In honor of Black history month today we’re diving into some creatives that have changed fashion history, both with their innovative designs and for paving the way for Black designers and artists everywhere, still to this day.
Many incredible icons, like Patrick Kelly and Stephen Burrows, used their talent to create positions for themselves in the industry that simply didn’t exist before.
To truly understand the fashion industry we live in today, we have to look back at the pioneers who paved the way. Here’s 8 designers who changed the fashion industry forever.
- Ann Lowe
Ann Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama in 1898 and learned her dressmaking skills from her mother, who made dresses for society women in the South. When Lowe was 16, her mother died suddenly. Ann was left to finish her mother’s last job: The creation of four ballgowns for the First Lady of Alabama. These dresses launched Lowe’s career. She moved to New York and enrolled in S.T. Taylor Design School, which hadn’t realized they’d admitted a Black woman so were required to segregate. In 1950, Lowe opened Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem and became the go-to dress designer for the highest of high society—the Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, the du Ponts. She was called “society’s best kept secret.” Lowe was highly selective with her clientele: “I love my clothes, and I’m particular about who wears them. I’m not interested in sewing for cafe society or social climbers,” she said. She made the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Oscar, but her name was not on the label. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t be the last time that Lowe failed to receive credit. In 1953, Lowe scored a historical commission when she was hired to create the wedding dress of Jacqueline Bouvier (Jackie O). In 1968 Lowe became the first Black woman to own a store on Madison Avenue.
- Willi Smith
American designer Willi Smith was thestreetwear pioneer. After dropping out of Parsons, Smith began designing for Digits Sportswear, where he met Laurie Mallet. In 1976 he founded his own line with Mallet, WilliWear, which “was a brand that you would see everyone wearing on the street,” Known for his reasonably priced pieces, Smith didn’t “design clothes for the Queen, but rather clothes for the people lined up to wave at her”. WilliWear was ahead of its time, mixing elements of relaxed fit sportswear with the high-end tailoring. Smith designed WilliWear’s seasonal collections for 11 years, and was the first designer to house womenswear and menswear under the same brand. New York City was his inspiration “Being Black has a lot to do with my being a good designer,” he said. “Most of these designers who have to run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there.” At the time of his death due to complications from AIDS in 1987, Willi Smith was known as one of the most successful young designers in America.
- Stephen Burrows
Stephen Burrows was taught to sew by his grandmother. By 1969, Burrows had opened O Boutique; he then started his own ready-to-wear collection. The opening of the “Stephen Burrows” boutique at the iconic Henri Bendels catapulted his career. The collection was bold and bright and drew the attention of Diana Ross and Cher. Burrows’ clothes were the embodiment of the era and its glittering Studio 54 nightlife aesthetic. He was drawn to disco and used silk and jersey that reflected movement and color. Burrows crafted a close fit and a slim silhouette, the “Burrows Signature,” along with the “lettuce hem,” a narrow zig-zag stitch, which became his trademark. Burrows was chosen along with Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein to represent America in the Battle of Versailles, a fashion face-off against French powerhouses Pierre Cardin, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, and Emanuel Ungaro. It was the night that American fashion stumbled into the spotlight and made history. He garnered a European audience, won the Coty 3 times, and was bestowed “The Board of Directors Special Tribute” by the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Burrows continues to design today.
- Patrick Kelly
In 1998, Patrick Kelly became the first American designer accepted into the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-porter in Paris, the prestigious French ready-to-wear association. After college, Kelly moved to Atlanta to work as a window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. Supermodel Pat Cleveland encouraged Kelly to move to Paris in 1980. Initially, Kelly struggled in Paris, freelancing for Paco Rabanne and making clothes for nightclubs to get by. His big break came when he became the first American designer sold in French boutique Victoire. This led to a feature in ELLE France and his first show in 1985. Kelly’s pieces were beloved by Grace Jones, Madonna, and Princess Diana. He was known for his bright and bold garments, flashy body-con dresses, big buttons, and loud prints. Above all, Kelly was influenced by Black culture: “In one pew at Sunday church in Vicksburg, there’s more fashion to be seen than on a Paris runway.” As a Black man designing couture collections with Black women in mind, he was an anomaly. With a background in African history, Kelly used his brand as a way to confront racism by reclaiming symbols of Black oppression, such as the blackface he used as his logo. U.S. retailers refused to buy anything with this logo and his investors asked him to stop using it altogether. He died of AIDS in 1990.
