Feb 16th, 2019, 11:16 AM

Five Black Fashion Designers You Should Know About

By Greta English
Fashion Designer Patrick Kelly with Iman, Grace Jones and Naomi Campbell. Image Credit: @theaidsmemorial Instagram
African-American designers have made incredible contributions to the industry at every step of fashion history.

Even though Black History Month is over, it's still important to recognize and be aware of the contributions of these designers to fashion and history as a whole.

Ann Lowe


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Ann Lowe was the first black fashion designer to own a boutique on Madison Avenue in New York City. Born in 1898, Lowe was raised in Clayton, Alabama. Her mother and grandmother, a freed slave, taught her how to sew. Together they made dresses for society women of the South. At the age of 19, three years after the death of her mother, Lowe moved to New York, where she attended St. Taylors Design School. 

Lowe was known for her intricate flower embroideries. After completing design school, she began to design dresses for upper crest Manhattan socialites. Her clients included famous political families such as the Duponts, the Rockefellers, the Kennedy’s, and the Roosevelt’s. She is most famously known for designing Jackie Bouvier’s wedding dress for her marriage to John F. Kennedy. Even more, she designed the dress that actress Olivia de Havilland wore when accepting the Best Actress award at the Oscars. Sadly, Lowe was never credited for her designs in Vogue or for Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. Despite this, she is remembered among the African American community as a pioneer for black designers everywhere. 

Lowe died in 1981 at the age of 83. Her dresses are currently on display at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C.

Patrick Kelly


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Patrick Kelly was the first American member and first black member of the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, the governing body of the French fashion industry. Kelly was born and raised in 1950’s Mississippi, during the height of the Jim Crow era. Kelly moved to New York where he attended Parsons School of Design

In 1980, Kelly relocated to Paris, where he was hired as a costume designer at the nightclub, La Palace. While working as a costume designer, Kelly sold his creations on the streets of Paris. Over the next 5 years, Kelly became recognized in the Paris fashion scene. By 1985, he had started his own fashion business. Kelly was known for using his designs to confront and reclaim stereotypes against black people. He famously sent models down the runway with dresses covered in golliwog's, a racist blackface caricature. 

Kelly’s powerful designs caught the world's attention, and before his death in 1990, he dressed the likes of Naomi Campbell, Madonna, Iman, and Princess Diana. Kelly’s designs were critical in bringing race to the forefront of conversation in fashion. 

Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley


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Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley was the personal designer and dresser of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Born into slavery in 1818, Keckley grew up in Virginia, but spent much of her young adult life being traded around to different slave plantations. She ended up in St.Louis, serving under the Garland Family. Here, her sewing skills were used as a way to make income for the family. Her name and talent quickly became recognized across both the African American and white communities in St.Louis. 

In 1855, she paid $1200 to free herself and her family, and together they moved to Washington, D.C. It was in Washington where she met Mary Todd Lincoln, who hired Keckley as her personal designer. With her newfound power and influence, Keckley founded the Contraband Release Association, an organization that provided recently freed slaves with food, shelter, and clothing. Keckley later published an autobiography entitled Behind the Scenes, Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Keckley died in 1907. 

Zelda Wynn Valdes


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Zelda Wynn Valdes redefined show business costumes. Valdes was the designer of the original Playboy Bunny Suit and was the first black woman to own a store on Broadway in Manhattan, New York. Valdes was born in 1905 and grew up in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, where she learned to sew by watching her grandmother’s seamstress work. After finishing high school, Valdes moved to New York City, where she opened her own boutique, Chez Zelda. Valdes signature was making sexy clothes that unapologetically accentuated the body shapes of curvy women. Soon, Valdes was being commissioned to design dresses for the stars, including Josephine Baker, Eartha Kitt, and Mae West. Valdes also led the National Association of Fashion and Accessory Designers, an organization created to build and promote black designers. 

Valdes died in 2001, but her work lives on, as it helped pave the path for black fashion and costume designers.

Jay Jaxon


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Jay Jaxon was both the first American and black couturier in Paris. Jaxon was born in 1941 and grew up in Queens, New York. While attending New York University, Jaxon helped his seamstress girlfriend create a dress. It was this that sparked Jaxon’s passion for fashion. Jaxon quickly dropped out of NYU to start taking courses in costume design. He sold 6 of his initial dress designs sold to the department stores Henri Bendel and Bonwit. He used the money from the sale to pack up and move to Paris. 

At the age of 24, after arriving in Paris, Jaxon went to train under Yves Saint Laurent, and later the house of Christian Dior. After his training, Jaxon was brought on as a designer at the ailing brand Jean Louis Scherrer, where he designed his first collection, which contributed to his overall revival of the brand. 

Jaxon later moved back to New York, where he became one of the top designers of haute couture in the city. Additionally, Jaxon designed costumes for television and movies, such as Motown 25 and Mr. and Mrs. Smith. 

Jaxon died in 2006, at the age of 65. His name is often forgotten, but he undoubtedly paved the ways for all Americans pursuing the art of French haute couture.