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On the "Black Designer"

On the "Black Designer"

In September 2015, after his New York Fashion Week show, I interviewed Kerby Jean-Raymond, the founder and head designer of Pyer Moss. Jean-Raymond is Haitian-American, an identity he is proud of, but not when it is used to box him in. That day, Jean-Raymond shared that he hated being placed in the “black designer” category; though, he said, “If I’m going to be the black designer, I’m going to tell it my way.”

In an industry that doesn’t like to talk about race (let alone blackness), it’s rare for designers, who identify as black, to readily insert identity politics into their brands. The fear, perhaps, emerges from the fact that doing so could pigeonhole them into a singular narrative of blackness – one that could result in them being unattractive to customers, investors, and the media.

In an industry that doesn’t like to talk about race (let alone blackness), it’s rare for designers, who identify as black, to readily insert identity politics into their brands.

This article will explore the label of the “black designer,” historicizing its use by considering designers who, on the one hand, have attempted to escape race to justify their talent or, on the other, have made a point about owning their narratives as a branding strategy or, conversely, as a form of protest. Wavering between the poles of visibility and invisibility, the complicated identity politics of black fashion designers call into question theories on black Americans desiring visibility in a society that has historically marginalized them. By taking a historical glance backward at the experiences of fashion designers who have struggled to negotiate their blackness in the fashion industry, however, we may be able to make sense of what it means to be black in fashion, what it means to create something from nothing, and, indeed, what it means to make oneself more visible.

In his essay “Dilemmas of African Diaspora Fashion,” fashion scholar Van Dyk Lewis writes that “a truly world-class African Diaspora fashion designer does not exist.” [1] The essay was published in 2003, and though he made sound arguments to justify his statement – for example, the “lack of access to production facilities and to promotional media confines the Diaspora position to being one of under-attainment”– this isn’t the case for a handful of designers who frequent the headlines of some of the most coveted fashion publications and show at fashion weeks, both internationally and nationally, such as Grace Wales Bonner, Kerby Jean-Raymond, Olivier Rousteing, Tracy Reese, and countless others.

Furthermore, although there have been only three black designers to win a Council of Fashion Designers of America award (Sean “Diddy” Combs, Maxwell Osborne and Dao Yi-Chow and Aurora James) none identifies with all three of the characteristics that Lewis argues allow black designers to function within the mainstream: talented, male, and gay. [2] However, Lewis’ argument isn’t completely off base, considering there are still underlying issues concerning black designers that prompt one to analyze exactly where the black designer stands today.

Is the “black designer” category something to be embraced, as Jean-Raymond attempted at his New York Fashion Week show in 2015, or is it yet another afflicting characteristic that reifies designers of the African Diaspora as other?


On Legacy

In 1969, Bergdorf Goodman held a benefit fashion show for the Harlem Northside Children center entitled “Basic Black.” The show featured black models wearing the designs of black fashion designers whose work was sold in the store. The Washington Post declared that while “basic black has always been ‘in’ at Bergdorf Goodman…the 68-year-old Fifth Avenue firm tonight gave it some soul…” [3] The runway show included models such as Naomi Sims – the first black model to appear on the cover of Ladies’ Home Journal (1968) and Life (1969) – donning designs by John Haggins and Hannah Troy. The former was listed as a “designer to watch” along with Arthur McGee, who would go on to be anointed as the “dean” of African American designers. Following the fashion show, guests were invited to nibble on chitterlings and fried chicken while sipping champagne at a “soul food cocktail party.” [6] However, the benefit’s chairwoman, Mrs. Charles Taylor, was quick to remind the Post reporter that while “it’s all very in and chic to be eating soul food here at Bergdorf’s…we should remember that this once was the only food poor blacks had. And it didn’t use [sic] to be all that good.” [7]

More than a decade later, the Harvey’s Bristol Cream Tribute to the Black Designer was created. “Black designers have come a long way since Bergdorf Goodman presented a show called ‘Basic Black’ in May 1969,” wrote Bernadine Morris for The New York Times as she covered the third annual Bristol Cream Tribute. [8] The tribute recognized past and current black fashion designers who were making an impact on the industry, and awarded scholarships to promising young designers at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. While a moment to both reflect upon and celebrate the past and future of black fashion design in America, the mood seemed to vacillate between celebratory and somber, however.

While a moment to both reflect upon and celebrate the past and future of black fashion design in America, the mood seemed to vacillate between celebratory and somber, however.

