BY JIAN DELEON, JAMES HARRIS, KARIZZA SANCHEZ, MATTHEW HENSON, ARIA HUGHES, SCARLETT NEWMAN
Published – Feb 28, 2020
(List originally compiled by Complex.com in 2013, and updated recently)
While black fashion designers may seem like a rarity in the industry, there are many who have made great strides—not only in their designs, but in creating opportunities for other designers of color. That’s why we wanted to highlight some of the notable names whose ideas and innovations have helped shape the course of fashion.
Are you a fan of Jamie Foxx or Will Smith’s red carpet looks? If so, you must also be a fan of Ozwald Boateng, the man behind all those damn good looking suits.
The London designer, by way of Ghana, launched his namesake label in 1994 and has since become known for his tailoring skills.
Early in her career, Rihanna made clear her interest in fashion and desire to work in the clothing design industry. Regarding this, she said, “Fashion has always been my defense mechanism”. In November 2011, Rihanna announced her first fashion venture with Armani. She has since gone on to many other collaborations and has a lingerie brand Savage X Fenty along with cosmetics brand Fenty Beauty.
From his 125th street tailoring shop, Dapper Dan has influenced hip-hop fashion since 1982. Originally taking fabrics from the likes of Louis Vuitton and MCM and repurposing them into custom garments, his clientele soon expanded from neighborhood hustlers to rap pioneers like Rakim and LL Cool J.
Known for his notorious use of black stereotypical imagery, Patrick Kelly, who passed away from HIV/AIDS in 1990, was a designer who saw prominence in the 1980s and was celebrated for his bombastic and theatrical takes on the runway. Born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, Kelly cited his grandmother as his earliest inspiration. She often used buttons and various tchotchkes to spruce up any given garment.
Stephen Burrows is a true OG and is important for a number of reasons. The designer launched his namesake label in 1963 and, not long after, became one of the first African American designers to gain international recognition.
Andre Walker might be the fashion world’s most unsung ghost designer or consultant of sorts. Walker, who staged a fashion show at age 15 at Oasis, a Brooklyn night club, designed for Willi Smith’s Williwear before moving to Paris and working for Patrick Kelly.
Menswear designer Martine Rose has made some ground since her days designing T-shirts with a friend under the moniker LMNOP. Today, she’s killing at London Fashion Week and gaining a following of cool guys interested in her bomber jackets, and mix of sportswear and tailoring.
Kanye West will always be a name that is synonymous with fashion. In the past decade, he’s been streetwear’s loudest proponent, muscling his way into Paris Fashion Week, a Fendi internship, and a short-term apprenticeship with famed footwear designer Giuseppe Zanotti.
You can thank Shayne Oliver for the current trend of high-fashion with an undeniably street appeal. As early at 2006, Oliver was screenprinting tees with “HOOD” on them. As things progressed, he branched out into different designs and produced a full fledged fashion brand.
When Sean “Diddy” Combs launched Sean Jean in 1998, he set out to change the face of the fashion industry in a way that was unprecedented: bringing his luxurious hip-hop lifestyle and sharp image to the masses. Rather than slapping his name on a garment and sending it down the runway, Diddy was more than actively involved in the process of getting the brand off the ground, laying out a three-year plan that included fully-realized looks as well as various marketing strategies.
Creating at the intersection of streetwear and luxury, Virgil Abloh has established himself as one of the most polarizing personalities in fashion. Abloh gained notoriety as Kanye West’s creative director and went on to launch his own labels Pyrex Vision and soon after Off-White.
Ann Lowe was an American fashion designer best known for designing Jacqueline Kennedy’s wedding dress, which was constructed with over 50 yards of silk taffeta. Her customers included the matrons of high society families including the Roosevelts and the Rockefellers.
The late-great Willi Smith (he died of AIDS in 1987) designed comfortable and inexpensive sportswear for men and women all over America under his label, WilliWear. The Philadelphia-native, who eventually moved to New York City’s SoHo neighborhood, kept his eye on the arts scene and was often inspired by street culture, which is why his work was often referred to as “Street Couture.”
Kimora Lee Simmons
Kimora Lee Simmons started out as a high fashion model, signing a modeling contract with Chanel at the tender age of 13. She is most famously recognized as the face of her own brand, Baby Phat, which she ran from 1999 to 2010.
Grace Wales Bonner
Grace Wales Bonner, the Central Saint Martins graduated who started her men’s line, Wales Bonner, in 2014, is only in her late 20s, but she’s firmly established herself as a designer whose collections explore blackness—Bonner’s mother is English and her father is Jamaican—and masculinity.
Duro Olowu has been in the fashion game since 2004 when he made his name in London with his vibrant color palatte and pattern on pattern pairings—it’s no wonder America’s premier fashionista, Michelle Obama, has donned several pieces from his exuberant collections.
In 2005 Duro was discovered by then-Vogue editor Sally Singer, and Julie Gilhart formerly of Barneys.
Arthur McGee was making huge breakthroughs in fashion that were impressive on their own merit, let alone for an African American working in a time when segregation and Jim Crow Laws were still prevalent in the country.
