Fashion

30 Black Designers Who Shaped Fashion History

From Ann Lowe to Telfar Clemens, L'OFFICIEL pays tribute to the Black designers who have changed fashion history and paved the way for other creatives of color through their innovative designs.
Reading time 14 minutes

This past year has been one of turmoil for both the fashion industry and the Black community alike. Following the protests raised by the Black Lives Matter movement in the face of a global economic crisis, the world—especially the U.S.—had to face its own reckoning and come to the realization that so little had fundamentally changed since the last Civil Rights movement.

Some luxury brands were called out for being blatantly racist, others began to address issues of inclusivity and diversity in fashion business more heavily, and numerous organizations like the Black in Fashion Council and the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD) have solidified their purpose of holding the industry more accountable and promoting equal opportunities for Black designers in America.

Throughout history, Black fashion pioneers and African-American designers like Zelda Wynn Valdes and Stephen Burrows used their talent to make a name for themselves in a highly competitive Eurocentric and predominantly white industry. Today, Black creators continue to influence global fashion and raise awareness about BIPOC opportunities in the industry.

On the first day of Black History Month, L’OFFICIEL honors 30 Black designers who helped shape the narrative of fashion as we know it today.

In the 1860s, former Virginia-born slave Elizabeth Keckley became the personal dressmaker and close confidante of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Although her journey to the White House was an arduous one, Keckley finally bought her freedom from her St.Louis owners and then established herself as a skillful seamstress for the most influential women in Washington D.C. as well as a civil activist and author. 

Born in Pennsylvania in 1905, Zelda Wynn Valdes lived during an era when racial segregation was part of daily life. She began as a storeroom worker in a boutique, eventually climbing her way up to seamstress. At the apex of her career, Valdes made clothes for Ella Fitzgerald and Maria Cole, Nat King Cole’s wife. She designed Cole's famous off-the-shoulder wedding dress in 1948, the very same year in which she opened her own boutique.

Ruby Bailey was a contemporary of Valdes, and both women took part in the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers (NAFAD). According to the Museum of the City of New York, the Bermuda-born artist and fashion designer was an important figure in Harlem's social and artistic scene as she designed costumes and clothes that specialized in print, color, and embellishment.

Ann Lowe was the first African-American to become a fairly renowned fashion designer. From the 1920s to the 1960s, Lowe’s unique designs were worn by high society women. Lowe ultimately designed one of the most famous wedding dresses in history: the ivory silk taffeta bridal gown worn by Jacqueline Bouvier when she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. Unfortunately, Lowe never received the deserved credit from neither the press nor the First Lady herself because of her race. In 1968, however, Lowe opened her store, Ann Lowe Originals, on Madison Avenue and, today, her work is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

A pioneering Black designer of French couture, Jay Jaxon worked in esteemed Parisian fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, creating both couture and ready-to-wear for them. From the cobblestoned roads of Paris, to Hollywood's Walk of Fame, to the streets of his native New York, the Queens-born fashion designer left his mark, creating clothes for performers and singers, such as Annie Lennox's suit for the 1984 Grammy Awards.

A celebrated African-American fashion designer who came to fame in France, Mississippi-born Patrick Kelly was the first American to be accepted into the prestigious Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode. Kelly’s designs are recognized for being extremely exuberant, humorous and for referencing pop culture and Black traditions. During the protests for Black Lives Matter earlier last year, Kelly’s name appeared in the news as The Kelly Initiative, a coalition of Black professionals that advocates for equal employment opportunities within the industry for Black talents.

Willi Smith was considered one of the most successful African-American designers in the fashion industry at the time of his death in 1987, and the inventor of streetwear. His label that launched in 1976, WilliWear Limited, grossed over $25 million in sales by 1986 according to The Guardian. Inspired by the fashion he saw on the streets and also his desire to shape it, Smith’s accessibility and affordability of clothing helped democratize fashion.

New York City-based designer Stephen Burrows received his degree from the Fashion Institute of Technology and later began to work in New York City’s Garment Center while managing his own businesses and working closely with luxury department store Henri Bendel. As the first African-American designer to sell internationally and grow a mainstream, high-fashion audience, Burrows’ bright colored, disco garments from the 1970s New York dancing scene conferred him a legacy that lives on today.

Also known by the stage names Puff Daddy, P. Diddy, Puffy, or Diddy, Sean Combs is an American rapper, singer, songwriter, record producer, record executive, entrepreneur and actor who founded in 1998 his first fashion line—Sean John. Combs’ lifestyle company quickly became an iconic brand that changed the industry of men’s streetwear.

Board member of the CFDA since 2007, American fashion designer Tracy Reese specializes in women's ready-to-wear clothing, accessories, and home fashions such as linens. Her brand Hope for Flowers is a sustainable, slow fashion brand that is designed for women who are inspired by beauty and who also desire to use their power as consumers to be agents for positive change in the world.

 

American entrepreneur, fashion designer, TV personality, author, philanthropist, and model Kimora Lee Simmons launched her fashion line Baby Phat by Kimora Lee Simmons in 1999. The womenswear brand that embodied the '90s baby tees and bedazzled jeans trend became a billion-dollar company. On the nose of 2000s nostalgia in fashion, she relaunched the label in 2019.