On the latter end of this spectrum, model Naomi Sims warned attendees in her opening speech that “we are going to have to fight harder for recognition in the next 10 years than we ever had in the 70s…there is still no great fashion house run by a black designer.” However, Adrienne Jones – then a student at FIT, but now the first black woman tenured professor at Pratt Institute – explained to the Times reporter “I’ll be up there with my clothes one day.” In a similarly hopeful tone, Stephen Burrows reflected upon the fact that there were only a handful of black designers in 1969, him being one of the few leading the pack. In 1980, however, Burrows said, “People are more concerned about what a person does today, not his color.”

Stephen Burrows was thrust into the spotlight as an influential American designer (not just a black one) in 1973 when he became the first black designer to win a Coty Award, as well as the only black designer to be invited to compete and win against the French in the Battle of Versailles – a benefit fashion show to raise money to restore the Palace of Versailles – and which pitted storied French fashion houses against new American talent. In her book about the event, Robin Givhan writes how in 1973, "Race was a dilemma that needed to be confronted. And some folks thought fashion was part of the solution. Burrows made people feel good about all that ailed the culture. His race was important." [10]

Different from Givhan, however, Burrows himself never felt his race mattered as a designer. [9] Indeed, rather than lingering on his race, in an interview with Givhan for Battle of Versailles, Burrows explained how he “gorged on color because his mother would use an entire box of crayons to color a single page when she was teaching him how to draw as a little boy.” [12] Yet, despite his attempt to not insert the politics of race into his clothing label, Burrows, like so many other designers before and after him was referred to as ‘a black designer’ within American fashion discourse. [11] More than that, however, Burrows’ memories of coloring with his mother perhaps nods to how a maternal influence in tandem with a rich cultural heritage (despite adversity) was foundational in shaping the black designer’s own personal narrative. From Elizabeth Keckly to Arthur McGee, Stephen Burrows to Charles Harbison, black designers, seamstresses and dressmakers often describe how their creativity and career trajectories have been greatly influenced by a triad of a matriarch, spiritual upbringing and sense of community.

For example, in 1983 when Willi Smith won a Coty Award for his sportswear label called WilliWear, he described how he doesn’t “design clothes for the Queen, but for the people that wave at her as she goes by.” In a similar vein, in 2002 when he, along with Stephen Burrows, was inducted into the Fashion Hall of Fame his plaque was inscribed with a quote describing how he was not inspired by Paris, “but by Sunday church in Harlem.”

Similar inspirations can be found in the designs of Patrick Kelly who began his career in 1985, and whose work was more avowedly political than either Burrows’ or Smith’s. Indeed, Kelly was known to take up the black designer label with much pride. He was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi and studied art history and black history at Jackson State University, while later going on to study fashion design at Parsons School of Design. In an article in The Washington Post in 2004, Bjorn Amelan, Kelly’s business partner said, “While he loved Madame Grès and Yves Saint Laurent, he’d say that in one pew at Sunday church in Vicksburg, there’s more fashion to be seen than on a Paris runway.” [13] In spite of his attempt to distance himself from the runways of Paris, however, Kelly nevertheless went on to become the first American designer to be voted into the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode in 1988.

Like many of the dressmakers and designers before him, he was also inspired and taught by the women in his life, specifically his grandmother who worked as a maid and would often bring home fashion magazines. [14] What many note of Kelly’s career is the way he situated black stereotypical caricatures into his collections, a telling way he took ownership of the black narrative in mainstream fashion. “No other fashion designer has been so inextricably linked to both his race and culture,” Robin Givhan wrote in the 2004 Washington Post article. She went on to write, “With his work he explored racial politics and positioned fashion and style as central to the way in which people are defined.” According to Robin Givhan, Kelly “accumulated more than 8,000 examples of advertising, dolls, knickknacks, and household products that employed racial stereotypes, caricatures and slurs.”

Kelly died in 1990; however, his legacy has lived on by not only creating a pathway for the inclusion and success of black designers to come, but also a blueprint as to how they could use their place within mainstream fashion, as well as their design practice to redefine what it means to be black and as a political tool for protest.


