Black Designers at FIT: A Review

Black designers have often gone unrecognized and underrepresented in the fashion world. To combat this, The Museum at FIT opened an exhibit in December, called “Black Fashion Designers” that features the revolutionary work that designers of color have contributed over time. This exhibit, organized by Ariele Elia, assistant curator of Costume and Textiles, and Elizabeth Way, curatorial assistant, is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about diversity in fashion and highlights both the challenges and triumphs people of color have faced both in their lives and in the fashion industry.

The earliest pieces date back to the 1950’s with their ready-to-wear collection. Ann Lowe and Zelda Wynn Valdes fall under this category, as they were famous for dressing famous socialite and influential women throughout the 1950’s and 60’s. Lowe herself designed the gown Jacqueline Bouvier wore to marry John F Kennedy in 1957, and an equally beautiful wedding gown designed by her was on display in the collection.

By the 1970s, however, as designer Willi Smith later recalled, “There was this tremendous exposure given to designers based on their blackness.” Some of the designers of that time, like Stephen Burrows and Scott Barrie, were well-known for their body-conscious styles. Burrows was one of the first black fashion designers to achieve international acclaim and was best known for his use of vibrant colors associated with the vibrancy of the black youth in the 1970’s. One dress on display by Burrows is a flowy dress comprised of blue, yellow, and pink layered fabric.

One of the highlights of this exhibit were the designs of Willi Smith. Willi Smith, one of the youngest and most successful designers of his time, first made his mark in the late 1960s but quickly rose to popularity for his sportswear line, WilliWear Ltd in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The pieces on display had a relaxed, street-smart, and often oversized looks with unusual color combinations.

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A suit by Willi Smith. Photo: FIT

Some of the more modern clothing on display would be easily recognizable to the fashionably trained eye. Dresses designed by Oliver Rousting of Balmain shone brightly due to their bedazzled embellishments and signature flair. There were also outfits designed by notable designers like Eric Gaskins, who trained under Hubert de Givenchy, Andre Walker, and Tracey Reese. One red printed dress worn by Michelle Obama in a carpool karaoke sketch on The Late Late Show with James Corden snuck its way into the collection.

Another highlight of the exhibit was a section of clothing devoted to political and social activism. For example, a cover image of the anti-apartheid magazine Drum appeared on an ensemble by South African designer Nkhensani Nkosi. Another ensemble by Kerby Jean-Raymond was inspired by Ota Benga, a nineteenth-century African who was caged at the Monkey House in the Bronx Zoo. However, one simple white shirt in the corner of the room stuck out amongst the other beautiful clothing. In big bolded letters, it displayed some of the names of victims of police brutality, such as Eric Garner and Trayvon Martin. The shirt itself was simple, but it’s impact was felt amongst everyone observing it.

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Photo: Michaela Hoffman

It’s important to keep the conversation going. The importance of this exhibit is magnified now more than ever. The exhibit is open until May 16th, so get educated.

Michaela Hoffman is the Violet Vision editor. Email her at mhoffman@nyunews.com.

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