Diana Amaya - February 3, 2020

A Completely Non-Exhaustive List of Black Designers That Changed Fashion History

Stephen Burrows with his team

In honor of Black History Month, in lieu of fashion tips, we wish to highlight pioneering Black fashion designers that left an indelible mark on fashion history.

While the fashion world has made ostensible gains in black representation in recent years, it’s no secret that its insular top brass leaves much to be desired and too often overlooks the contributions of Black people while benefiting from their culture, trends, skills and patronage. Just 4% of CFDA members are Black. Just 2.6% of VC funding in 2020 went to Black and Latinx founders. Less than 15% of shelf space at most major retailers accounts for Black-owned businesses despite being 15% of the population, according to the 15 Percent Pledge. Though we strive to be a part of the solution in the fight for racial equality and representation by taking actionable steps, we hope this this little list we’ve compiled of very important people serves as a reminder of the plethora of Black talent in the fashion world that deserves to be recognized. 

Ann Lowe

Ann Lowe is a designer often referenced by fashion historians, who designed the most photographed wedding dress in history, that of Jaqueline Lee Bouvier. Yet perplexingly enough, she’s not quite a household name. Lowe was perhaps the most prolific Black designer of the 40s and 50s, creating designs for New York’s wealthy elite, but rarely properly recognized and often regarded as “society’s best kept secret” because of her race. Though she was arguably the best in her field, she was all but written out of a historical moment that would have been career-making had she been a white woman. In her lifetime she was underappreciated at best and exploited at worst, however her legacy lives on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other museums and publications.  

Jacqueline Lee Bouvier in her iconic wedding dress designed by Ann Lowe

Stephen Burrows

Stephen Burrows at the 2006 CFDA Awards

Stephen Burrows got his start in the 60s at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, after which he cut his teeth in the city’s garment district and at Henri Bendel. He would go on to become one of the first Black designers to gain international recognition by holding his own at the famed runway battle known as the Battle of Versailles where he was not only the sole Black designer, but also the youngest to show. His era-defining designs- bright colors, slinky feminine silhouettes, and the lettuce hem (his invention)- were popular among the likes of Cher, Diana Ross, and Farrah Fawcett, and continue to inspire today. 

Farrah Fawcett wearing a Stephen Burrows original 

Dapper Dan 

Daniel Day AKA Dapper Dan is a self-taught fashion designer from Harlem, New York credited for bridging the gap between high fashion and hip hop with clients like Salt-N-Pepa, LL Cool J, and Jay-Z. In the 70s he wished to become a wholesaler but he faced prejudice from companies who refused to do business with him because of his race, making it difficult to acquire the fabrics he wanted, so he learned to create his own designs. He used bootleg designer fabrics to pioneer logomania, undoubtedly a staple of many luxury houses today despite having shunned Day for decades. After years of ups and downs and litigation (because, you know, copyright infringement), he found mainstream success again in the 2010s, even partnering with Gucci to create a line of menswear, and opening a new atelier with the brand in 2018. 

Dapper Dan with rapper LL Cool J wearing a custom design, via therake.com

Byron Lars

Photo via nytimes.com

Another FIT New York alum, Byron Lars is a masterclass in tenacity and determination when the odds are stacked against you. If you are one of hundreds of thousands of people who have shopped Anthropologie’s dress selection in the last decade, you have likely come across Lars’ best selling Carissima lace sheath dress. Before wholesaling at more approachable Anthropologie price points, Lars was creating collections and outselling his contemporaries in haughty department stores, despite being overlooked by the fashion media gatekeepers. After coming to terms with the exclusionary nature of high fashion and the lack of representation and media coverage for Black designers, Lars pivoted and found success in partnerships with foreign clients, Anthropologie, and even Mattel, designing 16 limited edition Black Barbies! 

The famous lace Carissima sheath dress.

A Byron Lars Barbie for Mattel

Aurora James

Photo via cfda.com

Aurora James is the founder of successful footwear brand Brother Vellies, a CFDA member and winner of the 2015 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and deservedly so. She has made waves not only for her design skills, but also for the brand’s sustainable practices, social impact, and preservation of traditional African designs and techniques. Most recently, James amplified her social impact by creating the 15 Percent Pledge which calls on major retailers to commit a minimum of 15% of their shelf to inventory from Black-owned businesses in reference to the 15% Black population of the United States. It’s a way for retailers to have a real impact beyond performative social posts and to create opportunities for Black founders.

A Brother Vellies design, via @brothervellies