Spotlight on African-American Designers, Part 2

Spotlight on African-American Designers, Part 2


Willi Donnell Smith was an American fashion designer, born in Philadelphia in 1948. His grandmother helped him get an internship with Arnold Scaasi, where he helped with the design of clothing for Elizabeth Taylor. He received a scholarship to study at Parsons school for design in New York. 
After graduating, Smith worked as lead designer for the junior sportswear label Digits from 1969 to 1973. He hired Laurie Mallet as his design assistant in 1971.
In 1972 and 73, Smith was nominated for a COTY award. 
He began designing patterns for Butterick in 1973 and resigned from Digits. The company went bankrupt soon thereafter.
He set up his own company in 1974. He struggled with the business aspects of operating a label and it closed just a few months later. 
In 1976, he travelled to India with Mallet to design women’s clothing using natural fabrics. With its success, Smith and Mallet formed WilliWear Ltd. and had their first fashion show in 1978, showcasing a collection inspired by nautical uniforms and Southeast Asian dress. The label was a huge hit, providing chic, affordable clothing in natural fibres. 

In 1981, Willi Smith participated in the Black Fashion Museum’s Bridal Gowns of Black Designers exhibition.
He finally won a Coty award on his fifth nomination in 1983. 
Willi collaborated with artists throughout his career and designed costumes for many performances. 
In 1984, he made a fashion film with silk screened T-shirts featuring artwork by artists like Keith Haring and Suzan Pitt. In 1985, another film made in Senegal showcased a collection inspired by Senegalese street fashion. He also worked with Spike Lee on School Daze in 1987. 

Additionally, Smith designed the suits for Edwin Schlossberg and his groomsmen when he married Caroline Kennedy in 1986, and designed the wedding dress worn by Mary Jane Watson when she married Peter Parker in the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #21, in 1987.

Smith contracted shigellosis and pneumonia  while on a fabric buying trip to India in February 1987 and was admitted to hospital that April. He died the following day at age 39. Afterwards, tests revealed that he had been HIV positive. Smith, who was openly gay, has a panel in the original NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt, the largest piece of community folk art in the world.
At the time of his death, he was regarded as one of the most successful African-American designers in fashion. WilliWear was the first clothing company to create womenswear and menswear under the same label. The accessibility and affordability of Smith's clothing helped to democratize fashion. He bridged the gap between sportswear and commercial streetwear, as well as blurring the lines of gendered fashion.

After Smith's death in 1987, Mallet continued to run WilliWear. However, without its visionary namesake, the company faltered and ceased production in 1990. In 2002, Smith was honoured with a bronze plaque on the Fashion Walk of Fame along Seventh Avenue in New York.
Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum hosted the first retrospective exhibition on Willi Smith from March 13, 2020.

It was scheduled to display until that October. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, the exhibit was closed at the end of its opening day. However, the exhibition can be viewed digitally. 
“I don’t design clothes for the Queen; but for the people who wave at her as she goes by.” - Willi Smith 

Stephen Burrows

Stephen Burrows

He rose to fame in the disco era, creating the defining styles worn by Cher, Diana Ross, Pat Cleveland, Jerry Hall and other divas. He graduated from FIT, and sold his clubwear designs from his boutique “O”, which was strategically placed across from Max’s Kansas City in New York. He designed a RTW collection for Bonwit Teller, and then met film director Joel Schumacher who was the then visual display director for Henri Bendel. He introduced Burrows to the president of Henri Bendel. He brought a melton bathrobe coat to their meeting, which was intended to be menswear, and she put it on and offered him his own boutique within the store which he called “Stephen Burrows’ World”. It lasted from 1973 - 1976.

