Ex­plor­ing the legacy of black fash­ion de­sign

Ex­hi­bi­tion fo­cuses on the work of black de­sign­ers op­er­at­ing in an in­dus­try dom­i­nated by whites

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE - By ASSOCIATED PRESS in New York

Asa girl, Tracy Reese thought she might be an ar­chi­tect. Then she caught the fash­ion bug. She knew, of course, that de­sign­ers who are black like her ex­isted. She used to snap up Willi Smith at The Lim­ited grow­ing up in Detroit. She headed to New York with high hopes.

“When I first came to New York my eyes were re­ally opened to the breadth of the in­dus­try, but I was look­ing for our place in it,” re­called Reese, who has dressed first lady Michelle Obama.

Reese, along with other noted de­sign­ers of color, Jef­frey Banks and Laura Smalls among them, spoke at the open­ing Tues­day of a new ex­hi­bi­tion, Black Fash­ion De­sign­ers, at The Mu­seum of the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

Run­ning through May 16, the show of­fers a glimpse into ex­actly how im­pact­ful de­sign­ers of color have been through the decades, in­clud­ing Reese, Banks and Smalls. Smalls has seen her dresses worn seven times by the depart­ing Obama.

They also know the chal­lenges of striv­ing for beauty in de­sign while at­tempt­ing to break through in an in­dus­try still dom­i­nated by whites.

“De­sign­ers of color don’t get a lot of pub­lic­ity and so many of the busi­nesses are not siz­able. It’s tough to get recog­ni­tion,” Reese says, stand­ing amid rows of man­nequins span­ning decades of di­verse black voices in fash­ion.

Reese’s fa­ther pro­vided ini­tial startup money when she first went into busi­ness for her­self.

“I had to go out and get loans. I did a lot of pa­per writ­ing. A lot of busi­ness plan­ning. I had to have a lot of as­sis­tance be­cause I didn’t have busi­ness train­ing,” she says. “That’s usu­ally what a banker wants to see, or a fi­nan­cial per­son. It’s a kind of closed in­dus­try. And as dif­fi­cult as it is for a per­son of color, you re­ally have to rise through the ranks high enough to grab the at­ten­tion of the peo­ple who are hold­ing the purse strings.”

Smalls, who grew up in Queens, knew at 8 or 9 that she wanted to be a fash­ion de­signer. She went to the High School of Art and De­sign, fol­lowed by Par­sons School of De­sign.

“When I grad­u­ated Par­sons, be­ing African-Amer­i­can, it was not easy for me to get a job. It was just not easy. I couldn’t fathom that I would be able to sup­port my­self with my own col­lec­tion. They don’t say any­thing. I mean, you know. It’s just you don’t get the job. I could tell you a hor­ri­ble story, but I won’t,” says Smalls, who worked in rel­a­tive ob­scu­rity un­til 2012, when Obama first wore some of her pieces.

Banks, at 63 the old­est of the three, has fo­cused on menswear over his decades in the busi­ness, ad­ding home decor and chil­drenswear in more re­cent years sell­ing on HSN.

“I was very lucky in that I met Ralph Lau­ren when I was 16. I started work­ing for him when I was 17, three weeks out of high school and two months be­fore I started col­lege.” Even so, it wasn’t easy. “I re­mem­ber when I was 10 years old and talk­ing to a for­mer nurs­ery school teacher and telling her that I wanted to be a fash­ion de­signer and she said, ‘Well who­ever heard of a black fash­ion de­signer,’ and she was Black­Fash­ionDe­sign­ers black,” says Banks, who was raised in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

“I was so an­gry, even at 10 years old, to think why would some­one say some­thing like that? Why should that be an im­ped­i­ment to any­thing? I think it made me even more de­ter­mined to be­come a de­signer,” he says.

Banks looked to those who came be­fore him, but his eye was on the beauty of their cre­ations, not nec­es­sar­ily their skin color.

“Grow­ing up, Stephen Bur­rows, when I was in high school, he was just start­ing to de­sign and I thought his de­signs were ex­tra­or­di­nary, and that was way be­fore I knew he was black,” Banks says. “I just thought they were great look­ing clothes. At the end of the day that’s re­ally what counts.”

Jac­que­line Bou­vier must have thought so, too. In 1953, she wore an ivory silk taffeta gown to marry the young Sen­a­tor John F. Kennedy. It was de­signed by Ann Lowe, al­ready a noted dress­maker for high so­ci­ety pa­trons in New York.

Lowe was also the great-grand­daugh­ter of an en­slaved woman and an Alabama plan­ta­tion owner. She learned to sew at the knees of her mother and grand­mother.

“Yet she em­braced all of the beauty of Euro­pean cou­ture,” says An­dre Leon Tal­ley, the for­mer ed­i­tor-at­large for Vogue who re­mains a fash­ion pun­dit and served on the show’s ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee.

The ex­hi­bi­tion is in­tended as a sam­pling, not an all-con­sum­ing ac­count of black con­tri­bu­tions to fash­ion, but it does of­fer a wide range, from a mod­est ivory wed­ding gown by Lowe (not Jackie’s) to a risque royal blue satin Play­boy bunny uni­form by Zelda Wynn Valdes.

Among oth­ers rep­re­sented: Pyer Moss, Duro Olowu, Ke­van Hall, An­dre Walker, Lawrence Steele and Patrick Kelly. And the legacy? “The legacy is per­se­ver­ance, and of strug­gling through many decades of cul­ture,” Tal­ley says. “Strug­gling black in­di­vid­u­al­ism. Strug­gling in a coun­try that per­haps did not rec­og­nize black peo­ple as de­sign­ers. You have a rain­bow of suc­cess based on in­nate qual­ity and in­nate tech­nique. They had dreams, and they put their dreams into fash­ion.”

PHO­TOS BY SETH WENIG / AP

ex­hibit at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in New York. Above left and cen­ter: Clothes on dis­played of­fers Boots de­signed by Stella Jean and Chris­tian Louboutin.

Above right:

Top: De­signer Tracy Reese speaks to a re­porter at the open­ing of the a glimpse into ex­actly how im­pact­ful de­sign­ers of color have been through the decades.

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