Ex­hi­bi­tion ex­plores legacy of black fash­ion de­sign­ers

Kuwait Times - - LIFESTYLE -

As a 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 of a new ex­hi­bi­tion, "Black Fash­ion De­sign­ers," at The Mu­seum of the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy. 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 said, stand­ing amid rows of man­nequins span­ning decades of di­verse black voices in fash­ion.

Busi­ness train­ing

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 said. "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," said 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 black," said Banks, who was raised in Wash­ing­ton, DC. "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 said.

Great-grand­daugh­ter

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 said. "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 Sen. 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," said An­dre Leon Tal­ley, the for­mer ed­i­tor-at-large 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 said. "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." — AP

De­signer Tracy Reese speaks to a re­porter at the open­ing of the "Black Fash­ion De­sign­ers" ex­hibit.

An­dre Leon Tal­ley, a for­mer ed­i­tor for Vogue mag­a­zine, speaks to a re­porter at the open­ing of the "Black Fash­ion De­sign­ers" ex­hibit.

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