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The fashion industry has significantly changed in recent years, said Adrienne Jones, the first tenured, full-time Black professor at the Pratt Institute. Before the global Covid pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement — to name a couple of catalysts — Jones told us that she would drop off her clothes at boutiques to resounding praise until they realized she was Black. Then, just like that, their interest in her work would disappear. Jones, who teaches fashion design and works as a pattern maker, stylist and seamstress, hopes the Black Lives Matter movement will flourish through a continued focus on Black people’s contributions.
If Black History Month inspires you to support Black-owned brands — or, better yet, you don’t need a specific month to do so — we’ve outlined the brands that fashion experts recommended to us below, along with some of their standout products. Along with Jones, we spoke to Jonathan Square, assistant professor of Black visual culture at the Parsons School of Design, and Rikki Byrd, writer and PhD candidate in African American studies at Northwestern University.
Best clothes from Black-owned brands
We consulted the aforementioned fashion experts about their favorite Black-owned clothing brands. In some cases, we highlighted specific items they recommended. Other times, we highlighted a particular item from a brand they recommended to us. We chose those items because of their accessible prices or positive reviews, from shirts to skirts to earrings.
Every expert we spoke to mentioned Telfar, the luxury brand piloted by Liberian-American fashion designer Telfar Clemens. As they should: Telfar’s Shopping Bag was one of Oprah's favorite things in 2020 — in other words, Telfar is everywhere. “During the holidays, I went home to Louisiana, and saw someone wearing a Telfar bag in Walmart. I thought, wow, [Telfar is] really global,” Square told us. Although Telfar’s bags are difficult to come by — they typically sell out in minutes online — Telfar sells a variety of other goods, such as these trendy gold-plated earrings that sport its logo.
Jones remembered falling in love with what designer Byron Lars was doing years ago. “I don’t care what your size or shape is — you put on a Byron Lars dress and you feel like a princess,” she told us. Although the Charissima Sheath Dress looks airy, it features a spandex lining. The dress is sold in three different fits — standard, petite and plus — for a wide range of body types.
Charles Harbison’s luxury brand Harbison recently collaborated with Banana Republic to make something more accessible than his usual offerings. “Harbison is making some really timeless pieces,” Byrd told us, adding that she’s bought from his Banana Republic collection, too. In addition to the mini skirt that we’ve highlighted here, there’s a gender-fluid safari suit (jacket and pants) that looks versatile enough to suit a wide range of occasions. Harbison said in an interview with The Council of Fashion Designers of America that he hopes the Banana Republic collaboration communicates optimism, joyfulness and Black fem appreciation for all people.
Square described the fashion brand Fear of God, started by designer Jerry Lorenzo, as “intellectual” and “well-made”. If Jerry Lorenzo wasn’t Black, he asserted, Fear of God’s clothing line would be considered luxury sportswear — not just athletic wear. While some Fear of God pieces cost hundreds of dollars, the brand has a diffusion line called “Essentials” that comprises more affordable options. The Fear of God Essentials Summer Core Mock Neck, for instance, is relatively inexpensive.
“Denim Tears [investigates] the sartorial ingenuity of enslaved people and their descendants,” Square said of Tremaine Emory’s artistic clothing label, which unifies America’s history with today’s fashion trends. For instance, the release of Denim Tears’ Virginia 1619 tee coincided with the debut of The New York Times’ 1619 Project: both refer to August 1619, or the beginning of American slavery in Virginia.
“Wales Bonner is one of my favorite clothing brands,” said Byrd, who briefly met its founder, Grace Wales Bonner, while she studied at Parsons School of Design. “Her collections really focus on making diasporic connections between the Caribbean, London and the United States.” Wales Bonner — in their collaboration with sportswear giant Adidas — makes good-looking retro short-sleeve shirts with the number 78 embroidered onto the back as an homage to varsity athletics stylings of the late '70s and '80s.
“In the ‘90s, everybody in the hip hop world was wearing Walker Wear,” Jones said of April Walker’s Brooklyn-based streetwear brand. "She designed for Tupac, Biggie, Mike Tyson... Wu-Tang Clan has worn her clothes." Walker then took a break from the industry before staging a comeback in the 2010s: This funky olive-colored crop top is available on Walker’s website now, as is this navy hockey jersey that's reminiscent of her work in the 1990s.
Jones also recommended Harlem-based Epperson Studios, which prides itself on creating whimsical but functional clothing. In addition to plaid button-down shirts with contrasting panels, Epperson Studios sells a gender-fluid faux-boucle beanie to keep your head warm during the colder months of the year. Epperson also has an accompanying dickey that you can wear with the beanie as a set.
When he originally came about conceiving the theme of his latest project, Genealogy, South African luxury designer Thebe Magugu sat with his mother and went through photos from their family archive, Byrd told me. The brand’s navy hoodie looks plush, with a design on its center that represents sisterhood and calls back to the theme behind the historical — and familial — project.
Jones mentioned Shaka King Menswear, originally born in Brooklyn before it moved production to Washington, D.C. “Shaka King has been in the game for quite some time,” she told us. “He’s an established designer who makes really great clothing.” Shaka King Menswear offers big and tall options on the website, too, as well as customized orders. There’s also an attractive plaid scarf from a single layer of imported wool available — good for someone of any size or gender. The scarf has handsome leather and suede designs sewn onto it for added embellishment.