Style, History and Activism at 'Black Fashion Designers'
When Jacqueline Onassis wed John F. Kennedy in 1953, she was questioned by the press about the designer of her chosen gown. Her response, short and perhaps unintentionally dismissive - “a colored woman dressmaker”. The designer, Ann Lowe, lived in the silent shadow of her creation. That dress, along with the Playboy bunny uniform (Zelda Wynn Valdes), Tina Turner’s wildly imitated sequined slip (C.D. Greene) and several other pieces of fashion art are tattooed onto the collective American brain though generally sans credit.
That historical anonymity and aesthetic celebration are at the core of the Fashion Institute of Technology’s recently launched exhibit Black Fashion Designers. The exhibit is divided into 9 distinct areas of fashion, Black Models, Activism, African Influence, Street Influence, Breaking Into the Industry, Experimentation, Menswear, Rise of the Black Designer and Eveningwear. While the choice of themes may seem vague, it becomes obvious while traveling through the exhibit that comprehensiveness was not the priority but rather range. The standout and perhaps most well thought out area of the exhibit was the area dedicated to Activism. Patrick Kelly’s charged anecdotes to racial stereotypes (watermelon hats, pickaninny pins, etc.) against the social language that Pyer Moss designer Kerby Jean-Raymond uses today is an experience worth having. We are still reaping the benefits of Willi Smith’s unyielding social dialogue - an influence on loan to the fashion industry indefinitely.
Designers such as Aurora James, Grace Bonner Wale and Virgil Abloh have made the last 5 years of the industry a paramount era. The exhibit takes wise advantage of this by weaving a journey from the quiet genius of 1950’s FIT alumni Wesley Tann to the loud, full-bodied experience provided by Hood by Air’s Shayne Oliver. From the traditional to the trendy, from the bad to the bougie.
Among the 75 pieces shown in the exhibit are designs from the aforementioned designers plus Edward Wilkerson, Eric Gaskins, Stephen Burrows, Duro Olowu and many others. While FIT has taken in interest in the rarely appreciated in the past, this exhibit will definitely have a substantial impact on the range other art institutions adopt in the future.
Black Fashion Designers will be on view through May 16th, 2017 at the Museum at FIT.