When it comes to art, ideas, and fashion inspiration can come from anywhere. While we are used to things that we would consider vintage, standard, or normal in clothing, it isn’t like all styles, concepts and ideas were always around. Someone had to get inspiration to create them. They had to get a vision, a talent, or an opportunity and use it make things work for them. And the thing about inspiration and artistic merit is that it doesn’t see color, race, gender, wealth, or disability. There are so many black fashion designers and custom clothing makers that have influenced the way we wear things today. So, in honor of black history month, we will look at famous custom clothing designers who are of African descent from before the Civil War to Today.
One would think slavery would be a circumstance that would impede a person to become a business owner or climb their way to the top of fashion design. However, those circumstances did not stop Elizabeth Keckley, who was born a slave in February 1818. Her early life was filled with oppression and obstacles, but she still held onto her pride as a person. Eventually, when the family who owned her moved to St Louis, she moved with them and made connections with both freed slaves and prominent white families. They would become her customer base who would help her buy her and her son’s own freedom. From there, her quality work, her determination for both her and her son to get educated, and her move to Washington D.C. for work opportunity will land her in a growing business.
Eventually, she became so well known that Mary Todd Lincoln, the First Lady of the United States, hired her on as her personal seamstress. She and Mrs. Lincoln grew to know each other personally and became good friends, leaning on one another after both of them lost their own children and Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. The money that they paid her throughout that period partially went to create the Contraband Relief Association. This association, while lost to history, set the standards and showed the need for relief organizations to provide aid to the poor and displaced black community.
This fashion designer who made custom clothing is especially unique because she came from Alabama herself, albeit farther west and south of Decatur. Ann Lowe was born in 1891 as the great-granddaughter of a slave and plantation owner. Her mother and grandmother at the time worked as seamstresses for first families in Birmingham. She wound up taking her mother’s place at 16 after her mother died in the middle of making 4 ballgowns for Birmingham’s prominent crowd. She finished the gowns in time and with no complaints from the patrons.
After getting married and having a son, she left her husband, wanting to continue her own sewing business. She and her son moved to New York, where she would attend the S.T. Taylor Design school. The school was heavily segregated, but she took classes alone and graduated in 1919. After she graduated, she and her son opened her salons in both New York, and Tampa, Florida. Her quality work attracted the clientele from high society. But she knew what she was worth and showed it by being picky with her clientele. She would only design and sew for the best. She would exclusively make custom clothing designs for people in high society, which included the Kennedy’s, and the Rockefellers. Unfortunately, just like many other artists, she received little credit for her work while alive.
Her collection today is at the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
He was born in Vicksburg Mississippi and would grow up there before moving to Atlanta, Ga. He supported himself through modifying used high-end clothes with buttons, bows, and patches, where he sold his clothing, alongside doing hair for women. An up and coming black fashion model, Patricia Cleveland, suggested that he brought his work to New York, and Paris. He eventually followed through and succeeded in Paris by creating unique juxtaposing clothing. He was unafraid to make custom clothing that broke past gender, social, and black taboo. Patrick was unapologetic with his identity as both a gay man, and a black man, and didn’t find them at odds with each other. The man even incorporated blackface into his work to redefine old racist iconography as a signature style. What was the point of all this controversy? To break down social barriers.
He stated in a 1987 interview with Times, “I design for fat women, skinny women, all kinds of women. My message is, you’re beautiful just the way you are.”
So, he made custom clothing that defied category, because he was trying to find beauty in everything. He died in 1990 but his work lives on in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.