Celebrating Black History: Fashion Designers Through the Ages

This article is just one in a series celebrating Black individuals & groups throughout the month of February in honour of Black History Month. While there are numerous men & women throughout history in North America that have made fashion history, this article includes a showcase of 5 of these trailblazers.

Ann Lowe

“I love my clothes and I’m particular about who wears them,” Lowe told Ebony magazine. “I am not interested in sewing for café society or social climbers. I do not cater to Mary and Sue.”

Figure 1 – Blue Dress Ebony Magazine / Figure 2 – Ann Lowe & Wedding Dress / Figure 3 – Lowe & Pink Floral Dress

Ann Lowe was born into a long line of seamstresses who had established their own dressmaking business in Montgomery, Alabama. Lowe’s grandmother was a formerly-enslaved dressmaker, and her mother specialized in embroidery. When Lowe was 16 years old, her mother passed away suddenly; in her mother’s place, Ann Lowe carried out a high profile order from the governor’s wife, establishing herself as the new leader of the family business. This should have been what launched her career, except her husband was not so supportive of her passion to work. However, Lowe felt it was her life’s mission. As luck would have it, one afternoon Ann Lowe was in a department store in Montgomery, and asked Lowe where she had purchased the dress she was wearing. Lowe happily explained that she had made the dress herself. The woman then inquired whether Lowe would be interested in relocating to Tampa, Florida where the woman’s daughter was getting married. The woman would pay Lowe for the move, and to make all of the dresses for her daughter’s wedding. Lowe accepted the offer, picked up her young son, left her unsupportive husband, and followed her dreams to Florida.

In 1917, Lowe began travelling from Tampa to New York City to attend sewing classes at S.T. Taylor Design School. She was the only Black student, and as such was segregated to a separate room, away from her classmates. Lowe eventually made a permanent move to New York City in 1928. Lowe’s clientele was crucial to her success – she became famous amongst America’s most elite for her unique, one-of-a-kind gowns made out of fine fabrics and excellent handiwork – many of which included beautiful floral motifs. Anne Lowe specialized in creating debutante gowns, but many of her clients would return to her for their wedding dresses. In 1946, Ann Lowe made the dress that Olivia de Havilland wore to accept her Oscar for the 1946 film, To Each His Own (see figure 5) but her name wasn’t on the label. In 1950, Lowe opened up her own business Ann Lowe’s Gowns, a boutique in Harlem. 3 years later in 1953, Anne Lowe was selected to create the dresses for the entire bridal party of Jacqueline Bouvier’s wedding to then-senator John F. Kennedy (see figure 4). Unfortunately, 10 days before the wedding, there was a significant flood in Anne Lowe’s studio – destroying 2 months worth of work. Lowe enlisted extra help and reconstructed the dresses – absorbing the cost. The wedding down received much publicity, however, the press did not credit Lowe at the time, but referred to her as a “coloured dressmaker.” Many of Lowe’s clients liked to keep her to themselves – or possibly because they didn’t want to admit it was a relatively inexpensive dress from an Black designer in New York when people might assume it came straight from a haute couture atelier in Paris.

Figure 4 – JFK Bridal Party / Figure 5 – Olivia de Havilland Oscars Dress / Figure 6 – Ann Lowe & Jackie Kennedy

While Ann Lowe was an excellent and skilled dressmaker, and provided excellent work for her elite clientele, she was paid less than white designers for her custom design work. Upon the death of her son and business partner in 1958, Lowe had a hard time making ends meet – ultimately forcing her to declare bankruptcy in 1962. Surprisingly, an anonymous donor – many believed to be Jackie Kennedy – paid off the debt Lowe had incurred between her sons medical expenses and her business expenses. After closing her shop in 1960, she became a featured designer at the Adam Room at Saks Fifth Avenue, and reopened her salon in 1964.

During a 1965 appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, Ann Lowe explained that the driving force behind her work was not a quest for fame or wealth, but the desire “to prove that a Negro can become a major dress designer.” Through all of the highs and lows of Lowe’s career, she continued to live simply, wearing her own designs and focusing on her work in her Harlem apartment until her retirement in 1972. Ann Lowe died in 1981 at the age of 82 after living a long and full life, filled with beauty and lots of tulle. Her work continues to be part of the permanent archives at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Black Fashion Museum Collection at the Smithsonian.

Patrick Kelly

“I’ve got hope, I’ve got dreams and I have aspirations. I don’t need to climb mountains; I don’t need to build nations. What I do need is the courage to look deep inside, Cos I’m me and from me I know I can’t hide. I don’t wish to fly, I’m quite happy to glide. I am who I am and I’ll be me with pride.” Patrick Kelly

Figure 7 – Patrick Kelly Baguettes / Figure 8 – Kelly Buttons & Paris Hat / Figure 9- Kelly Love You

Patrick Kelly was born in 1954 in Vicksburg, Mississippi where he was raised by his mother and grandmother. Kelly’s love for fashion began when he was in elementary school, where he learned how to sew. Once he decided to become a designer, he spent several years after college trying to make it as a designer, but struggled. That’s when he decided to move to Atlanta. Atlanta wasn’t for him either though, and he soon decided to move to New York, where he connected with Black supermodel Pat Cleveland. The two fell in love quickly, and Cleveland encouraged Kelly to move to Paris – which he did in 1980. It was in Paris that Patrick Kelly’s looks really took off – and he began dressing celebrities such as Grace Jones.

