Black Designers Define Fashion Trends

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While Reese is among the newer designers in the legacy of black fashion leaders, Ann Lowe was one of the first African Americans to crash the racial barrier in fashion. Lowe, who attended design school in 1917 and had her own New York City shop in the early 1950s, created Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy’s wedding gown.

Willi Smith, among the most successful mainstream black designers ever, launched WilliWear in 1976. His natural-fiber sportswear line sold more than $25 million annually.  In 1983, he became the second black to win the Coty Award. He succumbed to AIDS in 1987 at age 39.

Then came Newark, N.J.-born Stephen Burrows, who is still designing today. He was one of the hottest young designers in the 1970s, considered the golden age of black fashion. Designer Mark Jacobs credits him as a major influence.

Called one of the most audacious and auspicious talents in contemporary fashion, Burrows spent the 1970s designing clothes said to make women feel beautiful. He won a Coty Award and in 1973 was chosen as one of only five designers to represent American fashion in France at the Palace of Versailles.

How did it feel to show his collection there? “Great,” he said. “And I met Yves St. Laurent and Josephine Baker – fabulous! St. Laurent told me my clothes were ‘ravishing.’”

Burrows has received a star on the Seventh Avenue Fashion Walk of Fame.  But he owes his start to sewing a doll’s outfit. “One of my grandmothers taught me how to sew when I was eight years old,” he said. “I was fascinated by her new Singer Home Sewing Machine, and the zigzag stitch that it had on it, and I wanted to make a birthday present for my girlfriend, a dress for her favorite doll.

“I got started in fashion after I went to F.I.T. (the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York, which he attended in 1964-66) and got my first job as head designer at a Missy Blouse House on Seventh Avenue in 1966,” he said. “I have never been an assistant designer.  Plus all my friends from F.I.T. wanted me to make them clothes like I made for myself, and I did that also.”

How does he manage to innovate? “My muses inspire me when it comes to designing my collection,” he said.   “I am also inspired by the people I see on the streets of the cities I’ve traveled to.”

Burrows is bothered being labeled a “black designer,” saying, “I am an American designer period.” He has succeeded in spite of the difficulties faced by African Americans in the business. “It is a hard business full of fickle people and financial backing is especially difficult to secure, and is the biggest hurdle to overcome. It’s even more challenging for black designers.”

He is said to consider clothing to be art and that the best clothes are daring and make a statement. He has been quoted as saying he makes “colorful adult toys” because fashion should evoke playfulness.

“Clothes should have a sense of humor and hopefully be a fun experience even in sportswear,” he said.

He considers himself a ready-to-wear designer, but he has been known to take special orders for one-of-a-kind dresses.

For Burrows, the keys to success lie not just in design sensibilities, but in one knack for making business decisions. “Not every design can be successful,” he said. “Much depends on the buyers to give the key to a successful design. Business success is judged on many levels: making a profit, staying in business, getting in the press.  I think my success is that I have good business people around me.”

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