Design as Protest

As Van Dyk Lewis writes in his essay “Dilemmas in African Diaspora Fashion,”

As a visual discourse African Diaspora fashion elegantly demonstrates the development of social and psychological issues that the Diaspora comes to terms with by making appearance choices that are distinct by contrary; one type of choice is compliant with the mainstream, the other is a protest against it. [15]

Digital media makes room for the proliferation of varying viewpoints. Indeed, content creation has been made more democratic through the use of blogs, social media and more. More specifically, the fashion industry in the digital age has taken huge leaps of progress. Whereas the dissemination of trends and participation in the industry at-large was originally closed off to the general public, now people from across the globe have a front row seat to shows at international fashion weeks and can get up-close and personal with fashion industry professionals via their personal social media accounts. The fashion industry’s age-old reification of stereotypes and unwillingness to fix the lack of racial diversity are now consistently critiqued in digital spaces with the potential to effect real change.

The fashion industry’s age-old reification of stereotypes and unwillingness to fix the lack of racial diversity are now consistently critiqued in digital spaces with the potential to effect real change.

Similarly, the digital realm has been used by black people to unite and mobilize around the hashtag #blacklivesmatter since 2012, and it was only a matter of time before the movement touched a fashion industry that had been carefully avoiding issues of race and accountability since its inception.  

In 2014, Kerby Jean-Raymond presented his spring/summer 2015 collection at Milk Studios during New York Fashion Week. At the presentation, Jean-Raymond wore what appeared to be a plain white t-shirt; however, on the back was a list of names of black men who had been killed by police officers: Eric Garner, Kimani Grey, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Michael Brown, Timothy Stansbury, Kenneth Chamberlain, Tamir Rice, Marlon Brown, Akai Gurley, Jonathan Ferrell, and Amadou Diallo. For a limited time, Jean-Raymond sold the shirt for $70 and donated $32 of every sale to the American Civil Liberties Union – a nonprofit organization that defends and preserves the individual rights and liberties by the Constitution and laws of the United States. [16]

Jean-Raymond wore the shirt just two months after Eric Garner was choked to death by a police officer on Staten Island – his final words being “I can’t breathe” – and just one month after Michael Brown had been killed in August 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri by Darren Wilson, a white police officer. While Brown’s body lay in the street for four hours, photos of his lifeless body, most taken with cell phones, filled the timelines of social media. His death led to protests that permeated not only the streets of Ferguson, but also those across the world. Protestors united under the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, which was created by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors after the murder of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida in 2012. None of the men who murdered Garner, Brown, Martin, among so many other boys and men, women and girls, were convicted of their crimes.

Fashion is an industry that doesn’t like to talk about race, but which doesn’t mind dabbling in it for the purposes of marketability. From cultural appropriation to the lack of representation on the runways, covers of magazines, editorial staffs, and at the helms of major American and international fashion brands, the fashion industry can’t seem to get it right. Thus designers behind the brands Pyer Moss and Public School NYC have decided to take matters into their own hands. After all, silence can sometimes be read as compliance.

In September 2015, Jean-Raymond followed up his “They Have Names” t-shirt with an entire runway show that not only focused on police brutality, but also the brutalization, oppression and spectacle of the black body in mainstream spaces. [17]

The invitation to the show read “Ota, Meet Saartjie,” a reference to Ota Benga and Sara “Saartjie” Baartmen, Africans who were taken from South Africa and the Congo in the 1800s and 1900s, respectively, and caged and put on display for white audiences. Clothing from the show represented some of this history, such as netting that Jean-Raymond told me and other reporters after the show represented the entrapments of the black body, specifically the cage in which Ota Benga was held while on display at the Bronx Zoo. Red paint was splattered onto some of the garments, while white Doc Marten boots bore the names of people killed by police.

At the close of the show, a model walked off of the runway with a jacket that read “Breathe Breathe Breathe” – a nod to the death of Eric Garner. Prior to the runway show, a 10-minute video played including interviews of fashion industry professionals such as Robin Givhan and Joel Towers, music artists such as Usher and Kendrick Lamar, and from families whose loved ones had been killed by police. It also included footage of the death of Walter Scott, who was shot by police in South Carolina in 2015, as well as footage of black teenagers being attacked by police outside of a community pool in Texas in 2015.