Patrick Kelly was famous for incorporating mismatched colourful buttons on jersey dresses, stating that this look was inspired by his grandmother who mended his clothes with whatever buttons she had on hand. However, he was also known for his representations of Blackface on dresses – with a popular black dress featuring red buttons sewn on to a jersey dress in the curved shape of a smile, with 2 googly eyes in the middle (see figure 11). Having studied art history and black history at Jackson State University, and having collected more than 8,000 pieces of Black memorabilia, including boxes of Darkie toothpaste and figurines of Aunt Jemima (see figure 10). As such, he was aware of everything that Blackface represented, and felt that the items he collected acted as a reminder of his own experiences growing up in the 50s and 60s as a Black person in the Deep South. To Kelly, there was a power in re-appropriating these symbols meant to hurt and weaken Black people, and use them instead to tell his story.

Figure 10 – Golliwog Logo & Black Memorabilia/ Figure 11 – Blackface dress / Figure 12- Kelly Tribute to Josephine Baker/ Figure 13- Josephine Baker Banana Costume

It wasn’t just Blackface that Patrick Kelly featured in his designs, but from all aspects of Black history. For example, in 1986 he created a banana skirt and bra top (see figures 12 & 13), in reference to the infamous Josephine Baker. As a civil rights activist, Baker refused to perform in front of segregated audiences. This inspired Patrick Kelly, and resulted in not only this outfit, but dedicated his entire fall/winter collection to her. Eventually, Kelly made the golliwog his logo (see figure 10), printing his name in bold letters around the Blackface – using the image on paper bags women (most of whom were caucasian) carried out of his store, filled with his pieces retailing between $600 – $1,800 USD. The logo made some people uncomfortable, causing many white customers to avoid purchasing any items featuring the racial symbols Kelly enjoyed – such as the Blackface jersey dress.

In 1987, the fashion conglomerate Warnaco (who also owned popular brands such as Calvin Klein and Speedo) invested in his business – although the company didn’t allow him to use the golliwog logo on shopping bags. In 1988, Kelly became the first American ever to be admitted to the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter, a prestigious governing body in the French fashion industry. However, even while incapsulated in the fabulous world of Parisian fashion, Kelly was consistently reminded of his Black roots, and desired a way to pay homage. Although Patrick Kelly only produced collections from 1985 until his death due to AIDS in 1990 when he was 35 years old, his unique designs proved to be important and original enough to make a significant contribution to the field of fashion, and ultimately fashion history.

Aurora James

“A lot of my inspirations come from natural materials – wood, plants, animals, linen, indigo. I love nature and I like to think our connection to the earth always shines through in the items we make.” – Aurora James

Figure 14 – Met Gala / Figure 15 – 15% pledge panel / Figure 16 – James colourful print dress

Aurora James is a Canadian creative director, activist, and fashion designer located in New York City. James was born in Guelph, Ontario, where her time was split between Canada and Jamaica. In 2010, Aurora James decided to relocate to Los Angeles, and then later settled in New York. James states that she spent a lot of tie travelling as she grew, with her mother managing to curate a collection of culturally-infused fashion pieces along the way. According to James, “hours would be spent in her closet imagining the glamorous women who would wear these traditional pieces. As I got older those imaginations came to life while reading fashion magazines.” James was 15 years old when she secured her first internship at Next Models in Toronto, and after high school she returned to the City to study Fashion at Ryerson University before switching her major to Journalism and took a job with Fashion Television.

Years later, Aurora James found herself in Los Angeles, where she started working as a creative consultant. While she wasn’t designing, she was always working on growing and developing ideas and identities, and spent much of her spare time trying to identify a more significant way to explore her creativity while giving back in some way. In 2011, James took a trip to Morocco, where she spent a few years experimenting with design and a variety of artisans. In 2013, she launched Brother Vellies, in an attempt to preserve the shoemaking craft in Africa, and create new jobs for the artisans in established workshops. Her first official collection was launched in Spring 2014, working with shoemakers in South Africa. Soon after, James expanded to working in Kenya and Morocco – to continue producing authentic (but modern) desert boots, shoes, slippers, and sandals. In addition to these initiatives, James has ensured that sustainability makes up the core of her brand – making denim slides out of jeans diverted from landfills and using vegetable-dye for their leather products.

