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In the past year -- specifically within recent months -- there have been an overwhelming amount of instances of fashion brand offenses. Remember when H&M released a promotional image of a black child adorned in a T-shirt reading "Coolest monkey in the jungle"? Just last week, Italian mega-influencer Gucci released a "balaclava knit" that threw the black community into a frenzy over its blackface resemblance. In the same period, Katy Perry removed a similar looking pair of shoes from her line and issued an apology. Happy Black History Month, right?
You can't talk about black history without giving due respect to the innovators who helped to mold it into what it is today. The fashion industry rarely highlights the black American groundbreakers who have contributed. But, it continues to use the culture for "new" ideas and shock value promotions. In honor of Black History Month, we're going to talk about the black Americans who helped paved the way.
Currently, fashion is reinforcing diversity and inclusivity (from size and shape to all shades of brown) on the runways, despite monthly transgressions. Virgil Abloh brought us Off-White, Maxwell Osborne maximizes Public School, and Tracey Reese has managed to sustain her namesake brand for a little more than 22 years. But, there exists a legacy of exceptional black designers before them who opened up these doors.
Anne Lowe was a barely-known African-American designer who crafted stunning formal wear for wealthy elites. Born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898 to a family of dressmakers and embroiderers, Lowe became adept in her ability to create elaborate flower embellishments, which would later gather the attention of a wealthy Floridian woman. With dreams to move and thrive in New York City (like so many designers before and after her), she moved to the Big Apple and began work for prestigious labels like A.F Chantilly and Sonia Gowns, her introduction into the high society of the city. She quickly became a favorite go-to for the opera-goers, and top society wives from the '20s to the '60s. In 1953, she got her biggest break as the designer of a particular silk wedding dress worn by Jacqueline Bouvier. That dress was worn when she was wed to Senator John F. Kennedy. She retired in 1972 and passed in 1981 after a longterm illness. But, she and her designs will forever live on at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Jan Ernst Matzeliger
Born in Dutch Guiana, a South American country now called Suriname, Jan Ernst Matzeliger immigrated to the United States and found work at a shoe factory. On March 20, 1883, Matzeliger invented the shoemaking machine that so many inventors before him couldn't manage to perfect. This "Lasting Machine" quickly attached the top of a shoe to the sole of the shoe, making production ten times more efficient and affordable. This fashion invention revolutionized the industry. Matzeliger became one of the leading founders of the Consolidated Lasting Machine Company, which was organized around his invention. Matzeliger passed in 1889, leaving behind a legacy of launching what was once thought to be an impossible venture, which made shoes affordable for the masses and created more jobs for workers.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes was born on June 18, 1905 into a working-class family. Her career began at the peak of Jim Crow when black dressmakers were at the bottom of the wage totem pole. With her eye for design, keen attention to detail and undeniable technical precision, she quickly gained a reputation as a sought-after seamstress. With this recognition and her God-given natural bravery, she opened her own boutique. Because of her ability to turn satin, silk organza and knit jersey into enviable evening gowns, she earned the clientele of Ella Fitzgerald, though she’s probably the most known as the initial creator of the Playboy Bunny costume. She also constructed bridal gowns and elegant dresses that could transition from workwear to party wear. Her boutique on Broadway became a godsend for socialites, the wives of famous black men; and well-known starlets such as Edna Mae Robinson, and Josephine Baker, to name a few.
African-American designer Patrick Kelly was among the first sensations in Paris and became the first American to join the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, a prestigious house of couture and ready-to-wear. His designs incorporated playful embellishments such as bright buttons, ribbons, and faces. In 1985, however, he sent a model down the catwalk with a dress printed with blackface, intentionally. He used his talents to confront racism head-on.
Jay Jaxon was born in New York in 1941 and happened to fall into the fashion industry by way of his seamstress girlfriend. He began his journey at the age of 24, training under Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior in Paris. In 1965, he completely took over the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer in an effort to reinvent and turn around the failing brand, making him the first black American couturier. His designs were sold in upscale department stores such as Bonwit Teller and Bendel's and he later worked on popular television shows "Ally McBeal" and "American Dreams." Although the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer eventually fell, most people do not know of Jay Jaxon's leading career in the fashion industry.
Today's mainstream culture has chosen to set aside these men and women. But, that doesn't mean that they have not made some serious strides. Their history is well worth knowing. Their history opened doors.
Other honorable mentions:
Elizabeth Keckley: Personal seamstress to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln
Aurora James of Brother Vellies
Olivier Rousteing: Creative director of Balmain
Campbell Addy: Nii Agency Founder
Martha Jones: First known African-American woman to be given a U.S. patent
Sarah Boone: Inventor of the ironing board
Mildred Blount of Gone With The Wind: First African-American member of the Motion Pictures Costumers Union
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