by Anthony Palliparambil, Jr.
“We are not ‘black’ designers, but American designers, the way Bill Blass is an American designer,” visionary designer Arthur McGee once declared in a 1992 article for Newsweek, “…as soon as you categorize us, you can erase us.” McGee, the first African American to run a Seventh Avenue design studio, is just one of the notable figures whose works are currently on view in Black Fashion Designers, the latest exhibition at the Museum at FIT (New York). Curated by Ariele Elia and Elizabeth Way, the show is comprised entirely of pieces from the permanent collection of the Museum, and explores the contributions of designers whose works span the last 70 years.
The Fashion Institute of Technology prides itself on being one of the first schools in United States to present an integrated fashion show, so it is not surprising to see the Museum take on the challenges of using race as a lens through which to view fashion. McGee’s dissatisfaction at being categorized as a black designer first is a common thread that ties together many of the individuals and garments on view. Moreover, the contemporary designers on view find inspiration among their predecessors, creating garments that often reference themselves in dialogue with the history of African dress and the African American experience.
The exhibition is divided into ten sections, the first of which, “Breaking Into the Industry,” focuses on designers who rose to fame during the 1950s when the fashion market was still heavily segregated. This section features two designs by Ann Lowe, one of the first prominent black designers in the United States. The ensembles not only stand as a testament to Lowe’s ability to revolutionize the way in which black designers were understood and praised within the fashion industry, but also highlight the extraordinary relevance of Lowe’s designs within fashion today.
Set in front of a traditional kente cloth pattern from Ghana, the “African Influence” section of the exhibition seeks to contextualize western black fashion designers within a greater historical framework of traditional African textiles and dress practices. This is perhaps best exemplified by a dress from Stella Jean’s fall 2015 collection, a vibrant celebration of African wax print textiles, though the curators have been quick to point out that the technique was originally developed in Holland and not Africa as many assume. Mimi Plange offers one of the most intriguing moments of the exhibition, a pink leather dress from her Spring 2013 collection in which the leather is sewn to mimic scarification traditions of West Africa. Plange, in a very contemporary mode, has designed a dress that speaks to and also challenges the dress practices of the cultures from which she descends.
Kerby Jean-Raymond’s designs for his label Pyer Moss are the focus of the “Activism” section of the exhibition, a politically charged glimpse at the ways black designers have used fashion as a form of protest. Though this section constitutes the smallest portion of the entire exhibition, it is undoubtedly the most powerful segment of Black Fashion Designers, particularly within the context of the current Post-Inaugural political climate. Following around-the-clock coverage of protests that have burgeoned throughout the past month, this brief portion of the exhibition speaks to issues that are urgently relevant to the contemporary moment.
Perhaps the most significant garment on display, however, is the one that stands beneath a spotlight at the entrance to the gallery: a dress from Patrick Kelly’s fall 1986 collection whose bodice is covered in a variety of buttons. In a 1987 profile of the designer, journalist Bonnie Johnson wrote that Kelly decorated garments with cheap buttons as an homage to his grandmother, who, when mending his clothes, often used the technique to “detract from having to use mismatched buttons.” The garment acts as a celebration of black excellence, reflected throughout the entire exhibition. In many ways, the garment sums up the experiences of many of the designers on view in Black Fashion Designers: to turn their histories – however diverse, however challenging, and however complex – into art.
Black Fashion Designers is on view through May 16, 2017 at the Museum at FIT in New York, NY.
Images Courtesy of the Museum at FIT
 "The Rainbow Coalition." Newsweek, July 12, 1992. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://www.newsweek.com/rainbow-coalition-200178.
 Johnson, Bonnie. "In Paris, His Slinky Dresses Have Made Mississippi-Born Designer Patrick Kelly the New King of Cling." People, June 15, 1987. Accessed February 22, 2017. http://people.com/archive/in-paris-his-slinky-dresses-have-made-mississippi-born-designer-patrick-kelly-the-new-king-of-cling-vol-27-no-24/.