Exhibition Review: Black Fashion Designers
The Museum at FIT, December 6, 2016-May 16, 2017
The name of the Museum at FIT’s newly opened exhibit, Black Fashion Designers, struck me immediately. The bluntness of it, the inability to mistake its intended contents, made me feel giddy, proud, curious, and Black. It felt like a bold choice for what I knew must be a bold exhibit. For the decision to highlight the one thing unifying these disparate designers—artisans working in fine silk, tweedy wool, African wax print, hand knotted macramé, embossed leather—was both risky and exciting.
It was risky because some designers shun the attention given to their race while others applaud it. Neither approach is right or wrong; it is a deeply personal decision that may be met with criticism either way. That’s what makes it exciting. The Museum at FIT and Black Fashion Designers’ Assistant Curator of Costume and Textiles, Ariele Elia, and Elizabeth Way, Curatorial Assistant, named the exhibit with a purpose. Though they acknowledge that grouping designers of color, from this continent and beyond, into one exhibit and labeling it ‘Black Fashion’ is potentially problematic, the distinction is important. Blackness is often the reason designers are overlooked or excluded. Much like recent retrospectives focusing on women artists staged in order to revise the masculine, Eurocentric history of art,  for the purpose of this exhibit, it is the only thing that connects them. Way said they wanted there to be “no doubt” about its contents. It is a title that suggests, this exhibit features Black designers, and you should come find out what exactly that means.
Although given the chance to take a guided tour, I opted to walk through the exhibit alone for my first viewing. As with films and novels, it’s always my desire to experience a work of art, or fashion, without outside influence. The opening piece, housed in a glass-fronted enclosure at the museum’s entrance, is that of designer Tracy Reese. The floor-length sequined stunner is a perfect introduction; the palette is one that works so well with brown skin. It’s colorful, it’s joyful, and it invokes the feeling of celebration. It’s with those feelings that you enter the small, L-shaped Fashion and Textile History Gallery.
Upon entering, you’re immediately drawn to the garments in front of you: two pieces that incorporate all the fun, color and joy Reese’s creation anticipates. One is a figure-hugging little black dress from Patrick Kelly whose button adorned bodice lends form and definition to the classic. The other is a Duro Olowu cape of captivating texture, color and movement.
One historic and one modern. The tone is set, just like that. Panels declaring the exhibit’s intended purpose confirm those feelings: you’re about to witness a melding of Black fashion’s past and present. The exhibit is broken down into distinct sections: Breaking into the Industry, The Rise of the Black Fashion Designer, Eveningwear, African Influence, Street Influence, Activism, Menswear, Black Models, and Experimentation.
The introduction continues with a stunning 1950s wedding dress designed by Ann Lowe. Lowe is perhaps best known as Jackie Kennedy Onassis' wedding dress designer. What is lesser known, however, is Lowe’s role as dressmaker to New York’s Who’s Who. She had worked with the Onassis family making special occasion dresses for some time before being selected to make that famous wedding gown. Complimenting Lowe’s work, and in keeping with the past-present dynamic, a modern wedding look from Ethiopian-born American designer Amsale demonstrates the evolution of wedding dress fashion. Works by fashion mainstays Stephen Burrows and Renaissance man Geoffrey Holder are paired with newcomers Ozwald Boateng and Maki O.
Breaking into the Industry features the iconic Playboy Bunny uniform designed by Zelda Wynn Valdes in the 1980s and a watercolor confection from FIT graduate Jon Weston, which was designed for his graduate collection in 1955. The Rise of the Black Fashion Designer brings on the stunners with a truly outstanding jumpsuit from Haitian-born designer, Fabrice, a distinctive, heavily embroidered dress by Olivier Rousteing for Balmain, and a deep blue silk dress by John Haggis. This progression of texture and design continues with the Eveningwear section. Here, Ann Lowe’s work continues to display her immense talent with a wine colored silk velvet gown that could easily be mistaken for contemporary couture. We also note the importance of designer/celebrity relationships. CD Greene’s design for Tina Turner, Bruce Oldfield’s work for Princess Diana, and LaQuan Smith's looks for the young and famous all speak to the intimate relationship between fashion, celebrity, film, and their icons.
Patrick Kelly and Stella Jean’s African-inspired looks mark a sharp contrast in color palette and execution from the previous garments on display. Though no less finely tailored than the eveningwear creations, these looks present a fusion of African and Western design, conceptualized by the likes of Mimi Plange, Lisa Folawiyo, and Christie Brown, which can more easily blend into one's everyday looks, much like the Streetwear ensembles that follow. The legacy of streetwear innovators like Dapper Dan, Isaïa, and Cross Colours is clear in the designs of Off-White and Pyer Moss (the latter preferring the distinction of “luxury sportswear”). The Activism section conveys the power of fashion as a form of protest with pieces that blur the line between old and new better than any other portion of the exhibit. The denim, tees, and leather items are modern classics, belonging to no era and every era simultaneously.
The menswear section evokes that same timelessness. Is there anything more classic than a well-tailored suit? Particularly when Byron Lars and Patrick Kelly apply those pinstripes to womenswear. At the exhibition opening, it was my pleasure to meet Jeffrey Banks, who in 2016 was as well turned out as the mannequin wearing his 1980s ensemble. The Black Models display featured video and photographs of scene-stealers, past and present—a triumphant moment in the exhibition that celebrated the significance of figures whose visibility, desirability, presence, and potency has heretofore gone under-recognized in fashion history. Audrey Smaltz, a model, presenter, and fashion scene It Girl, sat on the exhibit’s advisory council along with fashion world legend André Leon Talley, designer Tracy Reese, and supermodel Veronica Webb, to name a few. Smaltz, along with the aforementioned fashion luminaries, were all on hand for the opening of the exhibition, and many items from Smaltz’s personal collection were on display. Listening to her bubbling with excitement while discussing her fascinating past and witnessing her be moved to tears while sharing tales of her lost friends was as valuable as the exhibit itself. I felt much the same while listening to Veronica Webb share portions of her fashion history as she was interviewed by various fashion outlets. Those stories, which were taking place near the Black Models displays, gave the designs in the last section, Experimentation, more resonance.
Fashion has always been a site for testing boundaries and pushing social agendas. Brenda Waites Bolling’s silk cord macramé tunic, crafted in the 1970s, juxtaposed with a gender-bending Hood by Air ensemble, represent innovation that pushes the boundaries of technique, materiality and design. It’s an appropriate note on which to end an exhibition about Black fashion designers. Many still view the inclusion of blackness, in the world of fashion as an experiment–as a fad or passing trend. There is a belief that blackness must still be categorized, still defined, still justified before being accepted. But, this exhibit will confront naysayers with an undeniable truth: though under-recognized and under-appreciated, Black designers have been here and they are here to stay.
On Monday, February 6th, models, designers, journalists, and fashion scholars will gather at the Museum at FIT for a one-day Black Fashion Designers symposium. This event will critically examine the current fashion landscape for Black designers and further reflect upon the impact they’ve had on fashion’s history.
 See for example the Prado’s current show on the 17th century Flemish painter Clara Peeters—the first in the museum’s history, which only came to fruition when the museum director’s wife pointed out to him that his institution had overlooked women artists. For the full story, visit NPR.