Against The Odds

The Best Ever Black Fashion Designers

 

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Elizabeth Keckley

A former slave who saved up to buy her freedom, Keckley would become the first African American to emerge as a major player in American fashion. She became the personal dressmaker for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of the 16th president. Lincoln was not Keckley’s only high-powered client. Hailed for her gifted construction and tailoring, Varina Davis, wife of Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, was also a Keckley devotee. Unfortunately her relationship with Lincoln would come to an end after Keckley authored a memoir about her White House years.

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B. Michael

A longtime favorite of socialites and actresses of color (including Cicely Tyson who was wearing one of his designs the night she won her 2013 Tony Award) in recent years B. Michael has achieved the kind of crossover success many designers dream of. He has begun providing costumes for film, including Whitney Houston’s final star vehicle Sparkle, and inked a lucrative deal with Macy’s.

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Ann Lowe

Though Ann Lowe never became a household name herself, she was the go-to designer for many women whose last names were. In addition to designing the iconic wedding gown future First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier wore for her 1953 marriage to then Senator John F. Kennedy, she was a favorite of the Rockefellers, du Ponts, Posts and many other daughters and wives of the most powerful families in America.

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Willi Smith

Smith was one of the first black fashion designers to enjoy multi-faceted success. In addition to his wildly popular Williwear line, he designed for film and theater, creating costumes for Spike Lee’s School Daze and for works by dance legend Bill T. Jones. In 1971 he became the youngest designer nominated for a Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, at the time the most prestigious honor in American fashion, which he would win in 1983. Smith died of AIDS in 1987. 

Here is Smith photographed in April 1984.

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Tracy Reese

With a name now as recognizable as other American stalwarts like Donna Karan, Tracy Reese is without question the most successful African American designer working today. A board member of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, her fashion shows are regularly packed with some of her high profile fans. But perhaps her most notable client is First Lady Michelle Obama, who wore a Reese dress during one of her most photographed appearances: during her keynote address at the 2012 Democratic Convention. 

Here: Models walk the runway at the Tracy Reese fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Fall 2015 at ArtBeam on February 15, 2015 in New York City.

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Patrick Kelly

After a stint as a freelance window dresser for Yves Saint Laurent, Patrick Kelly would emerge as a fashion powerhouse in his own right. His whimsical, yet politically charged designs (he featured the controversial Aunt Jemima figure on some of his work) were carried in Bergdorf Goodman and Henri Bendel, and worn by fashion icons such as Grace Jones and Isabella Rossellini. While popular in America, he was revered in Paris. Two years before his death from AIDS in 1990, he became the first American and first black designer elected into the French fashion industry association, the Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode. 

Here Kelly is pictured, circa 1989, in Paris, France.

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Stephen Burrows

Burrows established himself as one of America’s defining fashion forces when he joined Oscar de la Renta, Halston, Bill Blass and Anne Klein in a fashion faceoff with French designers at the famed Versailles Palace in 1973. Though American fashion had long been looked down upon by the European set, Burrows and company were dubbed the winners of the so-called “Battle of Versailles,” before a crowd that included Princess Grace and Josephine Baker. Burrows would also design one of the most memorable Oscar dresses in history: the liquid gold number worn by Farrah Fawcett when she served as a presenter at the 1978 Academy Awards.

Here Burrows (second left) poses with models at his 2012 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at the Audi Forum on February 16, 2012 in New York City.

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Patrick Robinson

Named a rising star by Vogue magazine in 1996, Robinson has gone on to senior roles at two major fashion brands since then, becoming head of design at Gap in 2007, and Global Creative Director of Armani Exchange in 2013. He has since exited that role but generated buzz for his independent line Pashko.

Here, models perform during a fashion show of Robinson's designs at the Shanghai Fashion Week on November 1, 2005 in Shanghai, China.

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Duro Olowu

A favorite of Vogue magazine, which has featured a number of his designs in various editions, the Nigeria-born Olowu has other high profile fans. First Lady Michelle Obama wore an Olowu design during her appearance with her husband on 'The Oprah Winfrey Show.' 

Here, Olowu (center) poses with models at the Duro Olowu Fall 2011 presentation during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Milk Studios on February 13, 2011 in New York City.

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Maxwell Osborne

Since co-founding the label Public School, Osborne has become a critical darling of the fashion world. A favorite of Vogue editor Anna Wintour, Public School was recently honored with the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Menswear.

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Carly Cushnie

One half of the design duo Cushnie et Ochs, in just a few short years Carly Cushnie has emerged as one of the most influential black designers of modern times. Since launching in 2008, Cushnie et Ochs has become a red carpet staple, worn by everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Rihanna and Michelle Obama. Already sold in more than 100 stores worldwide, it was announced this week that Cushnie et Ochs has begun a collaboration with the hit drama Empire and Saks Fifth Avenue, which will feature Cushnie et Ochs designs in its Empire-themed windows.

Here, designers Michelle Ochs (l) and Carly Cushnie attend the Cushnie Et Ochs fashion show during Spring 2016 MADE Fashion Week at Milk Studios on September 11, 2015 in New York City.

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Ozwald Boateng

The British Boateng, who is of Ghanaian descent, is considered one of the world’s greatest living menswear designers. Boateng’s list of clients include Mick Jagger, Samuel Jackson, Keanu Reeves and Jamie Foxx, who was wearing a Boateng suit when he won the Best Actor Academy Award in 2004. His designs have also been seen in numerous films and television series’ including Sex and the City and Ugly Betty. His work was the subject of a retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2006.

Pictured: models on the Made in Africa Gala catwalk show curated by Boateng at the IC Banker of the Year Awards at the Taj Palace on May 29, 2013 in Marrakech, Morocco.

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Eric Gaskins

Gaskins’ designs graced countless celebrities, from Salma Hayek to Jennifer Lopez and Mariah Carey, as well as many major magazines, including Vanity Fair and Essence, before he closed his eponymous label in 2009. It was upon disbanding that Gaskins’ achieved his greatest notoriety. He revealed himself to be the man behind the blog 'The Emperor’s Old Clothes, a longtime guilty pleasure of fashion insiders. 

Pictured: Eric Gaskins in his studio with some of his fall/winter 2000 collection.