Consider Ann Lowe, the mid-20th century designer of dresses for America’s social elite and “society’s best kept secret,” according to the Saturday Evening Post. In 1953, when admirers asked Jacqueline Kennedy, Lowe’s most famous client, who had designed her beautiful wedding dress, Kennedy replied, “a colored woman dressmaker.” Likewise, The New York Times went on at length and in detail about the opulent dress, its tucked bodice and circular designs, and its 50 yards of ivory silk taffeta. The one detail the Times neglected to include was Lowe’s name. With Grace Wales Bonner winning the coveted 300,000 euro LVMH prize in June, while Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, oversaw the recent $500-million sale of the company, you might conclude that after decades of exclusion, the fashion world is finally ready to welcome black talent into prominent—and visible—positions as designers and executives. With heavyweights like Edward Enningful at W Magazine, and the recent ascension of Elaine Welteroth to the top of the masthead at Teen Vogue, there are also certainly more prominent black faces in positions of power in fashion than there were even a decade ago. But to stop there only oversimplifies and distorts a complicated situation that begs for more nuanced understanding. Let’s start with the numbers, which tell a very different story. Out of almost 1,300 brands listed on Vogue.com—not an exhaustive list of all designers, but an indicator of those held worthy of acknowledgment by the industry—only 16 are black, or just over 1 percent. One percent. Moreover, to speak of black designers as a group itself is problematic: Blackness is not monolithic; designers of color come from a variety of experiences and backgrounds. Grace Wales Bonner has almost nothing in common with Olivier Rousteing beyond skin color. She is a British intellectual weaving quiet, romantic, and intricate narratives around black male identity. He is a French social media star with a penchant for flash, celebrity, tassels, and gold braiding. To specify their blackness is diminishing, just as much as ignoring it. However, there is often an ironic strength in numbers—or perhaps it is more accurate to say, a shared awareness. As the academic bell hooks states in “where we stand: class matters”: “More often than not racial solidarity forged a bond between black-skinned folks even if they did not share the same caste or class standing. They were bonded by the knowledge that at any moment, whether free or enslaved, they could share the same fate. “That fate? Invisibility.” We’ve come a long way from the outright erasure visited upon Ann Lowe; designers like Stephen Burrows, Patrick Kelly and Tracy Reese have risen like so many fireworks in an empty night sky.“I think something modern has to be relevant for more than one season,” says Dexter Peart, one half of Want Les Essentiels, an accessories brand he co-founded with his twin brother, Byron. Using materials from around the world, the duo draws inspiration from their upbringing as children of Jamaican parents who moved to Canada during the civil rights era. Growing up as one of the few people of color in their neighborhood informs their driving concept: inclusivity vs exclusivity; “democratic” essentials like handcrafted bags, shoes, and apparel. “This idea that great quality or craftsmanship only comes from one place also doesn’t feel very modern,” say Dexter in response to why he sources materials the world over, not just Europe. “There are categories or boxes that have been put up to sort of create value in places, but don’t necessarily say where [that] value is from.”
Operating outside of the establishment, the new class of minority designers are reinterpreting fashion’s codes to tell a more layered narrative, eschewing the shock of the new, to bring tradition, craftsmanship, and longevity to the forefront of their work. The clean lines sculpted of nubuck leather to create the minimalistic sneakers of Number 288 by Benyam Assafa. The post-modern sartorial mashup that is Harbison by Charles Harbison. The meticulously tailored, made-to-measure atelier of Devon Scott. The unabashedly refined humor found in the footwear of current CFDA Incubator designer Aurora James’s brand, Brother Veilles.
The list goes on, and the origins, methodology, and execution are divergent; the descriptor “Black” cannot and does not define these designers, nor can it contain them. Charting their own course, these clothiers have unraveled the invisibility cloak, showing that modern luxury is the ability to inhabit multiple worlds at once, draping intersectionality on your back with ease.