From the motherland to the land of the free, Black designers across the globe have revolutionized the fashion world in ways that cannot be overstated. The Black designers of the past have broken down barriers and created some of the most memorable looks of all time, and now today's Black designers are rising through industry ranks. The problem? Neither generation has been receiving rightful commendations for their mind-blowing feats. Well, it’s time for that to change.
This year, let’s celebrate Black History Month by honoring fashion’s unsung heroes and elevating promising contemporaries. You’ll find that the history of black designers is even more fascinating than you could’ve ever imagined.
What fashions could possibly be more quintessentially Black than those from Africa itself? The head wrap is so ubiquitous across the continent that it goes by different names, with West Africa calling it the gele id and Southern Africa alternating between doek and duku. Traditional African clothing is a glorious rainbow of patterns that signify religious and political beliefs and colors that symbolize concepts like love and purity. It only makes sense that African Americans who had finally begun to embrace their heritage would adopt the gorgeous aesthetic.
Here’s a secret that’ll no doubt surprise you as much as it surprised me: the African prints that became popular in the United States are actually European embellishments of 8th-century Chinese and Indian designs. The patterns became associated with Africa because they sold like hotcakes when they were brought to West Africa in 1867. Fast-forward to over a century later, where African businesswomen have reclaimed the prints, becoming revered success stories by capitalizing on their continued popularity.
Meanwhile, America’s Black designers found their own success as early as the 1940s, when fashion phenoms Ann Lowe and Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes reigned supreme. Lowe rose above the racism of her time to become the first Black designer to reach international fame, a legacy solidified by her creating history’s most photographed wedding gown for First Lady Jackie Kennedy. Valdes earned her presidency of the New York Chapter of the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) through opening the first Black owned boutique, beautifying Black icons like Josephine Baker and Dorothy Dandridge, and conceptualizing the first draft of the Playboy Bunny costume.
The latter half of the 20th century saw the developing careers of a couple more Black designers, both in the States and overseas. Willi Smith began his streetwear brand WilliWear in 1976, and a decade later he was the one of the most successful African American designers. Tracy Reese’s eponymous Detroit brand was launched in 1998, and its founder has since been deemed the first Black female designer to capture the hearts of the modern fashion industry. Ghanaian-British Ozwald Boateng started his career in 1994 as the first Black tailor to open a shop near Savile Row, and his career soared to heights that won him the Veritas Award from Harvard University in 2014.
Today’s Black designers are destined for the same greatness as their artistic forebears. Rihanna’s Fenty brand has taken the world by storm, due in no small part to its superstar founder being a Black woman making groundbreaking strides in high fashion. Even better, this new era of Black fashion is, well, unapologetically Black. Pyer Moss’s creations are inspired by the everyday Black American experience, especially the hot topic of police brutality. Asiyami Gold established A.Au with the goal of espousing the virtue of embracing one’s African roots,
and AAKS’s beautiful bags are made possible by the local Ghanaian artisans who are finally receiving credit for their overlooked talents.
The parallels between past and present are undeniable proof that Black people are trailblazers in fashion, and we just can’t hold back our excitement for what the future holds.
Written by Guest blogger, Nia Hunt.