As we know, too often when we look back on history, contributions and breakthroughs by Black pioneers are overlooked, or worse, forgotten for good. The Museum at Fashion Institute of Technology's (FIT) Black Fashion Designers exhibition works to combat this overwhelming erasure and shine light on contributions from Black creatives. Hosting upwards of 60 designers representing all fashion capitals, the hope is that this exhibit will elicit more interest, scholarship and exhibitions on the subject, according to museum staff.
Painstaking attention to detail is one of the reasons this exhibit is a success. Andre Leon Talley, famed former Vogue editor, does the voiceover for the exhibition's corresponding app. Talley, a member of the exhibit's advisory committee, has been reporting on Black fashion since the 1970s. The mannequins on which the garments lie are diverse in tone to symbolize the wide-ranging clientele that these designers served. If a garment was, however, donated by someone who wore it, the curators took measures to match the mannequins to their respective donors. The longstanding back-and-forth discourse about whether to label designers as "Black designers" was taken into consideration when naming the exhibition. On one hand, some designers rightfully just want to be seen and treated as a designer like any other and feel the label pigeonholes them. But conversely, as inequality rages on in the industry, there is a need to expressly celebrate the cultural contributions of Black designers. And thus, until total equality is reached, there is a need to give deserved attention to Black creatives and recognize them as such.
We had the curators of the exhibition, Elizabeth Way and Ariele Elia, guide us through five highlights of the show. But rest assured, there's plenty more to feast your eyes on should you visit the exhibit yourself. Now in the last leg of its five-month run, here are five must-see items from Black Fashion Designers, which will close its doors on May 16.
The first two pieces we have welcoming our audience into our exhibition are by Patrick Kelly and Duro Olowu. Patrick Kelly is a very interesting designer, working in the 1980s, he was an American who really made his career in Paris. So this button-heart motif is a signature of his, it’s inspired by his grandmother. His grandmother used to mend the family’s clothing with multi-colored buttons, and he took that as inspiration for this motif. — Elizabeth Way
And then Duro Olowu is a contemporary designer working right now in London. And he just has a really beautiful curatorial eye, putting together colors, patterns and has an extensive knowledge with international textiles, so you can see these beautiful textiles coming together in this piece. — Elizabeth Way
So here we have the Playboy Bunny uniform, and it was manufactured by Zelda Wynn Valdes. It very much is in line with the evening wear she would create for Josephine Baker, Ella Fitzgerald, and a lot of other jazz performers. She also staged many of her fashion shows inside the Playboy Bunny clubs, not exactly an epicenter of fashion, but it worked regardless. She played a very important role in mentoring a lot of early designers in the 1950s and going forward when she was president of a group called National Association of Fashion Accessory Designers (NAFAD), which mentored a lot of young Black designers. — Ariele Elia
Dapper Dan was somebody that we really wanted to showcase in our collection and also in a museum setting, because I think it’s a bit nontraditional to have something from him in a museum setting. So we’re quite pleased that we’re one of the only museums to have a piece by Dapper Dan in our collection, and we love the way that he reinterprets the style. He uses luxury logos but then creates these really, really outrageous silhouettes, but really using fashion history. If you look at the logo button sleeves that he’s done, and he has these wonderful stories about how someone would bring in a Louis Vuitton bag and say, “I want a whole Louis Vuitton ensemble.” So I think really playing into the culture and the personalities of a lot of his clientele, and taking inspiration from a lot of people on the streets, from the B-boys, the B-girls performing, and then bringing that into fashion. What I find fascinating is the collaboration between Louis Vuitton and Supreme, that originally Dapper Dan had gotten in trouble by Louis Vuitton and now you see them collaborating with a street style brand. It’s interesting to kind of see how the tables have turned. — Ariele Elia
In our activism section, one designer we looked at was Kerby John-Raymond of the brand Pyer Moss. So this is a piece from his spring 2016 collection, a big part of that collection was a documentary he produced about the Black Lives Matter movement. This is also a t-shirt he himself wore, with the names of 13 unarmed black men killed by the police. The actual collection was inspired by the story of Ota Benga, who was a Congolese man who was kidnapped and put on display in the monkey house of the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900s. He uses a story, which is really kind of a devastating story, as a metaphor for feeling caged and being stereotyped. So you see these really cool graphics on the leather jacket, and he really has a very thoughtful luxury sportswear brand. — Elizabeth Way
Black Fashion Designers is on view at The Museum at FIT until May 16.
(Photo from top: The Museum at FIT)