Dixon but without giving credit to him. There was a backlash after Dixon posted a photo of the Gucci design next to her original one requesting Dapper Dan to get credit for his work. This resulted in a partnership between Dapper Dan and Gucci for a menswear line and a new atelier in Harlem becoming the first luxury house fashion store in Harlem.

scott barrie influential black designer

Scott Barrie (1946-1993)

An absolute master of the jersey, Barrie was one of the New York designers to start his career on 7th Avenue in the 60s and 70s. He began by selling his clothes to independent boutiques but soon became stocked by Bendel's and Bloomingdales. Many department stores wanted his iconic and revealing jersey dresses. He had the skill to cut jersey into luxurious and sensual designs. Barrie is one of the iconic designers of the Studio 54 era with shows that were catwalks as much as a dance party - something unseen by traditional fashion week until then.

patrick kelly amazing black american designer in paris

Patrick Kelly (1954-1990)

Kelly was a broadly celebrated designer whose crowning achievement was his admittance into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Crèateurs de Mode - the prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry. He was the first black designer to be accepted and to join fashion icons like Dior, Chanel and Givenchy. Kelly was loved for the eccentricity, bold use of colours and daring fun designs that encompassed black cultural references and references to black folklore - something unique that the Parisian runways had never seen before.


duro olowu black nigerian british design talent

Duro Olowu (1965-)

Olowu is a Nigerian-born British designer strongly recognised in his field. The designs of his brand - Duro Olowu, are a colourful explosition of fabrics with beautiful patterns.  Olowu has won the New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, the Best International Designer by the African Fashion Awards and received one of six nominations for the Swiss Textile Federation's coveted prize. He has been widely supported by Michelle Obama who chose him among very few non-American designers she wore.

1 comment

  • jd quinitchette: February 20, 2023
    Author's avatar image

    Researching black women designers. Your blog has been enlightening as well as helpful. Thank you.

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