Forty-one-year-old fashion designer Stella Jean received an early endorsment from Giorgio Armani, who shared his show space and communications team with her in September 2013. With Italian and Haitian heritage, her work merges classical Italian tailoring with style from other cultures. She is a member of the Italian Chamber of Fashion and the only member of Afro-European background.

A self-taught tailor with a unique style, Dapper Dan introduced high fashion to the hip hop world with his influential Harlem store, Dapper Dan's Boutique, which saw clients over the years including Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, and Jay-Z. In 2017, he launched a fashion line with Gucci, with which he opened a second store and atelier, Dapper Dan's of Harlem, in 2018.

A graduate from Parsons School of Design in New York City, Patrick Robinson is an American fashion designer who has worked for Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein, Perry Ellis, Paco Rabanne, and the Gap. Robinson is especially recognized for revamping the latter, and has been a member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) since 1994.

 

British fashion designer of Ghanaian descent Ozwald Boateng is known for his twist on classic British tailoring and bespoke style with an effervescent color palette deriving from its heritage. His equisite tailoring has appeared on celebrities like Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, and Keanu Reeves, and in 2018, he contributed his bright suiting to Marvel’s Black Panther.

Chicago-born designer, entrepreneur, stylist, and DJ Virgil Abloh became the first African-American artistic director of Louis Vuitton when he was appointed to helm the French fashion house's menswear collections in March 2018. Abloh is also the chief executive officer of the Milan-based label Off-White, a fashion house he founded in 2013. His high profile status in the industry is thanks in part to his close creative relationship with rapper Kanye West. Abloh was named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2018.

A Liberian-American fashion designer, 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, Telfar, in 2005, a genderless fashion label based in Brooklyn. It wasn't until the past few years, however, that the Telfar label gained a large following for its accessibility and celebration of Black pop culture. Clemens has received global recognition for designing the Telfar Shopping bag, also called the "Bushwick Birkin," the brand's best-selling item.

New York City-based Brother Vellies Creative Director and Founder Aurora James has collected an impressive resume of fashion industry experiences prior to starting the footwear brand in 2013. Her goal is to keep traditional African design practices and techniques alive by celebrating cultural histories and artisanal craft. 

 

Appointed to the helm of Balmain in 2011 at the age of 24, French fashion designer Olivier Rousteing was the youngest creative director in Paris since Yves Saint Laurent. Known for his engagement with social media and cultivating his Balmain Army, the designer has mastered the art of catering to the digital generation. 

Nigerian-born British fashion designer Duro Olowu is best known for his innovative combinations of patterns and textiles that draw inspiration from his international background and for dressing women in the art world. Last year, his work was featured at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicagowhich examined his multicultural viewpoint.

LVMH Prize 2019 finalist and Lagos-born and based designer Kenneth Ize reinterprets traditional West African fabrics and Nigerian craft with his namesake label that he founded in 2013. The talented designer has been on the rise in recent years and has earned Naomi Campbell's stamp of approval.

Fashion designer Christopher John Rogers had already dressed artists of the likes of Lizzo, Rihanna, and Cardi B by the time he won the prestigious CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in November 2019. Former First Lady Michelle Obama is also a patron of the designer and loves his bold approach to designing with color.

Instructed by his grandmother who instilled in him a passion and skill for sewing and pattern making, Queens-born luxury fashion designer LaQuan Smith started his brand at the age of 21. His original work sparked the interest of fashion icons and risk takers like Beyoncé, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, and Kim Kardashian

After presenting his first Yeezy collection in 2015, Kanye West solidified his place in luxury fashion. With highly anticipated shows and instantly sold out drops, Yeezy remains one of the most hyped about names in streetwear. Plus, his pared back, neutral designs have influenced fashion aesthetics, as seen by his wife Kim Kardashian's wardrobe.

Another designer making fashion more colorful, Victor Glemaud is known for his effortless knitwear and colorblocked pairings. Before launching his namesake brand, the Haitian American assisted Patrick Robinson and worked in fashion public relations. 

Kerby Jean-Raymond is a Haitian American fashion designer and founder of the streetwear label Pyer Moss, a brand concerned with building a narrative that speaks about heritage and activism. He's known for his thought-provoking runway shows, which highlight the Black experience and issues like police brutality.

With the launch of her luxury label Fenty, fashion and beauty mogul Rihanna became the first Black woman to head an LVMH-owned brand. The star has long influenced pop culture and style through her personal fashion and successful businesses, including lingerie line Savage x Fenty, Fenty Beauty, and the newer Fenty Skin.

Influenced by '90s streetwear, Shayne Oliver brings a downtown edge to his celebrity-loved brand Hood by Air. After contributing to minimalist favorite Helmut Lang, Oliver took a three-year hiatus from fashion beginning in 2017 and rebooted the brand in 2020 with a new concept that takes into account direct-to-consumer connections, the brand's archives, and supporting emerging BIPOC creatives.

Even though her namesake brand shuttered last year, Carly Cushnie will be remembered for its modern approach to feminine style. Centering on sleek minimalism, her clothes have been worn by Michelle Obama and Beyoncé. Cushnie has spoken about her wish to set an example for other young designers of color.

South African designer Thebe Magugu creates clothes that prioritize cut and color, while also infusing them with elements of his culture's history. The LVMH Prize-winner's latest collection took inspiration from the female spies of South Africa's apartheid. Unlike many designers who relocate to the fashion capitals, Magugu remains in his home country where he continues to produce his collections and build his brand.

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