Black Fashion Designers Exhibition
From December 6th 2016 to May 16th 2017, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City is hosting the “Black Fashion Designers” exhibition in its Fashion and Textile History Gallery. The exhibition is the first to showcase the work of a wide range of black fashion designers and themes, while previous exhibitions have focused only on individual designers. They will also be holding a 1-day symposium on Feb 6th with talks by designers, models, and scholars.
With pieces from their permanent collection only, the themes covered include menswear, eveningwear, experimental and street fashion, activism, and African influences. Designers showcased include Zelda Wynn Valdes and Ann Lowe, famous for their custom-made celebrity dresses; Stephen Burrows, Willie Smith, and Scott Barrie who were much discussed by the 70s fashion press; and Arthur McGee, Wesley Tann, and Jon Weston who initially worked for New York fashion manufacturers before going solo.
There are wide-ranging influences on display—from Eric Gaskins’ French haute couture to Joe and Charlie Casely-Hayford’s British fine tailoring to Patrick Kelly’s Southern American roots and Duro Olowu’s African history and culture. The exhibition also explores the use of fashion to present important messages, such as Nkhensani Nkosi’s anti-apartheid outfit.
The exhibition takes the audience on a journey through generations of black fashion design. From the nameless black dressmakers of the 19th century to today’s modern designers. It explores the challenges and experiences of African and African American fashion designers over the years. From the segregation that permeated the 40s fashion industry to the huge (and sometimes unwanted) publicity showered on black designers in the 70s. From those who availed the industry to make socio political messages to those who would rather not be labelled separately—preferring to be “just another designer” rather than “a black designer”.
Indeed, the exhibition poses an interesting and difficult question—a question recognised by curators Ariele Elia and assistant Elizabeth Way themselves. In 2016/17, should we really still have to categorize black fashion designers differently?
Designer Kerby Jean-Raymond has particularly demonstrated his frustrations at the labelling and pigeon-holing. Fashion journalist Robin Givhan also made the point that “the nomenclature is limiting”. But the alternative is pretending that everything is rosy. That fashion didn’t ignore black designers for over 50 years—and that they are still an underrepresented group.
While times are changing and black designers are being recognized more widely and more often, it is still the case that VogueRunway.com, the giant of the fashion week collections coverage worldwide, only features a staggeringly-low 1% black designers. This figure alone highlights the pervading “whiteness” that still exists in the industry despite efforts to increase diversity. If we don’t draw attention to the issues in exhibitions and conversations like these, will we ever see great change?
If you’d like to join the conversation, use the Instagram and Twitter hashtag #BlackFashionDesigners.