After graduting from FIT in the ’50s, McGee’s skills allowed him to rise in the ranks until he was the first African American to run a design room of an established apparel company, Bobby Brooks.
Jeffrey Banks was a go-getter from a young age, working in the top ranks of Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein before establishing his own namesake firm in 1978 at the age of 25. Banks brought a masculine element of glamour from Hollywood during the ’20s and ’30s to his contemporary clothing. His name graced suiting, neckwear, and accessories, but his biggest moneymaker was the furs he designed for men and boys.
Along with Willi Smith and Stephen Burrows, Scott Barrie was one of the first designers to represent African Americans on the international fashion platform.
His godmother designed for and dressed some of the biggest Jazz names, and passed the torch to Scott. By the late ’60s, Barrie had graduated from designing in his apartment to being one of the edgiest designers out there.
Joe Casely-Hayford, who died in 2019 at 62, was quite easily the hardest working man in the fashion industry. Since the mid-80s, he designed his eponymous men’s and women’s line, which won him the Womenswear British Designer of the Year in 1989, and Innovative Designer of the Year award in 1991.
Born in Queens, Telfar Clemens’ designs toe the line between streetwear and high-fashion with a global perspective. That might’ve been gleaned from a childhood spent in Liberia, Queens, and the suburbs in Maryland. His clothing has a transformer-like quality—he makes shirts with detachable sleeves and hoods or pants that can turn to shorts via zippers.
Founder of Fear of God, Jerry Lorenzo started out as a party promoter in Los Angeles before fully transitioning into the world of fashion. As a devout Christian, the brand is heavily influenced by faith and spirituality but is not a “Christian Brand,” per se. With no formal fashion training, Lorenzo has been able to ascend to the upper echelons of the industry by providing “solution-based” garments that take the fuss out of creating a look and also proposition new silhouettes.
Kerby Jean Raymond, who launched Pyer Moss in 2013, has been one of the break-out design stars in the past five years. The Haitian American designer leads with a “for us by us” mentality that has proved successful in all of his ventures including his own line, which is named after his mother and father’s last names, as well as his collaborations with Reebok and Cross Colours.
Making the jump from Wall Street to the tents of Lincoln Center is never an easy task, but b. michael took the leap of creative faith and has never looked back.
After gettng his start at Oscar de la Renta, Louis Feraud, and others, the Connecticut native launched his couture line in 1999 to massive critical acclaim.
After cutting his teeth at Donna Karan and Calvin Klein, Edward Wilkerson positioned himself atop multi-million dollar women’s sportswear brand Lafayette 148. Wilkerson’s insane work ethic and persistence is what carried him to the top—while he was in school he literally went block by block in the garment district looking for job opportunities—but it was his personal traveling and discovery throughout Africa where he truly secured his vision. He recently rejoined Karan at Urban Zen.
Started in 1992, Phat Farm signified a cultural shift in urban fashion. This was the era of rapper brands. While business magnate Russell Simmons took his cues from preppy labels like Ralph Lauren, he mixed it up with inspirations from street-friendly brands like Stussy.
Starting as a designer for Sean John, Maxwell Osborne met Public School co-designer Dao-Yi Chow while working there. Together, they set out to create high-end clothes with a gritty New York edge through the label Public School, and then established its streetwear-oriented offshoot, Black Apple.
When Balmain announced it was appointing Olivier Rousteing as head designer, some questioned whether he was right for the job. But, as you know, the move proved to be the smart decision and also a lucrative one.
Patrick Robinson launched an eponymous label in 1997, but gained popularity through his work at other brands. In fact, Robinson is what some might call a fashion nomad, as in he’s moved from brand to brand (and helped to revive some). He’s held positions at Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein, Perry Ellis, Paco Rabane, and more recently, Gap, where he was Executive VP of Global Design until 2011. He was responsible for much of the brand’s resurgence and revamped jeans line.
In 1969, Trinidad-born Andrew Ramroop began a career as a tailor’s apprentice. He had tailored his first suit at 17, and his craftsmanship skills brought him success in London, where he had a stint with storied label Huntsman & Sons in the early 1970s.
Fact: Any brand Michelle Obama wears becomes an instant hit (what’s up Jason Wu?) But Tracy Reese may be a special case; she was already a big deal before the First Lady wore one of her designs.
Reese launched her original namesake label in 1987, and although she struggled to keep it afloat for a couple of years, all is good now in Tracy’s world. Before that she worked for French couturier Martine Sitbon, and was tapped by Marc Jacobs to be design director at Perry Ellis.
Nija Battle might not be a household name, but if you paid attention to hip hop in the late ’90s and early 2000s, you’ve seen her work. The grey, floor length fur Puffy wore in the “Hate Me Now” video with Nas? Battle designed it. The light blue shearling and fur coat Jay-Z’s love interest, model Jeannette Chaves, wore in the “Excuse Me Miss” video featuring Pharrell? Battle designed it. And the many inventive furs Lil Kim wore, including the white mink bikini top and jeans embellished with matching mink she donned for a Vibe shoot? Battle designed it.
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Black Economics says…
This is a great list and you are encouraged to research each designer. We will continue to research and add to the list for we are aware there are many missing names.
You can add designers to our directory here…