Zelda Wynn Valdes
Zelda Wynn Valdes (June 28, 1905 – September 26, 2001) is best known for designing the original iconic Playboy Bunny costume, as well as her work with the Dance Theater of Harlem. Throughout her storied career, Valdes became one of the first black women to own a shop on Broadway. Her beautiful, fashion-forward gowns, which emphasized a shapely silhouette, were worn by Dorothy Dandridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Joyce Bryant, and Mae West, among others.
In a 1994 interview with The New York Times, when speaking of her notable celebrity clientele,
“I only fit her once in 12 years,” she said of Miss Fitzgerald. “I had to do everything by imagination for her. She liked fancy clothes with beads and appliques. I’d just look at the papers and say, ‘Gee, she’s gotten larger.’ “
Though she closed her business at the age of 83, Valdes continued to work with the Dance Theater of Harlem through her 90’s.
Ann Lowe’s (1898 – February 25, 1981) best known design, is the wedding dress that Jacqueline Bouvier wore when she married John F. Kennedy. She was initially credited as “a coloured dressmaker”, then later “a negro ” then finally in the Washington Post as “A Negro – Ann Lowe.” Lowe’s other high-profile clients included the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.
Throughout her career Lowe also ran her own businesses, ranging from a Salon in Tampa, Florida in 1928, to her own shop on Madison Avenue, which only existed for a brief period of time. She also worked for Saks Fifth Avenue, and even continued to work after losing an eye to glaucoma. Her work is part of the permanent archives at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Black Fashion Museum, and The Smithsonian.
Elizabeth Hobbs Keckley (February 1818 – May 1907) was a former slave (who bought her freedom) turned civil rights activist and seamstress. She is best known as the personal seamstress and close friend to First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Her great skill enabled her to rise to prominence in both the black and white communities, effectively crossing color lines in a way that was uncommon at the time. She built a lucrative business which serviced Washington’s elite including Varina Davis, wife of Jefferson Davis, and Mary Anna Custis Lee, wife of Robert E. Lee.
Throughout her career, Keckley remained a friend and confidante to Mary Todd Lincoln, even comforting her after the assassination of her husband, and helping her with financial troubles.
Keckley also wrote the book, Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, the work, which was a both a slave novel and an autobiography, and revealed lots of intimate details about the Lincoln family.
Keckley’s works are currently held by The Smithsonian and the Kent State University Museum.
Known for her eccentric and flamboyant personality, Francis Criss was a talented seamstress and costume designer, who mostly lived and worked in New York City. She is best known for designing dresses for silent film star Gloria Swanson.
Known as the “milliner to the stars” Mildred Blount (1907 to 1974) is best known for her work on the iconic film Gone With The Wind. She first developed in interest in millinery while working at a famous hat shop in New York City. Eventually her career lead her to Hollywood, where she became he first African American member of the Motion Pictures Costumers Union, a distinction which granted her the ability to work in major film studios. Blount’s clientele included Marian Anderson, Joan Crawford, and Gloria Vanderbilt.
Often referred to as the first African-American Jewelry designer, Art Smith (1917-1982) was an iconic New York City based jewelry designer whose list of clientele included Vogue magazine, Duke Ellington, Lena Horne and Eleanor Roosevelt.
He opened his own jewelry shop on Cornelia Street in the neighborhood in 1946 and quickly became a fixture in the downtown arts scene. His expertly designed, post-modern pieces were a “must have” among the artistic elite of New York City.
Since his death, there have been three major exhibitions featuring his work.
Ola Hudson (1946–2009) was a famed costume designer whose clientele included David Bowie, Ringo Starr, Diana Ross. She is the mother of Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash.
Born in Queens, New York, Jay Jaxon (August 30, 1941 -July 19, 2006) was an “accidental fashion designer,” who was first introduced to the industry by a seamstress girlfriend. He began his rapid rise in the fashion industry at the age of 24. Jaxon, who trained under Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior was called on by couturier Jean-Louis Scherrer to help rescue the failing line. The appointment made him, not only the first black couturier in Paris, but also the first American. The tendency of both French and American press to emphasize his race over his nationality often frustrated Jaxon, but he took it in stride, stating his work would represent “the coming together of a people.”
Pieces by Jaxon were sold in high end luxury department stores such as Bendel’s and Bonwit Teller. Though the house of Jean-Louis Scherrer eventually fell, little is known of Jay Jaxon’s pioneering career. His obituary in the New York Times, reveals that he worked as a costume designer later in his career, for several television shows and major motion pictures, including “Ally McBeal” and “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”
Originally hailing from Vicksburg, Mississippi, Patrick Kelly (September 24, 1954 – January 1, 1990) was a celebrity-favorite designer known for his bright, flamboyant, and chic aesthetic. His bold works occasionally referenced issues of race through the use of charged imagery such as that of the golliwog. Kelly was also a tireless advocate for models of color who counted Naomi Campbell, Iman, and Grace Jones among his circle of friends.
Kelly began his career at the age of 18, working in Atlanta as an unpaid window dresser for Yves Saint Laurent. He eventually received personal sponsorship by a then chairman at the fashion house to travel to Paris to create his namesake label, Patrick Kelly Paris.
In 1988, Patrick Kelly became the first American and the first Black person to be admitted to the prestigious Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode, a French organization which governed the fashion trade in France. His clothing was sold at major department stores including Henri Bendel, Bergdorf Goodman and Bloomingdale’s.
Patrick Kelly’s work was the subject of a 2005 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, and most recently, a 2014 retrospective at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Stephen Burrows (Born May 15, 1943) is best known for his glamorous garments, inspired by New York nightlife. Burrows graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1966 and began selling his first collection at Bonwit Teller in 1969. His work featured body-conscious silhouettes in bright and metallic fabrics. Throughout his career Burrows has dresses a long list of icons and celebrities, including Diana Ross and Michelle Obama. In 2010 he opened a design studio and showroom in New York City.
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