- Sean “P Diddy” Combs
Before there was Yeezy and Fenty, there was Sean John by Sean “P Diddy” Combs. Combs launched “Sean John” at the height of his career in 1998, using his celebrity status to change the industry. He noted: “We wanted to give them extremely multicultural and diverse fashion…We brought them fashion-tainment.” Combs ran a celebrity-driven label before it was the norm—this was the pre-Instagram era. A master marketer who disrupted the industry, Combs would make TV appearances wearing Sean John and use the tabloids to his advantage. In 2001, Sean John held the first nationally televised runway show. The industry rolled their eyes when a rapper wanted to be a designer—but fast forward six years later, and Combs was the recipient of the CFDA’s Menswear Designer of the Year award. Over 20 years later, Sean John still racks up over $400 million in annual sales. It is sold at Macy’s across the country, and Sean Combs is the blueprint for the celebrity-driven labels that followed.
- Kimora Lee Simmons
Kimora Lee Simmons began modeling at the age of 13, walking for some of the biggest names in fashion, and ultimately became a Chanel muse. She married music mogul Russell Simmons, who had his own menswear line, “Phat Farm.” In 1999, under the “Phat Fashions” umbrella, Kimora Lee Simmons created “Baby Phat” to give women a much-needed voice in the booming streetwear industry. Baby Phat is a brand that defined fashion in the aughts. The label offered short mini skirts, low rise jeans, slinky crop tops, and of course the bedazzled curvy cat logo inspired by Kimora’s cat Max. She democratized fashion with her belief that “no matter your size or heritage, what united the Baby Phat girl was a desire to look good, feel great, and do it on a dollar.” Simmons became one of the first Black women to run a billion-dollar company. Nearly 10 years after shuttering, Baby Phat is back under the direction of her two teenage daughters.
- Ozwald Boateng
As a child, British-born Ozwald Boateng was inspired by his father’s immaculate suits. At eight, his mother gave him his first suit—a double-breasted in purple mohair. At 14, he found a summer job sewing linings into suits. It was his girlfriend who ultimately got him into designing when he was 16. In 1987, Boateng helped his friend make clothes for a fashion show, and his work received high praise. He sold his first collection to a menswear shop in Covent Garden, which allowed him to open his own studio in London in 1991. In 1994, Boateng was the first tailor to have a show during Paris Fashion week. He then opened a boutique on the famed Saville Row in 1995. Boateng’s contemporary approach to menswear design helped to forge a new appreciation for Savile Row and draw in a younger demographic. To this day it remains the only Black-owned store on Saville Row. In 2004, Boateng was named Creative Director of Menswear at Givenchy, specifically hired to “reinvent the French gentleman.” Boateng was commissioned by President of the Republic of Ghana to design and orchestrate a show at the 9th Annual African Union summit in 2007. In 2018, Boateng designed new uniforms for British Airways.
- Telfar Clemens
In 2002, Telfar Clemens moved to New York to pursue a modeling career, which led him to create his own collection of deconstructed vintage clothes in 2003. He then started his brand in 2005 as an undergraduate at Pace University. At the time, many of his friends dressed in ways that crossed gender lines, which is why he made his label “Telfar” unisex. Telfar’s slogan describes the brand’s mass appeal: “It’s not for you—it’s for everyone.” Clemens is inspired by people he sees on the street. In 2017, Clemens won the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award, choosing to invest that money into production for what would become his signature piece. The Telfar Shopping bag, which comes in three sizes, is the brand’s best-selling item. It is called the “Bushwick Birkin,” and the reasonable price has attracted global recognition.
This is just a short list of names in a sea of incredibly talented Black designers who created a whole new world in many ways when it came to the fashion industry. People that often were sadly not even recognized for their talent just because of the color of their skin. You can’t change history though! Recognized or not these names and many more created the fashion industry as we know it today. What a blessing that is!