Figure 17 – Nicki Minaj in Aurora James shoes / Figure 18 – Malindi hair comb/ Figure 19 – 2020 Boot

In June 2020, Aurora James introduced the 15 Per Cent Pledge to encourage some of America’s biggest retailers to commit to ensuring that 15% of the products on their shelves were from Black-owned businesses. Soon after, James brought the initiative to Canada. The aim is to have Canada’s major retailers sign the pledge ahead of Canada Day on July 1, stating: “Canada’s population is 5% Indigenous and 3.5% Black. According to the 2016 Census, 22.3% of Canadians identify as visible minorities. Our petition is calling on Canada to apply the 15% Pledge in support of economic equality for the BIPOC of Canada.Let’s make Canada Day something we can all celebrate.” On the day of the petition’s launch, 1,500 signatures had already been added.

When asked about the pledge’s expansion to Canada, James said, “Almost a month ago, we called on major US retailers to commit to the 15 Percent Pledge and allocate 15 percent of their shelf space to Black owned businesses in the name of financial equality. With growing traction and support, we are thrilled to announce that today, we are expanding the fight to all of North America by launching the 15 Per Cent Pledge in Canada. As a native Canadian, and a Black business owner, it is critical that retailers including Holt Renfrew and Hudson’s Bay Company support brands that are representative of the diverse Canadian population. With major retailer support, we will be able to distribute wealth and opportunity more equitably to BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Colour) within Canada.” Aurora James continues making waves in the fashion industry in North America, and we look forward to seeing what comes next!

Jay Jaxon

“I’d like to make my contribution a mixing — making it in love. I’ll use the colours of all the people of the earth — cream, beige, tan, brown and some yellow and reddish tones, possibly stressing the combinations of brown and white.” – Jay Jaxon

Figure 20 – Atelier fitting / Figure 21 – Finishing touches / Figure 22 – Queens Library Celebration of Jay Jaxon

Jay Jaxon was born in 1941 in Queens, New York, where he managed to stumble upon his destiny in fashion. At the time, Jaxon was a student at New York University (NYU) law when his girlfriend asked him for a favour. A dress that she had sewn to wear for a night out wasn’t working out for her, and she needed Jaxon’s assistance in tailoring the dress. As luck would have it, altering that dress shifted Jaxon’s journey from law to fashion. With his new purpose in view, Jay Jaxon developed a collection consisting of 6 dresses and pitched them to major retailers such as Bendel’s. The line was purchased and produced for a total of $19K, giving Jaxon an opportunity to move to Paris where he began working with significant names like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior.

Jean Louis Scherrer was a French design house struggling at the time to stay relevant in the mid-60s. The house was producing ready-to-wear and couture lines, with an exclusive licensing partnership in place with Bergdorf Goodman. With training from the French couture greats, Jaxon was appointed to head designer of the Scherrer House in 1965. This also made Jaxon the first American to be honoured with the job of designer for a French couture house. As well, at the age of 24, he became the first black couturier. Regardless of his race, Jaxon was the first American to accomplish this; which was important to Jaxon. He wanted people to be impressed by the fact he was the only American to make it happen, rather than receive notoriety for the achievement because of his race. He was displeased with the industry focusing more on the fact he was Black opposed to the integrity of his work, leading Jaxon to return to America to design on 7th Avenue, creating looks for celebrity clients like Annie Lennox.

After a long career making waves and dressing fabulous people, Jay Jaxon died due to complications relating to prostate cancer at the age of 64 in 2006. At the time it was reported he was working on a plus-size dress line.

Ola Hudson

Figure 23, 24 & 25 – Ola Hudson

Ola Hudson was born in 1946 in Los Angeles where she was raised, and where she eventually went on to study art and dance. After completing her studies, Hudson went to Paris at the Institute of Dance. Soon after, she met British Illustrator and graphic designer Anthony Hudson in London, England where they got married and she gave birth to future rockstar Slash – the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. Based in LA, with their sons Saul (Slash) and Ash, Anthony Hudson produced album covers for singers such as Neil Young and Joni Mitchell, while his wife modelled. By that time, Ola Hudson’s career as a clothing designer was taking off with a Sunset Strip boutique called Skitzo. Hudson worked with several musicians, providing costumes for big names such as The Pointer Sisters, Ringo Starr, Carly Simon, and John Lennon. The marriage between Ola and Anthony Hudson did not last very long though, with Ola Hudson hooking up with David Bowie in the mid-70s.

Figure 26 – 1974 Diamond Dog tour/ Figure 27 – Station to Station

Ola Hudson provided Bowie with a stylistic path between his late “glam phase” and the formal, tailored look he donned 2 years later. With wife Angie and son Zowie, Bowie moved to LA in early 1975 and began his relationship with Ola Hudson – which soon turned into a fully-fledged fashion collaboration. Many argue that without Ola Hudson’s help, Bowie would not have been able to make his transition as successfully. Hudson died in LA in 2009, at the age of 62 after battling lung cancer. Throughout her lifetime, Hudson made incredible fashion history through her contributions to flashy and classy costumes for both movie stars and rockstars.

This article was the second in a series in honour of Black History Month Keep an eye out for more to come!

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