A new exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Technology hails the global impact of black designers through the decades

Currently on view, the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) presents Black Fashion Designers - an exhibition heralding creatives of African descent who have had a significant influence on the international fashion industry since the 1950s. Taking in 75 looks from 60 designers, FIT curators Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way have taken pains to include both renowned and little or once known names whose work “reflects a diversity of perspective”. This isn’t a show attempting to define ‘black style’ or pigeonhole black talent away from the mainstream. It doesn’t claim to be a comprehensive survey either. But through its broad curation of evocative pieces, ranging from couture to streetwear, the exhibition does confront the lack of representation of people of colour that has long plagued fashion.


The show begins with those designers who faced discrimination to first break into and then help build New York’s modern fashion scene in the mid 20th century such as Zelda Wynn Valdes, Arthur McGree and Wesley Tann. One prominent display is a gown by Ann Lowe, who designed Jackie Kennedy’s wedding dress. The show then moves onto exploring the rise of black designers in the 1970s including Scott Barrie and Stephen Burrows, as well as those models that found fame along with them such as Bethann Hardison, who continues to tirelessly campaign for equality today. This was a brief but dazzling moment in history, coming after the Civil Rights era and fuelled by a disco music soundtrack that demanded both skimpy silhouettes and big personalities.

Lavish eveningwear is represented by the likes of Eric Gaskin, Bruce Oldfield and Cushnie et Ochs while hip hop’s influence on the catwalk comes from Dapper Dan and CFDA award winners Public School. Fashion as a form of social and political activism is explored through such items as Pyer Moss’s slogan t-shirt ‘They Have Names’, which supports the Black Lives Matter movement. Innovative menswear on show pushes the boundaries of the suit, ranging from the razor sharp (Ozwald Boateng) to the deconstructed (Agi & Sam) via the intensely romantic (Grace Wales Bonner). The extremes of fashion are expressed by the gender fluid dynamics of Andrew Walker and Hood by Air. And looks from African-born designers include a Christie Brown wax print ensemble, an intricate cape by Duro Olowu and a quilted leather dress by Mimi Plange. The latter discusses her aesthetic with fellow New York-based designer Tracy Reese and Vogue’s André Leon Talley in a short film for the exhibition.

“I am excited to be showing among a group of designers who span crucial cultural decades, and provide a narrative to the history of black designers within the global fashion scene,” says Lagos-based Amaka Osakwe of Maki Oh. Her contribution to Black Fashion Designers is a dress from her SS13 collection made from fringed aso-oke, a traditional loom spun cloth that in her hands is transformed from ceremonial and sensual. “At Maki Oh we always strive to create pieces that are true to our heritage, but are also universally contemporary,” she adds. “This exhibition is as much about capturing memory as it is about celebration, rebellion, truth and a little black magic.”

Black Fashion Designers is at the Fashion Institute of Technology until 16 May 2017

Words Helen Jennings
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