Fashion has always been impacted by talented black designers, many of their stories simply never got told. To celebrate Black History Month, we're looking back at some of the greatest black designers who ever blessed the world of fashion. Some of these pioneers you may have already heard of, and some maybe not, but each individual overcame incredible odds just to share their talents with the world. Without further adieu, it's our pleasure to share their stories with you!
Ann Cole Lowe was the first internationally-recognized African American fashion designer, designing couture dresses for the social elite in the Jim Crow-era.
Lowe came from a family of dressmakers. Her grandmother made clothes for her plantation mistress, and her mother was an expert seamstress and embroiderer. When her mother died suddenly while making gowns for the governor’s wife and daughters, Lowe took over the family business. She was only 16 years old.
From 1919 to 1928, she owned a dressmaking salon where no two dresses were ever alike. She restricted her clientele to wealthy white women, American families with deep documented lineage and even deeper pockets. Her couture designs were coveted by all the major families of the time–the Rockefellers, DuPonts and others.
She famously told Ebony magazine “I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them. I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for families of the Social Register.”
She designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress but was rarely given credit for her work. When asked who made her gown, Jackie responded, “A colored dressmaker”.
Lowe opened Ann Lowe’s Originals on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue in 1968, making her the first African American to have a business on the high-end retail strip.
Though her place in history isn't known to many, Ann fought injustice in her own way. She did the impossible by making a name for herself solely from her talent in the Jim Crow-era, and opened the doors for black designers to follow her footsteps as future icons of the industry.
The originator of luxury streetwear, Dapper Dan created clothing for those marginalised by high fashion, helping to cement his iconic status.
Daniel Day, who goes by Dapper Dan, is a Harlem couturier known as the king of "knockoffs." 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.
Born in Harlem, New York, in the 1950s, he opened his haberdasher-come-boutique in 1982. His precipitous rise came at a perfect moment when hip-hop began to prove itself as a commercially successful and viable genre.
Dap was ahead of his time and understood the power of the logo. He applied street smarts and a bodacious mentality to couture by screen printing the monograms of Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Fendi and MCM on to premium leathers and married them with luxurious and unusual materials. The trailblazer created garments aimed at young African Americans, as luxury brands did not cater to their demographic.
Dap injected his fashions with a dose of street culture, using wider and looser silhouettes, sharp collars and shorter jackets marred with bold, contrasting patterns and logos. He could create anything that luxury brands would never dream of. The hip hop and crack generation’s mindset was focused on breaking free from social restraints so outlandishly showcasing luxury goods was evidence of having ‘made it’.
He had a profound influence on the culture, and it wasn't long until the luxury brands he was mimicking caught wind of his success and had the authorities raid his store. They shut him down in 1992 and forced him underground. Within a short span of ten years, Dapper Dan curated hip-hop culture and demonstrated a totally alternative way of thinking and approach to design, paving the way for future high-end streetwear designers to shine.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda is best known for designing the iconic Playboy Bunny costume, but she accomplished much more than this. She was the first Black person to own a store on Broadway and redefined the look of a woman’s curvy silhouette, changing the aesthetics of feminine beauty forever.
The eldest of seven children, Valdes learned to sew from watching her grandmother’s seamstress. In the 1930s, she worked as a stock girl at an upscale boutique, where she eventually became the first black sales clerk and tailor. In 1948, Valdes opened her own boutique, called Chez Zelda, making her the first black person to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan.
In her store, Valdes sold her signature low-cut, body hugging gowns. Her dresses unapologetically showcased the full figure of a woman during a time when many found this disrespectful. Many celebrities wore and admired Valdes’ sexy yet sophisticated dresses including Josephine Baker, Diahann Carroll, Dorothy Dandridge, Ruby Dee, Eartha Kitt, Marlene Dietrich, and Mae West.
Her ability to enhance a women’s femininity is what so many people came to her for. She was the go-to designer of the infamous Playboy bunny suit — iconic strapless corset, bunny ears, pantyhose, bow tie, collar, cuffs, and fluffy cottontail — making sure every Playboy Bunny's seam was pressed to perfection.
Valdes took immense pride in making women of all shapes and sizes look and feel like goddesses. As Valdes once said of her life’s calling, "I just had a God-given talent for making people beautiful."
Later in life, Valdes made it her mission to leave the door wide open for all the black women designers following in her footsteps. As someone who faced discrimination in what is still a predominately white industry, she led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, a coalition that was founded with the sole purpose of promoting black designers. Her lifetime or work helped to pave the way for all black fashion and costume designers today.
Elizabeth Keckley’s story is incredible and integral to understanding the experiences of enslaved and free Black women. She was born a slave, and through constant hard work and determination became the personal seamstress to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln.
She was born in February 1818 in Virginia, grew up with other enslaved children and assisted her mother in her work as an enslaved domestic servant. Her mother also sewed clothing for the family, a skill she taught Elizabeth. When Elizabeth was fourteen years old, she was sent to North Carolina to live with the family’s son, where she was severely whipped, often with no discernible provocation. She was also repeatedly raped by a local white store owner. One of these rapes resulted in a pregnancy and the birth of her only son, George.
Elizabeth returned to Virginia where she offered to use her skills as a seamstress in order to make the family money. She soon became a highly successful businesswoman taking dress orders from the best ladies in St. Louis. With the help of several clients, she raised enough money to purchase her freedom and on November 13, 1855.
In the weeks leading up to Lincoln’s inauguration, Keckly was approached by one of her patrons, Margaret McClean. McClean wanted Elizabeth to make a dress for when she would be joining the Lincolns at the Willard Hotel. Elizabeth worked furiously to finish the dress on time which resulted in a personal recommendation to Mrs. Lincoln.
Mrs. Lincoln approved of her first dress and asked for fifteen or sixteen more over the course of that Spring. In her role as Mrs. Lincoln’s seamstress, Elizabeth’s impact on high-society dresses at that time was incredible.
In 1868, she published Behind the Scenes or Thirty Years a Slave, and Four Years in the White House, detailing her life story. Unfortunately, the book was not well received. Her intimate conversations with Washington’s elite women violated social norms of privacy, race, class, and gender. The American public was not prepared to read the story of a free Black woman assuming control of her own life narrative.
Elizabeth Keckly continued sewing after the book’s publication, but most of her customers disappeared. In addition to her dress-making business, Elizabeth founded a relief society called the Contraband Relief Association to provide homes for enslaved refugees that flooded into the nation’s capital. She later began training Black seamstresses, passing on her knowledge and inspirational life story to future generations.
Carrying on the bright torch of his predecessors, Justin Orenthal Goff is redefining fashion in an age of sustainability. These historic pioneers paved the way so future black designers would have the opportunity to be recognized for their contributions to the fashion world and beyond. As DBC's founder and lead designer, Orenthal is contributing to the world of beauty through his one of a kind couture gowns, and renewing the health of our planet through the use of upcycling.