From concept to execution, Jean-Raymond was not only speaking from a place of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, but also from a place of experience. After the presentation, a group of reporters, including myself, interviewed Jean-Raymond. He told us that by the age of 18 he had been stopped and frisked 12 times. One month before his spring/summer 2016 show, he had injured his finger and it was bandaged together with black tape. While talking on the phone with his sister, his fingers were jutting upward. He turned around and two police officers were pointing guns at him, stating that his bandaged fingers resembled a gun. He felt that if he had run or resisted, he would have succumbed to being one of the names on his “They Have Names” t-shirt. Jean-Raymond further explained that he hesitated to show the collection at all, perhaps wanting instead to focus on the video. In doing both, he told us, “I feel a little freer after this.” [18]

That year, Public School NYC’s spring/summer 2016 New York Fashion Week Men’s presentation featured a diverse lineup of models who stood against a wall that resembled those used when taking mug shots at a jail – thick and thin alternating black lines against a white wall. The brand later posted a picture of the presentation to its Instagram account with a caption that read:

We wanted to promote the idea of unity especially in these times. Dressing our crew of boys from all walks of life in the quintessential Public School uniform contrasted against a backdrop that has come to contextualize and marginalize a specific group of people reinforces the need for this idea of solidarity. Shaking up the traditional notions and images of who you’ve come to see in this setting. [19]

By July 2016, justice still had not been served for the countless black lives taken at the hands of police. Earlier that month, Alton Sterling had been killed in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for selling CDs outside of a convenience store. One day later, Philando Castile had been shot to death in his car in Minnesota. His girlfriend recorded the murder via Facebook LIVE, all while her toddler sat in the back seat. All of this happening one month before the two-year remembrance of Michael Brown’s death.

Fashion is an industry that doesn’t like to talk about race, but which doesn’t mind dabbling in it for the purposes of marketability.

Maxwell Osborne wrote a piece for W Magazine’s website in the same month titled “Why I Stand With Black Lives Matter.” Osborne wrote that he could have posted something to social media, but instead he decided to join the protests happening in Union Square for Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. He wrote that it was his first time taking part in a protest (for many young people joining the movement, the nearest thing to protest that they could remember were those during the Civil Rights and Black Power eras). He wrote “as a black man in an overwhelmingly white industry, race is never far from my mind.” Touching on various statistics that highlight the disproportionate injustices that black Americans face, he wrote: “You’ll want to throw your hands in the air and resign yourself to the easy crutch that there’s little for us to do from our perch in the comfortable seat of fashion except make clothes.” [20] He then listed suggestions for the fashion industry to become active in the movement:

Stand with Black Lives Matter. Go out and educate yourself and learn how you can help and join the conversation as an active participant and not just as a passive, if well-meaning, observer. Encourage diversity on your runways and campaigns. Empower your social media fans to raise their voices. Use your designs for the public good. Attend a protest and see change in action. Raise awareness – it’s not as empty a gesture as it may seem – and others will follow your lead. [21]

As I have written elsewhere, the designers behind Pyer Moss and Public School NYC are one of many examples of how […] the mainstream fashion industry acts as a battlefield in which the cultural struggle between black cultural agents and white cultural agents, as well as the self struggle among black people over black narratives is unwavering and often poses historical frustrations that are miserably, and temporarily diminished but never fully resolved. Both Kerby Jean-Raymond’s and Maxwell Osborne’s black cultural production demonstrates the importance and possibilities for change when remaining active in the struggle. [22]

These are just two examples. Protest within the mainstream is not always as visible for fear of disrupting businesses and relationships. What these two show, however, is how cultural production amongst black people allows for a redefinition of blackness. Although the designers behind Pyer Moss and Public School NYC aren’t always designing from a political standpoint, “they are using their power in the mainstream to provide visual and textual discourses that critique the construction of their racial identity.” [23]


“The Black Designer” As Signifier of Desiring Visibility

As the previous examples demonstrate, fashion is one cultural site in which black people have taken it upon themselves to become more visible. There has been an impressive amount of scholars in agreement that fashion, whether through style or design, in some way or another makes the black body visible. Richard Majors in Cool Pose writes “…in a society that has kept blacks invisible, it is not surprising that seemingly flamboyant clothes might be worn to heighten visibility.” [24] While unearthing what she calls style narratives of the African diaspora, Carol Tulloch writes of the aesthetic of presence: “a technique of being to counter the aesthetics of invisibility that people of the African diaspora have had to overcome since slavery.” [25] Elizabeth Way, in her historical research on Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe, wrote of the two designers’ legacy:

Though many of these gowns are more commonly identified by the wealthy and famous white women who wore them, these garments and the understanding that both Keckly and Lowe significantly contributed in both skill level and design quality to American fashion design are critical elements to recovering the invisible legacy that they, and many more black dressmakers, left to history. [26]

Notice here that Way by no means argues that acknowledgement by white women or the mainstream is what recovers the invisible legacy that the two designers left on history. Rather, it is the traditional and generational valuing of the creation of something from nothing that makes the label of black designer worthy of recognition and support in both the African diaspora and the mainstream.