Stephen Burrows Battle of Versailles 1973

Stephen Burrows Battle of Versailles 1973

He was the first Black designer to win a Coty Award, and he was the youngest American, and only Black designer in the Battle of Versailles. His collection was the finale of the show, with a cast of Black models, shining a light on Black femininity and helped to diversify the fashion world at the time. He received a standing ovation, and was only 30 years old. Yves Saint Laurent said that Burrows was *the* American designer, and he became the first internationally famous African-American fashion designer.
Stephen Burrows Pat Cleveland modelling
Burrows’ signature was his innovative use of thin, jersey fabric that skimmed the body and moved with fluidity and grace while being sexy and fun. He finished his garment edges with zigzag stitching, which curled the hems creating a lettuce effect. This had originally been a mistake from overstretching the fabric, but he embraced it and would often use contrasting red thread to make it pop.

Stephen Burrows sketches

His aesthetic was influenced by dance and movement, as he used to make Mambo dancing outfits for his friends. The soft, thin jersey fabric gave his pieces a slinky, unstructured silhouette that helped American fashion differentiate itself from the influence of Parisian couture.

Farrah Fawcett in Stephen Burrows Chainmail gold dress academy awards 1978

He won two more Coty awards, one in 1974 and one in 1977. Farrah Fawcett famously wore one of his gold chainmail dresses while presenting at the 1978 Academy Awards. Michelle Obama also wore a Stephen Burrows Suit in 2010, to speak to a group of young dance students from the Joy of Motion Dance Centre and the Duke Ellington School of Arts.

Patrick Kelly

Born in Vicksburg Mississippi in 1954, Patrick Kelly was raised by his mother and grandmother after his father passed away. He learned to sew from his aunt, and his grandmother was his biggest influence when it came to realizing the potential he had for designing. She was a maid and a seamstress, and whenever Kelly would lose buttons from his shirts, she would dig out buttons from her sewing basket for him to replace them. This led Kelly to see the possibilities in repurposing items, innovating clothing to be unique and have playful details like mismatched buttons. He would later incorporate buttons into his designs as an homage to her.
After graduating high school, he studied Art and African American History at Jackson State University for two years. Kelly moved to Atlanta in 1974 and began working at an AMVETS thrift store. He took home designer dresses and coats and modified them, selling them alongside his own designs eventually opening his own boutique. He volunteered to create the window displays at the YSL Rive Gauche store as well. He worked fashion shows at the Atlanta Hilton, and met the up and coming supermodel Iman. He met Pat Cleveland in 1979, who encouraged him to move to NYC and he enrolled at Parsons. He didn’t get support from the school, but was a fixture on the night club scene where he made significant contacts and glamorous friends like Grace Jones, creating a reputation for himself as a designer.
Cleveland said he should move to Paris, and so he did that same year. He began creating his signature style dresses inspired by the Southern women from his childhood and unapologetically incorporating his Southern Roots, racial imagery, and expressions of Black joy. He said “I want my clothes to make you smile.”
His dresses were made from brightly coloured jersey, adorned with all sorts of embellishments like bows and, of course, buttons. He sold his designs at the trendy Victoire boutiques in Paris. The store’s buyer said “Patrick landed like a bomb in my shop in 1985. He was so gay and so full of energy and so were his clothes.”
In 1985, French Elle gave him a six page spread featuring his first “Patrick Kelly Paris” commercial collection.
His roster of couture clients included Bette Davis, Paloma Picasso, Grace Jones, Cicely Tyson and Madonna. Warnaco invested in his business in ‘87, and signed an agreement to manufacture Kelly’s clothing, making it available worldwide.
In 1988, with the support of Sonia Rykiel, he was admitted to the Chambre syndicale du prêt-à-porter des couturiers et des créateurs de mode. He made history as the first American to be admitted, and presented runway shows at The Louvre.
Inclusivity was at the core of his design philosophy. In 1987 he told People Magazine, "I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is, you're beautiful just the way you are." At his March, 1987 show, one of his models was eight months pregnant. His shows would open with his signature graffiti hearts and he would leave “Love Lists” behind for the attendees, which included the names of people and art that inspired him, along with buttons.
He sadly died of complications from AIDS in 1990. At his memorial, his friend and client Gloria Steinem concluded her remarks by saying, "Instead of dividing us with gold and jewels, he unified us with buttons and bows.”

Read part one of this series here 

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