This Is How to Display the Power of Black Fashion

An FIT exhibition of black fashion designers acknowledges its own limitations, but also stands as a potent survey of creativity and passion.

Larry Busacca/Getty

Creating an exhibit about a group of designers not because they share commonalities in their work, but because of their race can be problematic and at the very least challenging.

But this is exactly the challenge the curators at the Museum at FIT took on in their Black Fashion Designers exhibit—one that seeks to shed light on the often overlooked or pigeonholed black designers who have been a driving force in shaping both fashion and culture over the last six decades.

On the exhibition website the curators acknowledged upfront the limitations of framing an exhibition on race, citing a Washington Post article by Robin Givhan about Kerby Jean-Raymond where she wrote about his “fatigue” at being deemed a black designer, “not because he isn’t proud of his heritage and not because he doesn’t bring his full self to his work, but because the nomenclature is limiting.”

And it is limiting, but it begs the question of how to highlight the importance of these designers without highlighting why and how they’ve been previously limited. As Dario Calmese put it in The Daily Beast last summer, “To specify their blackness is diminishing, just as much as ignoring it.”

The conundrum, which would have turned off many curators, is one of the reasons this exhibit, which faced it head on, seems so salient. Organized by themes, it offers the visitor both a history lesson on blackness in fashion and a celebration of important and talented designers who just happened to be black.

It begins with “Breaking Into the Industry,” which introduces the subject of the invisible black designers who often went unnamed or not properly given credit for their designs.

A flat screen display pays tribute to the life of Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave and became the personal dressmaker of Mary Todd Lincoln. A gown by Ann Lowe, the designer who made—among many other notable garments—the wedding dress for Jacqueline Kennedy’s marriage to Jack, is a reminder that when Mrs. Kennedy was asked who made her dress she supposedly said “a colored woman dressmaker,” thus omitting Lowe’s name from the list of designers who dressed one of the most fashionable first ladies.

Also on display was the iconic playboy bunny outfit, associated with Hugh Hefner and his blonde bunnies but in fact created by Zelda Wynn Valdes.

Other sections such as The Rise of the Black Fashion Designer, Eveningwear, and Experimentation—focus more on design or design themes, further cementing the idea that there is no single “black style” that defines all or even most black designers.

A multimedia approach using iPads, video screens, and an online cellphone tour helps illuminate and contextualize the 75 ensembles, with photographs, videos, and old record covers and newspapers displayed on the walls.

On show was a pleated sculptural coat by Jon Weston, a mid-century experimental designer and a surreal and cheeky take on the Union Suit by Byron Lars (an FIT graduate), as well as a handmade macramé silk tunic from the 1970s by Brenda Waites Bolling.

Works by Olivier Rousteing, the young creative director of fashion house Balmain and LVMH winner Grace Wales Bonner are also on view. A gorgeous light pink textured dress by Mimi Plange inspired by tribal African scarification is highlighted, and a Patrick Kelly dress with a heart made out of his signature of mismatched buttons sits at the front of the gallery.

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Multiple ensembles by Stephen Burrows make their way into the exhibit, and a handmade leather jacket by Harlem couturier Dapper Dan is displayed along with an ensemble from Pyer Moss’s Ota Benga inspired collection, as well as T-shirts from G-Star RAW, Patrick Kelly, and Pyer Moss.

Even as the space overflows with garments, it feels almost purposeful—a knowing wink to the idea that even this crowded field was just scratching the surface.

A section on black models is supplemented with a video conversation hosted by Robin Givhan with three generations of black models: Riley Montana, Bethann Hardison, and Veronica Webb, who explained that “The reason why it’s important to have diversity in fashion is the same reason why it’s important for a child to have a doll that looks like them, right? It’s the beginning of building your self-esteem. It’s the beginning of creating a fantasy life of how you are going to be as an adult.”

Mirroring this theme, a video plays Michelle Obama’s carpool karaoke spot with James Corden and stands as both a testament to the value of Webb’s words and a reminder that black children seeing themselves in the wider culture is new.

It’s hard to ignore the timing of the exhibition, which opened in early December just as our first black president was preparing to leave office, and his successor was widely accused of racism.

But one of the curators of the show, Ariele Elia, dismisses a political connection, saying, “We had begun working on the exhibition about two years ago, so the current political climate did not influence our decision to curate an exhibition on the topic of black designers.”

Coincidence or not, the timing feels telling and the decision to dedicate an entire section of the exhibition to activism in fashion seems especially poignant at this moment.

“Some designers featured in the exhibition such as Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss have focused on the political climate in their collections,” says Elia. “For example his They Have Names T-shirt lists the names of unarmed black men who have fallen victim to police brutality.”

Jean-Raymond, speaking about his clothes, defiantly opposes the label of “streetwear,” saying: “I just want to know what’s being called ‘street,’ the clothes or me?”

It’s another good question worth thinking through: Why are black designers’ clothes are so often defaulted to streetwear when their white counterparts aren’t?

Prompting more questions than garments and museum labels could possibly answer, the exhibition is accompanied by an excellent live-streamed symposium with journalists, academics, designers, and tastemakers discussing fashion, designers, and being black in the industry.

Dapper Dan of Harlem says, “Fashion is the vehicle, culture is the wheels on the vehicle, so if we allow them to put us in the back seat and they do the driving and they have not embraced the culture, they are going to take us to where they want us to go… They use us as window dressing to make us think that we have penetrated the industry, but our numbers are really tiny, so we got to turn that around.”

As someone in the audience of the symposium puts it, “I love the fact that you guys are doing this, I think it’s long overdue… but I would like to say, this is a great beginning, this is a great part one.”

Black Fashion Designers is at the Museum at FIT until May 16. Details here.