From Ann Lowe to Willi Smith, Worldbride magazine honors Black designers who were forerunners for other creatives of color through their innovative designs. Their unsung contributions changed fashion history and its narrative, but they never received their due honor while alive. As a designer and person of color, I salute these five pioneers on the first day of Black History Month.
Ann Lowe was the first African-American to become a reasonably 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 the press or 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.
In the 1860s, former Virginia-born slave Elizabeth “Lizzy” Hobbs Keckley became the personal dressmaker of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of Abraham Lincoln. Although her journey to the White House was arduous, 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.
Zelda Wynn Valdes
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 when 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 fashion designer was essential in Harlem’s social and artistic scene as she designed costumes and clothes that specialized in print, color, and embellishment.
A pioneering French couture designer, Jay Jaxon worked in esteemed Parisian fashion houses like Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, creating 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.
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 and predominantly white industry. Today various black brands and companies like WBM continue to influence global fashion and raise awareness that every human being is a creative agent – today, we celebrate the ones who are Black.