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Meet three black designers who were hidden figures of the fashion industry

Ann Cole Lowe, Patrick Kelly and Zelda Wynn Valdes influenced American culture with their works.
Image: Zelda Wynn and Patrick Kelly.
Zelda Wynn and Patrick Kelly.Courtesy of Marbeth / Getty Images

The fashion industry has long been seen as an entity which favors whiteness, and stories of many trailblazing creatives of color have not been spoken about much. As the autumn/winter 2019 fashion show season comes to a close, on the heels of recent controversies involving high fashion brands and their use of racist imagery, NBCBLK takes a look at a few black fashion designers to remember.

Ann Cole Lowe — Designed Jackie Bouvier's Wedding Dress

Image: Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy leave St. Mary's Church after their wedding ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, on Sept. 12, 1953.
Jackie Kennedy and John F. Kennedy leave St. Mary's Church after their wedding ceremony in Newport, Rhode Island, on Sept. 12, 1953.Charles McCormick / The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Ann Cole Lowe was born in Clayton, Alabama, in 1898.

After the sudden death of her mother — a seamstress who ran a successful boutique a few miles south in Montgomery — Lowe, at 16 years old, began to complete the commissions her mother had left behind, including one for the first lady of Alabama.

Almost overnight, a star was born.

She moved to New York City in pursuit of owning her own boutique. During the post-war years, Lowe found her niche seaming cotillion gowns, with her signature design of intricate satin flowers. By restricting her client list to only those on the Social Register (a book of those considered to be in American Society), she was able to establish a wealthy client list, which included those from families such as the Rockefellers, the Whitneys and the Roosevelts.

Her success led her to open two boutiques: Ann Lowe’s Gowns in Harlem, New York, in 1950, and Ann Lowe’s Originals on Madison Avenue in 1968, making Lowe the first black person to have a business on Madison. Her most famous design is the wedding dress Jackie Bouvier wore the day she married then-Sen. John F. Kennedy. Lowe’s work, often uncredited, was featured in magazines such as Vogue, and sold in high-end stores, such as Henri Bendel and Saks Fifth Avenue.

But still, as a black woman, she struggled.

Lowe’s high society clients rarely spread the word about her work, and she was referred to by the Saturday Evening Post as being “society’s best kept secret.” She was selling her creations for much less than their worth. Eventually, she had to file for bankruptcy and close both her shops.

Today, her name is rarely mentioned, and she remains one of the many hidden figures of American history.

Patrick Kelly — Reclaimed Blackface

Image: Patrick Kelly
Fashion designer Patrick Kelly in his Paris studio circa 1988.PL Gould / Getty Images

Patrick Kelly was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1954.

He learned to sew when he was in elementary school. In hopes of making it big in fashion, he moved to New York City, where he met a model named Pat Cleveland, who fell in love with his work and told him to move to Paris.

He did, and the rest is history.

Known for his joyful print and rainbow dresses, he began dressing the likes of Naomi Campbell, Grace Jones and even Princess Diana. In 1985, he held his first fashion show, where he sent models down the runway wearing the controversial image of the golliwog, a racist black caricature. This was his way of reclaiming the narrative of his black existence, and of paying homage to his roots by using the symbols once used to dehumanize his culture.

Kelly was inspired by his grandmother and by the Sunday church services he would attend with her as a child. He once stated that there is just as much fashion to be seen in those gospel churches than on the haute couture runways. Through fashion and art, he sought to add black women into the pages of the fashion magazines he read as a child.

In 1988, he became the first black person and the first American to be voted into France’s Chambre Syndicale du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, which is the trade association that governs France’s ready-to-wear fashion.

Kelly died on New Year’s Day in 1990 from complications of AIDS. He was 35.

Zelda Wynn Valdes — Helped Create the Playboy Costume

Image: Zelda Wynn with Yvonne Hall, one of the charter members of Dance Theatre of Harlem.
Zelda Wynn with Yvonne Hall, one of the charter members of Dance Theatre of Harlem.Courtesy of Marbeth

Zelda Wynn Valdes was born June 18, 1905, in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania.

One day, her grandmother challenged her to make a dress that could fit her curvy body. She did.

And it fit perfectly.

Valdes designed gowns for stars such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dorothy Dandridge and even Marlene Dietrich. But perhaps what she is most known for is her involvement in creating the iconic Playboy costume allegedly commissioned by Hugh Hefner himself.

After high school, Valdes moved to White Plains, New York, and worked in the stockroom of a boutique. Eventually she worked her way up to becoming a seamstress and she became known for her technical precision.

In 1948, she opened her own boutique on Broadway and West 158th Street, making her the first black woman to own a shop on Broadway. She only worked with the finest garments — silks and satins, transforming those textiles into curve-hugging gowns.

Soon, her boutique became a sanctuary for the black women who had been shunned from white-owned stores. After designing the wedding gown that Maria Ellington wore when she married Nat King Cole, Valdes became one of the most sought-after black designers in America.

Valdes died Sept. 26, 2001. She was 96.

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