In her book Slaves to Fashion, Monica Miller invokes Peggy Phelan’s warning against assuming that visibility can equal power. Indeed, as Miller goes on to explain, Phelan argues that “representation and visibility cannot confer identity,” and furthermore that there is a “vast space between the representation and the real,” but that there is liberation in the performance of making oneself visible. [27] Thus, Miller argues that though the attempt to become visible does not immediately translate into an aspired-to self, the act is “vital to the creation of new vocabularies and of an extended language with which to speak about themselves. Having these performances, one has new possibilities.” [28] In her conclusion, she writes that black dandyism “functions as a kind of visible sign of the modern black imaginary, a kind of ‘freedom dream.’ This dream is dreamt with knowledge of its limitations, but is dreamt nevertheless, to imagine and then find ways to go beyond.” [29]

Visibility has much to do with representation and ownership of the body. Although it is not my desire to discuss the many complexities of representation here, it is important to note that mainstream history has never quite done justice to the power of storytelling among those within the African diaspora. That storytelling is not always verbal or literary, but very much inscribed upon the black body and expressed through cultural practices created, preserved and proliferated by black bodies across the Diaspora. Fashion design is one of those practices that have allowed black designers, seamstresses, and dressmakers to dream beyond the barriers outlined by Lewis and beyond their limitations.  

It has been 36 years since Naomi Sims gave her warning to the attendees of the Bristol Cream Award, and still there is but one black designer at the helm of a major fashion house – Olivier Rousteing of Balmain. However, black designers over the years have shown that while helming a brand is certainly impressive, starting your own is equally commendable, representing a long trajectory of black people who have found a way to make something out of nothing.



[1] Van Dyk Lewis, “Dilemmas in African Diaspora Fashion,” Fashion Theory 7.2 (2003): 165.

[2] Ibid, 177.

[3] Margaret Cremmins, “Designed With Soul,” Washington PostTimes Herald, May 21, 1969, B1.

[4] Dr. Kenneth Clark and Dr. Mamie Clark were notable psychologists most known for the Clark Doll tests, which studied segregation among African American children. The test asked children to choose between a white doll and black doll, which were all the same except for color. A majority of the children chose the white doll. Research from the tests were used in the Brown v. Board of Education, which declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students unconstitutional. (accessed September 27, 2016).

[5] Eugenia Sheppard, “Basic Black: Fashion Show Breakthrough for 5th Avenue,” Los Angeles Times, May 26, 1969, D1.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Margaret Cremmins, “Designed With Soul.”

[8] Bernadine Morris, “A Spirited Salute to Black Designers at Tully Hall,” The New York Times, February 19, 1984, A.90.

[9] Robin Givhan, The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and made History (Flatiron Books 2015), 121.

[10] Ibid, 260-270.

[11] Ibid, 110.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Robin Givhan, “Patrick Kelly’s Radical Cheek; In New York, a Designer’s Guise and Dolls,” Washington Post, May 31, 2004, C1.

[14] Patrick Kelly: A Perspective, (accessed September 27, 2016).

[15] Lewis, “Dilemmas,” 164.

[16] (accessed September 27, 2016).

[17] I borrow this language from Stuart Hall’s chapter title “The Spectacle of the Other,” in his text Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (Sage Publications 1997).

[18] Rikki Byrd, “This Designer Stopped Everyone In Their Tracks With a Fashion Show on Police Brutality,” (accessed September 27, 2016).

[19] Public School NYC,

[20] Maxwell Osborne, “Why I Stand with Black Lives Matter,” (accessed September 27, 2016).

[21] Ibid.

[22] Rikki Byrd, Black the Color We Wear: Representing Blackness in American Fashion, MA Thesis, Parsons School of Design.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Richard Majors, Cool Pose: The Dilemma of Black Manhood in America, (Touchstone 1992), 80.

[25] Carol Tulloch, The Birth of Cool: Style Narratives in the African Diaspora, (Bloomsbury 2015), 3.

[26] Elizabeth Way, “Elizabeth Keckly and Ann Lowe: Recovering an African American Fashion Legacy,” Fashion Theory 19.1 (2015): 120.

[27] Monica Miller, Slaves to Fashion: Black Dandyism and The Styling of Black Diasporic Identity (Duke 2009), 18-19.

[28] Ibid, 19.

[29] Ibid, 221


(Thumbnail Image Attribution: American Fashion Model Renée Gunter in French Haute Couture. Image courtesy Renée Gunter/Wikimedia Commons)

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