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Black History Month: African American Fashion Designers Part I

This week, I have found a select group of African American designers to showcase. Some you may or may not know. These designers have contributed a lot to fashion, made history, and impacted the competitive world of fashion. These are the designers who were pioneers in the world of fashion and paved the way for the black designers of today.

Black people, in general, have contributed to the fashion industry one way or another. We, as black people, have been shown to spend the most money within the fashion industry. Black people believe in dressing up for every occasion. In their Sunday best, the Church Moms topped off with the most beautiful hat. To your dapper guy in a three-piece suit wearing alligators or Stacey Adams. Down to you, your young crowd wearing the latest fashion.

We are at the forefront of fashion, especially in the Hip Hop community. But, unfortunately, we tend to start the trends taken from us and thrown into Pop Culture. This would include anything from our culture, the way we dress, down to our hair and nail styles.

Ann Lowe

The first designer I will showcase is Ann Lowe, born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898. Ms. Lowe was touted as "Society's best-kept secret" because she was the designer for high society matrons from 1991 until 1972. Ms. Lowe started her career when she was 16, and her mother suddenly passed away. During her grieving, she had to finish her mother's last job-creating four ball gowns for the First Lady of Alabama, Lizzie Kirkland O'Neal.

In 1917, Lowe and her son moved to New York, where she enrolled in the S.T. School of Design. Taylor. Because the school is separate, Lowe had to study in her room alone. However, discrimination did not stop her, and she still managed to rise above her peers in school. Her work was often showcased to her white peers to recognize her exceptional artistic abilities, and she qualified for graduation after attending school for just six months. After graduating in 1919, Lowe and her son moved to Tampa, Florida. The following year, she opened her first dress salon.

The shop was aimed at upper-class members and quickly became a success. After saving $20,000 of her income, Lowe moved back to New York in 1928. In 1946, she designed the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to receive the Academy Award for Best Actress for To Each Her Own, even though the name on the dress was Sonia Rosenberg. In addition, Jacqueline Kennedy wore a wedding dress designed by Lowe to John F. Kennedy on September 12, 1953.

During the 1950s and 1960s, she worked on commissions for stores like Henri Bendel, Montaldo's, I. Magnin, Chez Sonia, Neiman Marcus, and Saks Fifth Avenue.

As she was not receiving recognition for her work, Lowe and her son opened a second salon, Ann Lowe's Gowns, in New York City on Lexington Avenue in 1950. Her fine craftsmanship, flair, and needlework helped her become recognized for her work. Her designs made from premium fabrics were immediately successful and attracted many wealthy clients.

In 1964, the Saturday Evening Post later called Lowe "society's best-kept secret," In 1966, Ebony magazine referred to her as "The Dean of American Designers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue. I sew for the families of the Social Register." Lowe created designs for several generations of the Auchincloss, Rockefeller, Roosevelt, Lodge, Du Pont, Post, Bouvier, Whitney, and Biddle families throughout her career. In addition, Lowe created dresses for many notable black clients, including Elizabeth Mance, a well-known pianist, and Idella Kohke, a member of the Negro Actors Guild.

Janet Lee Auchincloss hired Lowe in 1953 to design a wedding gown for her daughter and the wedding gowns for her bridal attendants, as well as her wedding gown, all for her marriage to John F. Kennedy in September. Lowe's dress for Bouvier consisted of fifty yards of ivory-colored silk taffeta with interwoven details forming the bodice and similar information in large circular designs swept around the entire length of the dress. Unfortunately, during the creation of this infamous dress, Lowe's studio flooded just ten days before the wedding. Nevertheless, she and her team worked tirelessly to recreate the dress. While the Bouvier-Kennedy wedding was a widely publicized event, Lowe did not receive public credit for her work until after the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Lowe continued to work for wealthy clientele throughout her career, who often talked her out of charging hundreds of dollars for her designs. After paying her staff, she repeatedly failed to profit from her designs. Later in her career, Lowe admitted that she was virtually broke at the height of her career. In 1961, she received the Couturier of the Year award. She lost her salon in New York City the same year after failing to pay taxes. That same year, her right eye was removed due to glaucoma. While she was recuperating, an anonymous friend paid Lowe's debts, which enabled her to work again. In 1963 she declared bankruptcy. Soon after, she developed a cataract in her left eye, successfully surgically removed. In 1968, she opened a new store, Ann Lowe Originals, on Madison Avenue. She retired in 1972.

Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes

Zelda Barbour Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1905 - September 26, 2001) was an American fashion designer. She is the first notable fashion designer who made Bunny costumes for Playboy.

Zelda Christian Barbour was born in Chambersburg, PA, and grew up in North Carolina. She trained as a classical pianist at the Catholic Conservatory of Music. In the early 1920s, Valdes started to work in her uncle's clothing shop in White Plains, New York. Around the same time, Valdes began working as a sales associate at a boutique. She eventually worked her way up to selling and making alterations, becoming the shop's first black sales associate and professional. Looking back, Valdes said, "It wasn't a pleasant time, but the idea was to see what I could do."

Beginning in 1935, she ran her own dressmaking business in The Bronx. She eventually oversaw lady's alterations and developed her dressmaking clientele. In 1948, Valdes opened Zelda Wynn, her design and dressmaking studio, on Broadway (in Washington Heights on Broadway and West 158th Street). Valdes stated that her shop was the first black-owned business on Broadway. She sold her dresses to actor Dorothy Dandridge, opera singer Jessye Norman, and performer Gladys Knight.

In the 1950s, she located Chez Zelda at 151 57th Street in Midtown. She had a staff of nine dressmakers and charged over $1,000 per couture gown. Her role in glamorizing women gained the attention of Playboy's Hugh Hefner, who commissioned Zelda to design bunny costumes for the Playboy Playmate of the Year, an idea suggested by Victor Lownes. She created the original Playboy Bunny costume, presented at the first Playboy Club in Chicago, IL, on February 29, 1960. It was also the first commercial uniform registered by the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

In the 1960s, Valdes taught costume design at the Fashion and Design Workshop for the Harlem Youth Opportunities Unlimited and Associated Community Teams (HAR YOU-ACT). In addition, Valdes facilitated fabric donations to student workshops. She was one of the National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers founders, an industry group intended to promote black talent in the fashion industry. This group was established with the sponsorship of the National Council of Negro Women.

In 1970, Arthur Mitchell asked Valdes to design costumes for his new company, the Dance Theatre of Harlem. By 1992, Valdes would create costumes for eighty-two productions. She closed her business in 1989 but continued to work with the Dance Theatre of Harlem until her death in 2001 at the age of 97.

Patrick Kelly

From Mississippi to Paris

Patrice Kelly is a name that's unknown but known. But unfortunately, his career, like his life, was cut short. Patrick Kelly died at the young age of 35 and was one of the first designers to incorporate pop culture into fashion and create exuberant and humorous designs long before Moschino. Among his accomplishments, he was the first American to be admitted to the Chambre Syndical du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, the prestigious governing body of the French ready-to-wear industry.

Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, and studied Art History and African American history at famed HBCU Jackson State University. Shortly after that, he moved to Atlanta and worked as a window dresser at the Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche boutique. While moonlighting at a modeling agency in town, Patrick met legendary model Pat Cleveland, who encouraged him to move to New York City To chase bigger bags. While trying to make it in New York, Patrick was utterly shut out of its fashion scene. So he began studying at Parsons School of Design shortly before moving to Paris in 1979.

Patrick arrived in Paris broke, but not broken. Hand making clothes for the night a local club dancer, and he struggled financially and professionally. Finally, however, he found work with legendary designer Paco Rabbane which catapult his carrier. Kelly had a Hollywood cult following, Betty Davis, Naomi Campbell, Iman, Grace Jones, and he was the toast of the Fashion industry.

Unfortunately, his life was cut short by Aids, and Kelly died on January 1, 1990

In 2004, The Brooklyn Museum presented Patrick Kelly: A Retrospective, featuring 60 Kelly ensembles together with fashion photographs and selections from his collections of Black memorabilia, all borrowed from the Kelly estate. In 2014, the Philadelphia Museum of Art mounted Patrick Kelly: Runway of Love, which celebrated the promised gift of 80 ensembles to the museum from the estate.

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