BY VAL CASTRONOVO
“Black Fashion Designers” at The Museum at FIT is not a show about “black style,” we are told, but a history of black designers that ranges from the 1950s to spring 2017. Mostly overlooked, definitely underappreciated, the 60 designers showcased here strut some 75 outfits in a variety of styles that dazzle and delight as they raise our consciousness about their makers’ contributions to the industry.
Most of the names will be unfamiliar to viewers, but the clientele should come as no surprise. Jacqueline Kennedy, Michelle Obama, Princess Diana and Tina Turner are just some of the VIPs who have been dressed by designers of African descent. Visitors may experience déjà vu when they see Laura Smalls’s red-and-white leafy print dress (spring 2016)— the same dress Michelle Obama rocked over the summer when she rapped “Get Ur Freak On” with Missy Elliott and James Corden on the late-night talk show host’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Fortunately, there is a video monitor with the segment on a continuous loop.
And there is an audio tour, too, that you can dial up on your smartphone, with commentary by the curators and Vogue contributing editor André Leon Talley. Each of the nine themes that frame the show (e.g., “Breaking into the Industry,” “African Influence,“ “Street Influence,” “Black Models”) is introduced, with one item from each section singled out for a closer look.
The clothing runs the gamut, from wedding dresses and Savile Row suits to T-shirts and a Playboy bunny costume — the latter designed by Zelda Wynn Valdes, the first African-American woman to own a boutique in New York. Couture mixes with street clothes, and disco-era jumpsuits mix with outfits fashioned from traditional African textiles. Ghanaian-born Mimi Plange’s pink leather dress with quilted, wavy lines (spring 2013) references scarification in a nod to the designer’s heritage.
“I embed my biography into garments,” says Plange, who appears in a video on diversity in fashion with Talley and American designer Tracy Reese. Aisha Ayensu, who founded the Christie Brown label in Accra, Ghana’s capital, found inspiration in “The Sound of Music” for a spring 2016 dress and coat. “Ayensu transports her heroine to Africa with wax-print florals, paisleys, and a scene of the savannah,” the show label states.
The exhibit boasts four dresses and ensembles by Patrick Kelly, the Mississippi-born clothier whose designs were worn by Bette Davis, Cicely Tyson and Grace Jones. Based in Paris, Kelly was a late 1980s sensation before succumbing to complications of AIDS at 35. His sexy black knit dress at the show’s entrance has a heart-shaped bodice festooned with mismatched buttons in deference to his grandmother, who mended his clothes and, as he told one reporter, “to detract from having to use mismatched buttons on his shirts … started sewing them everywhere.”
Kelly’s designs scream “fun.” He famously wore denim overalls to his fashion shows and the fabric’s influence can be seen in a number of the pieces here — a denim dress (1987, France) that looks like a pair of overalls, and a pinstriped denim suit with playing dice for buttons (spring 1989, France).
A sampling of his black-baby brooches (1987-90) is also on view, a gift from Gloria Steinem. Kelly freely distributed them to friends and as favors at fashion shows. Per his partner, Bjorn Amelan, it was his response to the racism he felt as a boy: “Rather than cower and try to repress that, [Kelly found] the most effective way to deal with it was to appropriate and send back that image in an empowered way.”
Black dressmakers have a tradition of crafting luxury clothing for wealthy women. Ann Lowe designed Jackie Kennedy’s first wedding dress (not shown) and counted Rockefellers and DuPonts as clients. Today, LaQuan Smith designs for the likes of Lady Gaga and Kim Kardashian. Look for his see-through lace dress for Kim, who made waves in Cannes in 2015 when she debuted the revealing creation that highlighted her undergarments and pregnancy. Smith learned patternmaking from his grandmother and has lamented that both FIT and Parsons rejected him — but Forbes included the Long Island City-based designer in its 2015 “30 Under 30” Art & Style list. The Museum at FIT now gives him his due.
Smith’s edgy dress in the Eveningwear section shares the stage with another showstopper, veteran designer Eric Gaskins’s 2014 couture gown, inspired by the art of Franz Kline. As Gaskins explains on the audio tour about this abstract expressionist “painting on a dress,” the goal was to make it “look like the paint had just been applied to the dress.”
Micro bugle beads were individually sewn on the fabric, using a needle as thin as a strand of hair. Unevenness mimics brushstrokes, like the splatters and dabs of fresh paint on a canvas.